There are very good reasons for considering Columbia a failed state, given its long history of corruption, drug trafficking, human rights abuses and a decades-long civil war. Indeed, making the opposite case is extremely challenging, and probably the best arguments that can be mustered is that it not in as bad a condition as it was in the 1990s and has actually been improving in recent years (DV). Even at its worst, when the drug cartels were openly challenging the authority and legitimacy of the state and internal conflicts and civil war were at their most intense, it was not nearly as big a failure as Afghanistan, Somalia or the Congo and does not deserve to be in quite the same category (IV). Beyond question, Columbia still has severe internal social, political and economic problems that give it certain characteristics of a failed state, and it could properly be said that the country was on the edge of becoming a failed state for much of the past twenty years but that it never collapsed completely as did the Congo, Somalia or Afghanistan. Even so, the Fund for Peace placed the country in its Red Alert category on the Failed State Index (FSI) in 2006. This was the highest level, reserved only for countries like Zimbabwe, Pakistan, the Congo, Sudan and Sierra Leone (Class Notes” States and State Capacities).
This is a list that no nation would wish to be on, and the FSI had no other Latin American country is this category. One of the indicators of state failure is the existence of “military-type organizationsoutside of the established armed forces and without the imprimatur of the state” (Klare 118). This would obviously include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) as well as the Right-wing paramilitary and vigilante forces associated with the large landowners and narco-traffickers. Chronic human rights abuses, including the kidnapping, torture and murder of students and labor and peasant activists has been an ongoing problem as well. In the 1990s, it also appeared that the Medallin cartel under the control of Pablo Escobar, and its brazen attacks on politicians, judges, police and even the Supreme Court and presidential candidates might destabilize the country. Both the U.S. and Columbian governments cooperated in a successful operation to kill Escobar and reducing the power of his organization, but even so the stigma of being one of the world’s largest exporters of narcotics has long damaged the image and reputation of the country. Stefan Aubrey even compared it to Afghanistan when he wrote that “much of the world’s supply of narcotic drugs originates in countries that have slid into the political status of failed states” (Aubrey 119).
Columbia does not belong with the truly failed sates, though, because despite grave challenges to the internal stability of the country, it did not disintegrate or implode as other states did and its national executive, judicial and legislative institutions continued to exist. It has an electoral democracy and national political parties, despite its poor record on human rights, civil liberty, government corruption and lack of transparency. Like most of Latin America, it also has a long history of poverty, inequality and uneven economic development. Although the government finally obtained a free trade agreement with the U.S. last year, it is by no means certain that this will lead to real poverty reduction for the majority of the population. At no time, however, did Columbia actually disintegrate or collapse lie Afghanistan, Somalia or Liberia and in reality the power of the cocaine cartels has been reduced over the past twenty years, at least to the point where they can no longer threaten the integrity and viability of the state. Columbia has grave problems and difficulties, but it is still a functioning state and did not deserve to be placed on the Red List with other countries that are complete basket cases.
Aubrey, Stefan M. Dimensions of International Terrorism. Zurich 2004.
Klare, Michael T. “The Deadly Connection: Paramilitary Bands, Small Arms Diffusion, and State Failure.” Robert I. Rotberg (ed). When States Fail: Causes and Consequences. Princeton University Press, 2004: 116-34.