Canada and the World


Ambassador Guillermo Rishchynski is trying a different approach to Colombia’s drug problem

Canada and the World


Ambassador Guillermo Rishchynski is trying a different approach to Colombia’s drug problem



Ambassador Guillermo Rishchynski is trying a different approach to Colombia’s drug problem

Canada and the World


Strolling across the tiny bridge leading to beds of bloodred geraniums, Guillermo Rishchynski is a picture of diplomatic decorum. The cuffs of his midnight-blue dress pants break over his black loafers at just the right angle; a white shirt open at the neck adds a relaxed touch to his brown sports coat. But as Canadas ambassador to Colombia sits down at a glass patio table in the garden behind his home in Bogotá, he grows tense. Checking his watch, he taps his fingers fitfully on the glass. Rshchynski has good reason to be nervous: more than 25,000 people are murdered each year in Colombia.

And Jeannette, his wife of 20 years, and their daughter Giselle, 18, who are returning home from a nearby resort, are running late.

They are travelling in an armour-plated limousine, but Rshchynski, who has one of the most dangerous postings in the foreign service, knows violence can strike suddenly in the South American country. Again he checks his watch—for the fifth time in only a few minutes. Finally, his cellphone rings (to the tune of the William Tell overture) and as a familiar voice says a hello, a smile of relief spreads across his tanned face. “There’s Jeannette,” he says.

Rshchynski, a bearded, affable 47-year-old career diplomat, has a front-row seat on a war that will not end—Colombia’s cocaine-fuelled orgy of violence. The fighting, which some ex-

perts believe is about to escalate even more, began in the 1940s when Marxist guerrillas, now led by FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, launched their fight to redistribute land from wealthy property owners to peasants. Now, it has become primarily a war about cold, hard cash: the $2 billion in revenues produced from cocaine every year in Colombia.

Canada plans to spend about $80 million in the region helping displaced people, promoting human rights and trying to convince peasants to switch from coca, the plant from which cocaine is made, to other crops. Rshchynski believes only conciliatory initia-

tives like Canada’s will bring an end to Colombia’s long cycle of violence, putting him at odds with the U.S. government, which is taking a far tougher approach. In a bid to put the traffickers out of business, last year the United States and Colombia launched Plan Colombia, a $2-billion program to arm and train the country’s military for an all-out war against the narcotraficantes, which operate from hideouts deep in the Colombian jungle. But many experts believe the U.S. intervention will only serve to accelerate Colombia’s smouldering civil war and put an end to peace talks that began in October, 1999. “It will heat up the level of violence,” says Judith Teichman, a University of Toronto political science professor and expert on the region. “The producers will simply put more resources into cor-

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ruption, violence and private armies.” Drug money has corrupted every corner of Colombian society. In addition to their terrorist activities, FARC’s fighters and other guerrilla groups are now paid handsomely to protect the country’s drug lords and the peasants’ crops. The cartels also bribe government officials and finance their own murderous militias. “Narco-trafficking,” says Rishchynski, “has seeped into the society to such a point, it’s difficult to know who’s legitimate and who is not.”

Rishchynski’s Latin American roots run deep. Fie was born in Toronto, his father of Polish-Ukrainian descent and his mother Panamanian. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Panama City, where he was raised and schooled in Spanish. Fie returned to Canada when he was 17, and graduated from McGill University in 1975 with a degree in political science. Fie later joined Interimco, a Canadian company selling agricultural equipment abroad. Peddling tractors across Latin America for six years was, says Rishchynski, “the best MBA I never got.”

In 1978, on one of his trips to Tegucigalpa, Fionduras, he met Jeannette, whom Rishchynski describes as “a marvellous young Fionduran woman, who learned to do Canadian cold.” They married in 1981. Four days before their first child was born on June 20, 1982, Rishchynski joined the foreign service. Now, eight postings later, including Brazil, Jordan, Australia, Jakarta and Chicago, he is handling one of Canada’s most complicated diplomatic assignments. The mission, he says, “is exciting, exhilarating and terrifying all at once.”

Life in Bogotá, the kidnap capital of the world, is fragile. For protection, Rishchynski has three personal bodyguards to go with his bulletproof car; everywhere he goes he is accompanied by armed outriders on motorcycles. When Jeannette took up speed walking for exercise, her bodyguard started turning up for work wearing track shoes with his three-piece suit. Their son Anthony, 17, who will return to Canada later this year to start uni-

versity, has also had to accept the guards’ presence, even though they tend to cramp a teenager’s style.

Tragedy is never far away. The job includes meeting with people at the embassy one day and finding out the next they are among the dead or disappeared. “The day-to-day situation can be withering,” he notes. “So much of the violence is against innocent people—the defenceless.” The terror seems even more appalling when cast against the country’s spectacular backdrop. “It’s breathtaking, with

mountains and rainforests and every ecosystem in the hemisphere,” Rishchynski says.

Kidnapping, which generates nearly $500 million a year in criminal revenue, has become so commonplace that well-heeled Colombians carry a special kit in the trunk of their cars. It can contain toiletries, personal medications, books to read while waiting an average 10 months in captivity and comfortable walking shoes for the long trek into the jungle hideouts. There is also a dedicated help line: for kidnapping, dial 165, for everything else, call 112.

Usually targets, who often pay $ 1 million to be released, are scouted for about a month

before being scooped. But a new style of kidnapping known as Miraculous Fishing is becoming notorious. The thugs, usually FARC guerrillas, barricade the road, indiscriminately stopping cars. They then punch the numbers on their victims’ identification cards into their laptop computers. Reams of J information immediately pop up, including ft the wealth of the “fish,” and those worth keeping are held.

The U.S. government believes it can put an end to the violence by crushing the cocaine cartels. But Canada’s approach is profoundly different—helping, among other things, to wean Colombian peasants off growing coca by financing the production of alternative crops. To visit the campesinos— peasants—Rishchynski, accompanied by his bodyguards, often makes the dangerous trek deep into the countryside. Once, he has even travelled by donkey on a narrow road too steep for cars.

As well, in a bid to prevent atrocities against civilians, Canada is training Colombian soldiers to be more aware of basic human rights. Macleans accompanied the ambassador on a 23-hour junket to Bucaramanga, a city in a mountain valley 225 km north of Bogotá, where he delivered the second half of a $30,000 donation to fund human rights education courses for the military at Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga. (On arrival, he urged his foreign guests to try a taste of fried ants, a delicacy now in season in Bucaramanga.) “This is the key that opens other doors,” said Rishchynski, before dinner with the military commander in charge of the region. “You are not going to agree to socioeconomic change in the absence of trust. It starts with people.”

Café Madrid also awaits the ambassador. It is a desperate place on the outskirts of Bucaramanga where more than 3,000 displaced people are crammed into a makeshift camp. “They are caught like the ham in the sandwich,” he explains as he tours the camp. “FARC shows up in their village on Monday and says, ‘Feed our troops or we’ll kill you.’

Then another guerrilla group shows up on 4 Tuesday and says, ‘You collaborated with them so we’ll kill all of you.’ ”

Relaxed amid the squalor, the ambassador talks to both adults and children. “Do you have a health centre, a school for the kids, a I community council? Where is the water coming from?” He ducks under laundry >


The history of Colombia, population 40 million, is as complex as it is violent. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the territory was inhabited by the now extinct Chibcha Indians. Since the South American country gained independence in 1819, power has alternated between conservative and liberal factions.

In 1946, conservatives led by Mariano Ospina Pérez won the elections, triggering a civil war that lasted from 1946 to 1958 and claimed more than 200,000 lives.

In the 1960s, two Marxist guerrilla movements thwarted efforts to restore order: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, organized by peasants and former communist party members, and the National Liberation Army, founded by students who had been heavily influenced by Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara. To counter the leftists, wealthy landowners, fearing they would lose their property, financed the operations of numerous paramilitary groups to battle the guerrillas.

In 1998, following the election of President Andrés Pastrana, three-way peace talks between the two rebel groups and the government began. But peace prospects have been complicated by the drug trade—since the 1970s, when Mexico began cracking down on its marijuana trade, Colombia emerged as the world’s top supplier. Drug revenues—now mainly from cocaine-are used to finance the operations of both guerrilla and private armies. To break the back of the lucrative business, Colombia and the United States have launched a massive military campaign to wipe out crops and processing labs. But many analysts believe the anti-drug offensive will only result in more fighting, ensuring the violence that has plagued Colombia for so long continues to rage on.

lines, examines the stinking latrines, the leaky roofs made from plastic sheets, and holds discussions in dark single-room shacks that house 10 or 12 people each. “This is the tragedy of Colombia,” he says, emerging from one of the homes. “The sense of inadequacy is overwhelming.”

At the university, the ambassador delivers a speech about human rights, to an auditorium filled with soldiers and students. Afterwards, while generals and professors wait to talk to him, half a dozen people press refugee claims into his hand. One persons father has been murdered, another’s brother has been kidnapped.

Murder and mayhem seem to have been bred into Colombian culture. At

a speech attended by a Canadian ambassador in 1999, Manuel (Sureshot) Marulanda, the founder and commander of FARC, defended the actions of his guerrillas. But the speech consisted mosdy of recollections of how chickens had been seized from his family in 1948, and revenge was required. “Brothers, cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles get involved, making this a very personal conflict, which is why it gets so vengeful,” says Rishchynski. “Justice is about settling accounts. There is very little capacity to get beyond that.”

If a change ever arrives, it may, ironically, result from the very traf-

ficking in cocaine that is now destroying the country. There is so much money involved that the Marxist guerrillas who were once motivated by agrarian reform are growing rich themselves. “Today, guerrillas are switching sides [from one rebel group or militia to another] for the sake of a few more pesos a month,” Rishchynski says. “So the argument is more about money and less about ideology.” The American intervention could either successfully crush the cartels, or plunge the country into more chaos. Almost 100 U.S. military advisers operating from a massive base 400 km south of

Bogotá have already trained nearly 3,000 Colombian soldiers. The socalled anti-narcotics battalions will be the cutting edge of Plan Colombia’s assault on the drug dealers’ operations. Colombian pilots flying U.S.-supplied planes have also sprayed 86,000 acres of coca plants with herbicide, destroying almost 25 per cent of the country’s crop. Teichman believes Canada’s approach is preferable. “The obvious solution is alternative crops,” says Teichman. “Obviously people need to make a living and they need to make a living growing something other than coca.” Plan Colombia may just write another chapter of violence into Colombia’s already bloody history—ensuring that Canada’s ambassador stays close to his bodyguards.