Photo Gallery: A New Image for Colombia

Foto: William Fernando Martinez/ AP

Interview with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos 'The Guerillas Are Retreating'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos defends progress made in his country's battle against the left-wing FARC rebels and the war against the drug cartels. He argues Europe should take a closer look at his country as a hub for business in Latin America.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are coming to Berlin for a state visit on April 13. What do you expect from the Germans? Many think of drugs and violence when they hear the word "Colombia."

Santos : We want to strengthen relations and establish a new image of Colombia and Latin America in Germany and Europe. The drug war and issues of human rights have shaped the picture of Colombia in the last 40 years. Now we want to portray our country as a vibrant democracy. We want to promote science and education, and to make the country attractive for Germans.

SPIEGEL: To attract business? So far, it's been mostly Chinese companies that are coming to Colombia, but the Europeans have been reluctant. Why?

Santos : Europe would be well advised to pay more attention to Latin America. The emerging economies are the engines of the global economy. Colombia has done too little to improve its reputation in Europe. We recently negotiated a free trade agreement with the European Union, and now trade will flourish.

SPIEGEL: That is what you hope ...

Santos: Yes, but there is also a reason for that. Our population is primarily young, and more and more poor people are entering the middle class. This is a market of millions of potential consumers.

SPIEGEL: Which investors from Germany would you like to see?

Santos : German high-tech companies that invest in biotechnology, for example. Colombia has a huge variety of plant and animal species, and we have enormous potential. Small and mid-sized companies should come to Colombia. From here, they have access to the entire Latin American market. Besides, Germany could help us improve our education system.

SPIEGEL: Many companies that might want to come to Colombia are concerned about the safety of their employees ...

Santos : We haven't overcome the violence yet, but for foreign investors Colombia is safer than it has ever been. The number of kidnappings has gone down by 90 percent. Ten years ago, we were seen as a virtually failed state, but today we are a vibrant democracy. You can walk safely through the streets of Bogotá these days.

SPIEGEL: The violence has increased again in Medellín ...

Santos : Medellín was hell 20 years ago, because it was controlled by the drug cartels. Today foreign businesspeople are falling in love with this city. There are still a lot of murders, but this problem doesn't affect foreign investors. Most of the dead are victims of gang wars. This is a relic of the past.

SPIEGEL: You recently warned foreign companies against paying ransom when their employees are kidnapped. Apparently there are still some employers who are not heeding your advice.

Santos : I hope not. We had a very bad experience with the German company Mannesmann many years ago. The second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, achieved a comeback with Mannesmann's money.

SPIEGEL: How many hostages are the guerrillas still holding captive?

Santos : They have 16 "political prisoners," as they call it, as well as a small number of businesspeople. We are not familiar with all the cases, but there are no more than 30 in total.

SPIEGEL: Can you travel to every corner of your country without fearing for your life?

Santos : Most of the country is safe. Ten years ago, the mayors of 400 of our 1,900 communities couldn't enter their town halls because of the death threats they had received. At that time, a third of the country was controlled by paramilitary groups, one-third by the guerrillas and only one-third by the government. Today, we have regained control over our territory. But I admit that we still have more work to do in a few remote regions. But foreigners normally do not travel to these areas.

SPIEGEL: Still, many of your resources, such as oil, happen to be in these regions.

Santos : Ten years ago, the guerrillas were blowing up pipelines three times a day. Now it is happening only every three to four months. Naturally, Colombia is not a paradise yet, which I readily admit.

SPIEGEL: Your predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, complained that the guerrillas have a lot of supporters abroad, particularly in Europe. Do they still have this support?

Santos : There are a few naïve Europeans who still believe that these terrorists are fighting for the poor, in the style of Robin Hood. But these are isolated cases. They have a few connections to Spain, Sweden and other countries. Let me give you an important statistic: 97 to 98 percent of Colombians are opposed to the guerrillas. The guerrillas are retreating.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that the FARC guerrilla organization asked the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for a loan of $100 million to buy weapons?

Santos : We found information documenting this connection on computers that were seized from the guerrillas. Libya even offered them $300 million. But we don't know whether FARC actually received the money. It is clear, however, that they still have connections to Gadhafi.

SPIEGEL: According to human rights organizations, during the time of the Uribe administration the military killed thousands of innocent young men, claiming that they were guerrilla fighters. Do you have your armed forces under control?

Santos : I do not recognize that number. It wasn't that many. As defense minister, I uncovered this scandal and took corrective action. We haven't had this problem since then, which even the most critical NGOs admit. They are calling for justice, which I support.

SPIEGEL: The military had also pronounced a few guerrilla leaders dead, but then they suddenly turned up again ...

Santos : There were exactly two cases. These men who had "risen from the dead" were later killed by the military.

SPIEGEL: Is a military victory in the war against the guerrillas even possible?

Santos : We want to force them to a point of no return. The door is not closed if the guerrillas want to negotiate. But they have to prove that they are seriously willing to reach an agreement. They abused offers by previous administrations in order to rearm themselves. We will not walk into that trap again.

SPIEGEL: How strong are the ELN, the so-called National Liberation Army, and FARC?

Santos : The ELN is very weak, and the FARC has an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 fighters.

SPIEGEL: Álvaro Uribe boasted that he had convinced the right-wing paramilitary groups to lay down their weapons. Now it turns out that the disarmament was apparently a bluff ...

Santos : That refers to no more than 30 or 40 cases among the more than 30,000 men who turned in their weapons, and they are being investigated. There are no longer any paramilitary groups. Their leaders are all in prison.

'We Have Full Control over Our Territory'

SPIEGEL: The guerrillas and the paramilitary groups drove at least 3 million Colombians from their property. You want to give them back their land, but confidantes of your predecessor are against the idea ...

Santos : A few drug dealers obtained land illegally. We will take the land away from them and give it back to the farmers. I have established the necessary legal basis.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, it is a matter of 3 million people ...

Santos : There is contradictory information about the number of people who were displaced. Many do not want to go back, and they have found jobs in the city. But even those who don't wish to return will get their land back and can lease it to others. We want to enable the farmers to live a life of dignity. This is a project with which the Germans could help us.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to ensure that the farmers are not driven out again?

Santos : We have full control over our territory. The army and the police will protect the farmers. They have a respect for human rights. That would have been inconceivable 10 years ago, but we no longer live in the country you have in mind.

SPIEGEL: Some human rights organizations claim that the number of massacres has risen sharply again.

Santos : There is a backlash of 10 to 15 percent during the demobilization of the paramilitary groups and the guerrillas, which is normal for such peace processes. Drug dealers are recruiting from these criminal gangs. They fight each other over transport routes, which is what has led to the murders. We have arrested more than 2,000 of these gangsters. The government and its armed institutions are no longer violating human rights, as the human rights organizations have confirmed.

SPIEGEL: You advocate a new social policy to permanently stabilize Colombia. How exactly do you plan to achieve this?

Santos : The violence that has shaken Colombia for the last 200 years is mainly the result of land disputes. If we solve this problem, agriculture can become a source of prosperity. By the end of my term in office, I want to have brought at least 350,000 farming families out of absolute poverty so that they can live in security. I want to see fewer people in poverty, more people with professions in the formal economy and more security. If I can do that, I'll be able to sleep well for the rest of my life.

SPIEGEL: The United States has been your strongest ally so far. President Barack Obama recently traveled through South America, but he didn't come to Colombia. Are you disappointed?

Santos : Good friends don't have to visit each other every day. He'll be here next year when we host the Summit of the Americas.

SPIEGEL: A free trade agreement Colombia wants has been on ice in the US Congress for years ...

Santos : Things are moving forward. There might even be a breakthrough before my visit to Germany.

SPIEGEL: Because of his alliance with Washington, your predecessor Álvaro Uribe was quite isolated in Latin America. Are you considering distancing yourself from the United States?

Santos : The friendship with the United States does not rule out good relations with our neighbors. The government in Washington is pleased that we have improved our relations with Venezuela and Ecuador.

SPIEGEL: Uribe accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of supporting the FARC. The guerrillas used to move freely in and out of Venezuela. Has Chávez changed?

Santos : Our relations have improved dramatically, and we are now cooperating on border control. Venezuela has captured Colombian guerrilla fighters and drug dealers and extradited them to Colombia. This would have been impossible in the past. Chávez has promised me, and the rest of the world, that he will not tolerate terrorist groups on his territory. I believe him and hope that he keeps his promise.

SPIEGEL: A few former Latin American presidents are supporting legalizing drug use. How do you feel about this?

Santos : Simply legalizing drugs would be too easy. But we do have to search for new solutions. It's almost impossible to win the drug war with military means alone. We have destroyed the big cartels, but we haven't managed to stifle the drug trade, because drug consumption keeps going up in Europe and the United States. Drug money paid for the violence we suffered in the last 40 to 50 years. For us, the fight against drugs is a question of national security.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Jens Glüsing in Bogotá. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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