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Is Colombia's FARC a Terrorist Group?

The September 11 terrorist attack on the United States has sparked renewed debate in Colombia over whether the country's largest guerrilla group is a terrorist organization or a leftist insurgency. The Colombian government is reluctant to label the rebel group as terrorists while the U.S. government has no such qualms.

The Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. So is the smaller leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Colombia's growing paramilitary movement, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

All three groups are responsible for kidnappings, extortions, and extra-judicial killings. In addition, the FARC and the AUC are involved in the drug trade to fund their forces.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the designation of these groups as terrorists may lead to a harder line by the United States, which provides more than $1 billion in anti-drug aid to Colombia.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert describes the drug trade as the "financial engine" that funds many terrorist organizations. Mr. Hastert recently called for a renewed war on drugs to reduce the ability of terrorist groups to attack the United States.

A more direct warning came earlier this week from the State Department's chief of counter-terrorism, Francis Taylor. Mr. Taylor told reporters the three armed groups in Colombia would get, as he put it, the "same treatment as any other terrorist group".

These comments seem to be directed mainly at the FARC, which controls a huge demilitarized zone in southern Colombia established in November 1998 for holding peace talks with the government.

Analyst Arlene Tickner of the University of Los Andes in Bogota says since September 11 the United States appears to be emphasizing its view of the FARC as a terrorist organization. "In addition to perceiving that the FARC is a drug trafficking organization, the United States government may in the specific case of the FARC view it more increasingly as a terrorist organization as well with clear links to other similar organizations on a global level," she said. "This has several implications, to begin with, it could certainly lead to a more negative stance towards the peace process itself and it also could also contribute to a crowding out of other actors such as European actors that have sought to play a more positive and collaborative role in the peace process."

The Colombian military also has stepped up its rhetoric against the FARC since September 11, using the word "terrorist" more often to describe the guerrillas. For its part, the FARC dismisses the accusations that it is engaged in terrorism, saying its 37 year war against the government is aimed at changing social and economic conditions for the poor in Colombia.

This is why, FARC commander Simon Trinidad told VOA recently, the rebel objectives are supported by many Colombians.

He said this is not a confrontation between the army and an insurgent guerrilla movement isolated from the people. He said they are working to build a new country led by a popular movement made up of workers, peasants, students, artists and others.

Yet continuing FARC attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations - including the recent murder of a former Culture Minister - have alienated many in Colombia. A recent public opinion poll showed 61 percent of Colombians opposed renewing the term of the FARC-controlled demilitarized zone because they believe the peace talks have failed.

The government's peace negotiator, Camilo Gomez, acknowledges there is discontent over the peace process, and he challenges the FARC to change its ways, especially after the events of September 11. "The FARC should be the first to realize that the world has changed after September 11," he said. "The FARC cannot continue isolated from the new-world reality." Mr. Gomez, who spoke to VOA last week, went on to say he sees no contradiction between the U.S. position on labeling the FARC as a terrorist group and his government's policy of holding peace talks with the guerrillas.

Former Colombian Peace Commissioner Daniel Garcia Pena agrees, saying Colombian law recognizes the FARC and the ELN as political actors, which permits the government to negotiate with these insurgencies. Mr. Garcia Pena, who heads a peace foundation in Bogota, says while U.S. policy toward Colombia post-September 11 may change, the FARC should now seize the opportunity to separate itself from terrorism. "I think that the United States has also been very clear in saying they are targeting, in this first stage, those terrorists with global reach, who have deliberately targeted civilian populations that have attacked the United States," he said. "And I think for those reasons it is an opportunity, in fact, for the FARC and for the Colombian guerrillas to differentiate themselves and differentiate the Colombian conflict from the fanaticism and the terrorist nature of conflicts elsewhere in the world."

The European Union, which has strongly supported a negotiated solution to the Colombian conflict, appears to be increasingly impatient with the FARC. The kidnapping earlier this year of three German citizens by the FARC seemed to harden the EU position even though all three eventually went free.

As one western diplomat in Bogota put it to VOA: the FARC is the master of its own reputation. After September 11, he said it is in the hands of the FARC to either justify the terrorist label, or to pursue what he called more rational policies, including respecting international norms of human rights.