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Peace talks end
Martin Dayani
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Stepped-up violence follows the collapse of the three-year peace process.

Over the past three years, Colombians have become accustomed to periodic headlines announcing that the peace talks were "on the verge of collapse." On Feb. 21, however, when President Andrés Pastrana finally ended negotiations, the front pages simply stated, "It’s Over."

The immediate reason for ending the much-criticized peace process was the hijacking of a civilian airliner in southern Colombia and the kidnapping of a senator who was on board.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels took over the plane soon after takeoff and ordered the pilot to make a dangerous landing on a road that they had blocked earlier. They then abducted Sen. Jorge Gechen and released the other passengers.

Pastrana angrily denounced the incident, taking the country by surprise with his announcement that he had decided to end the peace talks.

The president immediately revoked the large demilitarized zone ceded to the FARC in 1998 as a condition for peace talks, withdrew the group’s "political status" and reactivated arrest warrants for all guerrilla leaders, which had been suspended during the negotiations.

He also displayed aerial photographs apparently showing clandestine runways and other facilities that the rebels had constructed inside their safe haven.

Later that night, Air Force jets and attack helicopters bombed dozens of targets in the zone, including encampments, weapon storage facilities, fuel depots and clandestine airstrips.

Pastrana’s quick decision was largely unexpected in a country accustomed to hijackings, high-profile kidnappings, car bombs and other violent acts by the rebels.

The president had consistently resisted pressure to end the talks, which were widely seen as fruitless. Pastrana’s willingness to accommodate the FARC’s repeated provocations had prompted many Colombians to say openly that he was a victim of his own "political naiveté."

The FARC had continued their military offensive during the three years of negotiations, stripping the peace process of credibility (LP, Oct. 22, 2001).

Appreciating the importance of military power, the rebels had ignored all calls for a cease-fire. Constant attacks on provincial towns, continued kidnappings — including the high-profile abduction and killing of politicians — and attacks on the country’s energy and petroleum infrastructure had gained the rebels a reputation as war mongers lacking a real interest in a negotiated settlement. On March 2, the body of Liberal Party Sen. Martha Catalina Daniels was found about 60 kilometers northwest of Bogotá. Officials blamed the FARC for her murder. She was the seventh legislator killed in the past four years.

"The FARC want to bring the state and Colombian society to their knees and force us to succumb to their acts of terror," Colombian armed forces commander Gen. Fernando Tapias said. "They want to take power and install their version of a Marxist dictatorship. ... But the state and Colombian society will never be defeated by terror."

It was the FARC’s growing military might that opened the door to negotiations, on their own terms, in 1998. If they had not grown enough to pose a real threat, the government would never have made a serious attempt at negotiation. The guerrillas also considered violence their main instrument for pressuring the government to grant concessions during the peace process.

But public opinion, which had turned against the FARC as the peace process dragged on and violence continued, became even more negative after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Colombian army commanders, quickly taking advantage of the new international climate, began to compare the FARC to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

For Pastrana, the shift in international opinion made the talks increasingly untenable. In a nationally televised address on Feb. 21, the president compared the hijacking to last year’s terrorist attacks in the United States.

"The FARC themselves have chosen to be seen as a terrorist group," Pastrana said.

The rebel group now faces increasing political and diplomatic isolation at home and abroad.

During the talks, FARC commanders had accompanied government officials on tours of European capitals, giving the rebels unprecedented and valuable political exposure. In Colombia, rebel commanders were treated like statesmen, conversing with senior UN and European Community diplomats inside the demilitarized zone (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

Now, however, the diplomatic doors are slamming shut.

After the talks broke down, it was made known that the Mexican government would probably withdraw the visas of FARC spokesmen who have operated an office for years in Mexico City. Since Sept. 11, it has also been reported that most European countries would not grant new visas to FARC representatives or delegates. The British ambassador in Bogotá echoed US rhetoric, branding the FARC a "terrorist" organization.

In contrast, over the past three year’s Pastrana has rebuilt Colombia’s shattered reputation in the international community, leaving behind the image of a country on the verge of becoming a "narco-democracy."

The most tangible result of his efforts was the approval of US$1.3-billion emergency military aid package, known as "Plan Colombia," under former US President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) (LP, Oct. 16, 2000). The current US administration of President George W. Bush is likely to increase military aid.

Pastrana’s decision to end the peace process was widely backed by the international community. At home, opinion polls indicated that about 90 percent of Colombians backed his decision. Leading candidates for the May presidential elections also expressed support.

Liberal Party Sen. Germán Vargas Lleras went further, criticizing Pastrana’s willingness to keep the talks going for three years despite the lack of visible results.

"I really don’t understand why the president took so long to recognize that the peace process was not going anywhere and that the FARC are a terrorist group with strong links to drug trafficking," he said.

Vargas also ridiculed Pastrana’s presentation of photos showing FARC activities inside the demilitarized zone, saying that he had presented the same evidence at a congressional hearing in October.

While the FARC issued a statement saying that they were still "committed to a negotiated solution" and were willing to resume talks with the next government, they immediately stepped up their sabotage campaign, causing blackouts in many parts of the country.

In a later statement, the rebels blamed the collapse of the peace talks on the political oligarchy’s unwillingness to make political concessions in favor of poor Colombians. The FARC also blamed US pressure.

But even as the conflict intensifies, there is consensus that the only long-term solution lies in a new peace process sometime in the future.

"There is no military solution, as neither side is capable of defeating the other," said leftist Sen. Antonio Navarro Wolf.

Any future peace process is unlikely to resemble the recently collapsed talks, however, as a new government will probably be unwilling to sanction a new demilitarized safe haven for the rebels.

New attempts to negotiate peace will be shaped by what happens in the military arena, and many politicians are banking on a continued strengthening of the armed forces and military weakening of the FARC to force the rebels to negotiate.



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