|Davidson Class Travels to Colombia To Study Counter-Insurgency
January 22, 2007
Lots of college students fly south for the winter break. Some fly farther than others. Thirteen Davidson students flew to Bogotá, Colombia, last month in pursuit of greater understanding of the intractable civil war that has ravaged the country for over forty years.
The intense, week-long trip was the culmination of the fall political science class, Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, with associate professor Russell Crandall.
Policy-Making 101: Meetings, Meetings, Meetings
Colombia’s forty-year civil conflict is fueled by pockets of leftist guerilla insurgents and right-wing paramilitary groups, both fighting Colombia’s military and both entangled with drug trafficking. The U.S. government has provided $4.5 billion of mostly military aid to Colombia since 1999 to fight drug trafficking and terrorism.
For four-and-a-half exhausting days that stretched sometimes past 9 p.m., the group engaged in back-to-back meetings and meals with academics, local politicians, journalists, non-governmental organizations, and several groups at the U.S. Embassy.
“One minute we were meeting with U.S. Special Forces talking about how they teach the Colombian military to better engage the Marxist guerrilla insurgents, and then soon after we were meeting with demobilized guerrillas who talked about life as insurgents in the jungle,” said Crandall.
“We wanted to see all sides of the controversy -- the debates, the dilemmas of a war that is now so deep in the cultural psyche,” said Crandall, an expert in Latin American politics. He used the trip to help with writing a second edition of his book, Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia.
Davidson alumnus Eduardo Estrada ’03 co-led the trip as the group’s local liaison. Born in Colombia, Estrada majored in political science and economics, and recently took a job in the finance unit overseeing the privatization of twenty percent of Colombia’s state-owned oil company.
The group met with people like mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate Enrique Peñalosa; the chief editor and reporters from Colombia’s leading national newspaper El Tiempo; and the representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After five hours of meetings at the U.S. Embassy, students enjoyed a “happy hour” hosted by Marines guarding the compound.
Ellie Trefzger, a senior political science major from Hickory, N.C., said Marta Soto was one of her favorite presenters. Soto heads investigative journalism at El Tiempo, and was responsible for many articles covering recent allegations linking Colombian lawmakers to paramilitary groups and narcotics traffickers.
Soto spoke to the Davidson class about her efforts to expose government and military corruption, and the numerous death threats she has received.
“She was an inspiration,” said Trefzger. “The editor of El Tiempo said he often wore a bullet-proof vest and had armed guards, but Soto goes out in the field and puts her life on the line daily, really trying to give the Colombian people a fair portrayal of the conflict.”
In between meetings, and usually while on a mini-bus speeding through Bogotá’s traffic, students briefed each other on their pre-assigned topics related to Colombia’s war. In addition, the students assembled a “briefing book” of articles that they read in Colombia.
“To the hills!”
After meetings in the capital, the group headed out to “Eje Cafetero,” a verdant coffee-growing region nestled at the foothills of the snow-capped Andes that would not have been safe to visit just two years ago. They stayed at a still operational 19th century coffee “finca,” or farm, enjoying breakfasts of exotic fruits, juices, eggs, and sausages cooked over a wood stove.
“It was straight out of a García Márquez novel, only without the flying pigs” commented Hunter Williams ’07.
On their way, the class passed through the first of several Colombian military checkpoints. The experience was a startling example of what it is like to live in a country at war, said Pete Benbow.
According to a local merchant and former soldier, the checkpoint was part of a Colombian military unit patrolling the foothills and high mountain passes nearby, said Francisco Morales, a senior political science major from Chile, and one of several fluent Spanish speakers on the trip.
Those kinds of military patrols are often trained by embedded U.S. Special Forces officers stationed in Colombia, such as the ones who met with the group in Bogotá.
U.S. Counter-insurgency in Colombia: Lessons for Iraq?
Pete Benbow, a senior political science major from Concord, NC, wrote his final paper for the seminar on the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and plans eventually to write a book on the subject after attending the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Virginia.
His keen interest stems from his brother, U.S. Marine Capt. Charlie Benbow, who recently returned to the states from his fourth tour in the Middle East. Charlie was most recently embedded in Iraqi military units, helping train Iraqi soldiers to fight local insurgents. Charlie spent an afternoon with the Davidson seminar this fall discussing his experiences in Anbar province.
Pete suggested that the U.S. military strategy in Colombia can offer some important lessons for the ongoing counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq.
In Colombia as in Iraq, he said, small numbers of American troops are integrated and embedded into local military units. And in both countries, troops have gone through comprehensive training, including cultural and language education.
However, in Iraq, said Pete Benbow, most foreign troops are placed in big, insulated bases with swimming pools and fast food restaurants that leave large military footprints in the area and segregate most Americans from Iraqi troops.
“That setup is self-defeating in the long-run because it fosters resentment and the feeling of occupation,” said Benbow.
Colombia Today, Tomorrow Peru
“It’s the greatest joy for me as a teacher to see the readings, the history, and political realities all come together for students,” said Crandall, who felt the trip was an overwhelming success. Crandall wrote an article based on the information and debates from the groups’ meetings that he hopes to publish in a major foreign policy journal.
“The students were remarkably mature and engaged, always attentive and asking excellent questions, even in the eleventh hour,” said Crandall. “Our presenters were surprised we had only studied the Colombia case two weeks before trip”
“Given the situation in Colombia, I initially thought this trip might be a bridge too far. But the students were unyielding in their enthusiasm for making this work. What the students might not fully realize is that I enjoyed this as much as they did.” Crandall looks forward to similar success leading Davidson’s new study abroad program in Peru next fall.
The study-travel experience was made possible in large part by the Davidson College Research Program, launched this year with funds from The Duke Endowment. The Davidson College Political Science Department, Dean Rusk International Studies Program, and the students themselves also helped pay for the trip.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its founding by Presbyterians in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine.