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Colombian Prepares for New Round of Peace Talks - 2001-10-10

The Colombian government and the country's largest leftist rebel group are preparing to hold a new round of talks aimed at achieving a cease-fire to halt hostilities in their decades-long conflict. But progress in these discussions may depend on the government's success in curbing the activities of rightist paramilitary groups.

Opening immediate discussions on achieving a cease-fire was a key provision in a nine-point agreement reached last Friday between government negotiators and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Friday's accord paved the way for President Andres Pastrana Sunday to renew the term of the FARC-controlled demilitarized zone in southern Colombia, created in November 1998 for holding peace talks.

Mr. Pastrana extended the term for three months, but warned he would dissolve the rebel sanctuary if progress is not made in fulfilling the nine-point accord.

But establishing a cease-fire also depends on government efforts to curb right-wing paramilitary activities. This was among the recommendations of a three-member commission named earlier this year to help move the peace talks forward. Many of the recommendations by the "Commission of Notables" formed the basis of Friday's accord.

Journalist Carlos Lozano who is one of two members named by the FARC to sit on the commission says a cease-fire must be accompanied by other measures, including action on the paramilitaries. He said it is not just up to the FARC to take unilateral actions to achieve a cease-fire, it must be a bilateral process. He said it's not just a question of applying international human rights law in relation to the kidnappings carried out by the FARC, but it also has to do with the actions of the paramilitaries.

The paramilitaries grouped under the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC are gaining strength and are now believed to number more than eight-thousand fighters. The FARC have an estimated 17,000 guerrillas, while a smaller leftist insurgency the ELN has about 5,000. Both guerrilla groups are responsible for extrajudicial killings, kidnapings and other human rights violations. But human rights groups say the AUC is particularly savage.

The New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, accuses the paramilitaries of acting as Colombia's shadow army carrying out massacres of suspected rebel sympathizers to eliminate civilian support for the FARC and ELN.

Human Rights Watch Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, says the paramilitaries often act with the complicity of the Colombian military. "The relationship is very strong, is very close at pretty high levels, brigade levels, in some regions in the country," he said. "If I have to characterize the nature of the relationship certainly I don't think this evidence shows these are isolated cases of individuals who are out of control from the Armed Forces of Colombia in their relationship with paramilitary organizations. This is a very serious problem," he said. In a report released last week in Bogota, Mr. Vivanco specifically named three brigades which allegedly have ties with the AUC. He said U.S.-trained anti-narcotics battalions have been working with one of those brigades, a development he calls worrisome.

"Anti-narcotics battalions that have been created and trained by the U.S. government, which by the way are free of human rights abuses, have been relying on logistical support and intelligence sharing with the 24th brigade in southern Colombia in the Putumayo area a brigade which has been excluded from U.S. assistance precisely because of its poor human rights record and close links with paramilitary organizations," he said. "This is extremely serious."

Mr. Vivanco called on the U.S. government to ensure these U.S. trained anti-naroctics battalions have no dealings with military units allegedly involved with the paramilitaries.

The Pastrana government has often denounced paramilitary activities, and has taken steps to purge army officers with paramilitary connections. But groups like Human Rights Watch say the government has failed to take effective action to end the collaboration between the military and the AUC.

National University professor, Mauricio Romero who specializes in paramilitary affairs says it is very difficult to curb the AUC. He says if President Pastrana wants to control the paramilitaries he faces a number of obstacles. These include, Mr. Romero says, resistance by some elements of the Armed Forces, by some mayors and governors who provide support for the paramilitaries, and by those rural elites like cattle ranchers, merchants and others who have been victims of rebel kidnappings and extorsion and who now rely on the AUC for protection.

An added element Mr. Romero says is the tremendous influence of the drug trade in providing money and jobs in rural areas. The AUC, like the FARC, raise money for their activities from the drug trade.

All these elements add to the complexity facing the Pastrana government in trying to negotiate an end to Colombia's 37-year conflict. After two-and-one-half years, the government's peace talks with the FARC have produced few tangible results. This latest agreement to open cease-fire negotiations may be the last best hope for both sides to make progress in ending a conflict that costs the lives of some 3,500 people a year.