Colombia's defense minister says the country's leftist rebels are
greatly weakened and should negotiate an end to the decades-old civil
war while they still have a position from which to barter. VOA's
Michael Bowman reports, the minister made the comments in Washington,
where he had scheduled talks with U.S. military officials.
months have brought a flood of welcome news for Colombia's government
in its battle against rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, known as FARC.
March saw a successful cross-border
raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador that netted valuable rebel computer
files. In May, reports surfaced of the death of the group's commander
Manuel Marulanda. Most recently, Colombian forces tricked the rebels
into handing over 15 long-held hostages, including Franco-Colombian
politician Ingrid Betancourt.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel
Santos says the rebels no longer control vast swaths of territory, are
experiencing significant command and communications problems, and have
lost whatever legitimacy they may have once enjoyed among certain
sectors of Colombian society. But he says FARC continues to refuse to
negotiate with the government of President Alvaro Uribe.
have never wanted to negotiate," said Santos. "They are the ones who
have said, 'We do not talk with President Uribe.' If they do not seize
the moment, the opportunity [to negotiate], in a year, two years they
would have no bargaining chips. Because the momentum is on our side."
stressed, the rebels are not yet defeated, and pressure must be
maintained on them until the battle is won decisively, or until they
agree to lay down their arms and rejoin civil society.
defense minister noted it was not long ago that much of the country had
been lost to the rebels and Colombia came perilously close to being
declared a failed state. He said President Uribe deserves credit for
successful military campaigns, the return of law and order in Colombia,
and the professionalization of security forces, including a renewed
focus on human rights.
"The respect for human rights: the way
the military treats the population," Santos said. "We
have been telling them in every way possible, 'Your success depends on
the approval, the support that the population gives the military.'
Today, and I am very proud to say this, the most popular institution in
Colombia, by far, is our military and police."
Yet human rights
groups say Colombia's record under President Uribe is far from stellar,
noting that extra-judicial killings by security forces remain
commonplace. The Washington Office on Latin America notes that more
than 300 such killings were reported in Colombia last year.
is not going to be resolving its deep-rooted issues, which are
basically economic and land issues and social inequality at heart,
through militarization," Gimena Sanchez, the group's senior associate
for Colombia. "In the six years or so that President Uribe has been in
power, we have seen over a million people become newly internally
displaced. And so we ask, if the military policy has been successful,
why has it not prevented the displacement of all these people?"
his remarks, Defense Minister Santos admitted thorny human rights
issues remain unresolved in his country, but maintained that
significant progress has been made and the country is on the right