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Colombia's Peace Prospects Dim - 2002-04-30

The prospects for peace in Colombia appear remote. Peace talks broke down in February and now Colombia's military is stepping up its campaign against the country's largest leftist guerrilla group. Despite this, some analysts and even Colombia's president believe only a negotiated solution can bring an end to the country's decades-long guerrilla conflict. Attacks by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, have been on the rise ever since the February peace talks broke down. In recent weeks, FARC guerrillas have attacked Colombia's infrastructure, set off car bombs, and kidnapped a state governor.

The FARC, with some 17,000 combatants, is Colombia's largest guerrilla group. A rural-based guerrilla organization, the FARC finances its operations through kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. Through these activities, the rebels were able to build up their strength during the three years they controlled a 42,000-square-kilometer safe haven, created in southern Colombia in 1998 for holding peace talks.

The rebel zone was dissolved after President Andres Pastrana broke off the peace negotiations on February 20. In operations to retake the region, Colombian troops killed 458 rebels and seized 1,700 weapons.

Despite these successes, some observers say they do not believe the FARC can be defeated militarily. Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, who is a member of a national commission to facilitate peace talks, says the FARC's hit-and-run techniques are very difficult to counteract.

"It takes only one or two guerrillas to down a power line, only two or three people to carry out any other kind of attack," he said. "This makes it very difficult to stop these actions, he adds, especially since FARC leaders have apparently given instructions to deploy only small numbers of rebels at a time."

Money from the drug trade and kidnapping also enables the FARC to continue its operations almost indefinitely. Professor Arlene Tickner of the University of Los Andes says this source of funds allows the FARC to operate without popular support.

"I think quite clearly the FARC has lost almost completely its popular base of support, that's quite obvious," he said. "It has become also an organization which is completely autonomous in financial terms and perhaps doesn't need to have that base of support to continue operating, simply because it has enough financing to operate without any type of significant support…The fact that the FARC has also committed massacres and attacked the civilian population is quite indicative of this."

Facing the rebels is a 140,000-member Armed Forces, which Colombian President Pastrana has called the largest and best-trained in Colombian history.

But Mr. Pastrana, whose four-year term ends in August, says sooner or later only a negotiated solution can bring an end to the conflict. Speaking in an interview Monday on Radio Caracol, the Colombian leader said he does not believe there can be a total military victory though he warned a military solution will be pursued until the FARC shows it is serious about resuming peace talks. A FARC communique later denounced his comments as hypocritical.

For now the prospects for resuming peace talks are low. Professor Tickner says it is highly unlikely Mr. Pastrana or any future President would again agree to ceding any territory to the FARC as a precondition for opening negotiations. "The FARC, after having controlled a significant portion of the national territory, will most likely not accede to another process if similar types of prerogatives are not granted, and it is almost impossible that they will be - following the types of activities that the FARC conducted in the demilitarized zone," he said. "So I think a new peace process, although obviously necessary, is not going to be forthcoming in the near future. And what we can expect is an intensification of the armed conflict."

The widening war in Colombia comes as the Bush administration is asking Congress to provide direct counterinsurgency aid to the Colombian military. Until now, U.S. aid to Colombia can only be used in the fight against drugs. The United States has provided Colombia with $1.3 billion in anti-narcotics aid, most of which has been used for military training and equipment.