Colombia's peace process has entered a critical stage. In less than a month, President Andres Pastrana will have to decide whether or not to extend the term of a southern haven ceded to his country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The President pulled troops from the zone three years ago as a prerequisite to peace talks. But negotiations have stalled, fighting has escalated and patience is wearing.
Colombia's presidential elections are still far off, but front-runner Horacio Serpa, from the Liberal Party, has come up with a novel campaign scheme. In two weeks, he's going to board a bus for San Vicente del Caguan, a dusty cattle town in the very heart of the rebel's southern safe haven. It's a risky journey, and since the territory is under FARC control, he won't be allowed to take bodyguards. But every candidate understands that winning votes in Colombia means taking a tough stand against the FARC, who are widely seen to be abusing their privileges in their military-free zone.
"I'm going to Caguan," Mr. Serpa says of the safe haven, "and I'm not going to ask for the FARC's permission. It's Colombian territory."
Besides holding peace talks in the zone, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, the FARC have been using the area to hide kidnapping victims, to process cocaine, to stage attacks on nearby villages, and to recruit minors. Just last month, the military arrested three IRA suspects leaving San Vicente del Caguan. Prosecutors allege the men were training the FARC to make explosives. All this in a zone put aside for peace.
As Mr. Serpa shakes hands in a poor neighborhood in southern Bogota, Julio Ramirez, a street vendor looks on. "They say there will be peace," Mr. Ramirez says, "but there is only peace for those who die."
It's a common sentiment in Colombia these days. Violence has actually escalated during peace talks, as Marxist rebels and ultra-right paramilitary death squads fight for control of drug crops and trafficking routes. Now, with the rebel's safe haven set to expire on October 7th, President Pastrana is under pressure to impose conditions on the FARC, or even walk away from talks altogether.
Jorge Visval heads Colombia's conservative cattle farming federation, which has opposed the rebel safe haven since the peace process began.
Mr. Visval talks about the military-free area as "a zone on loan," and he says the FARC shouldn't be allowed to stay there unless they agree to release all their kidnap victims, curtail abductions and to lay down their arms. "There is no sovereignty in Colombia," he said "There is the law of the jungle, imposed by the FARC."
In a recent meeting with reporters, President Pastrana seemed likely to extend the term of the demilitarized zone anyway. Without it, talks would almost certainly collapse.
"I was elected with one objective," the president says, "I tried, through all legal and constitutional means available, to consolidate a peace process." And he says, "We're either in peace talks, or we're at war."
But after nearly three years of meetings, negotiators have barely agreed on an agenda, and Colombians feel their president is grasping at straws. An Internet poll conducted last week showed an overwhelming 93 percent of respondents had concerns about how the southern safe haven was being managed.
Back on the campaign trail, Serpa takes a minute between rallies to reflect on the peace process.
The candidate says he doesn't agree that Colombia has to choose between prolonging the demilitarized zone or all-out war. "This is a confrontation that's lasted 40 years," he says. "We're already in a war."