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An Uncertain Road to Peace in Colombia - 2002-02-27

A week ago, the Colombian peace talks were under way with some hopes that the government and Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, might agree to a truce in April. But all this changed on February 20, and now the prospect that fighting will escalate even more is becoming a reality.

President Andres Pastrana made a dramatic announcement on February 20, saying he would not continue the three-year-old peace process with the FARC. He went on to blame the leftist guerrillas for, as he put it, "shutting the door" on a solution to Colombia's 38-year conflict.

The immediate cause for Mr. Pastrana's action was the hijacking of a commercial plane earlier in the day by the rebels. After forcing the plane to land, the guerrillas kidnapped a senator who was on board. All this took place near the huge demilitarized zone that had been set up in southern Colombia in 1998 to facilitate peace talks.

But the hijacking was just one of a series of FARC actions over the past three years that had led most Colombians to give up hope that the guerrillas would ever agree to stop fighting. Attacks, kidnappings, and other actions continued unabated during the three years the two sides were negotiating.

A human rights group, Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, estimates more people were killed in warfare while the talks were under way than before. It says the conflict was responsible for the deaths of 12 people a day in January 1999 when the talks formally opened. Over the next three years, the human rights group says this figure rose by 66 percent, to 20 people killed per day, most of them civilians. This includes fighting between the government and the FARC, the violence perpetrated by rightwing paramilitary groups and actions by rightwing paramilitary groups, and those of a second smaller leftist rebel group, the ELN.

For its part, the FARC maintains that since no truce had ever been signed it is still at war against the Colombian government.

But a former government peace negotiator Daniel Garcia Pena says the rebels may have ignored the consequences of their actions. "Strictly speaking within the viewpoint of the FARC until they were to sign agreement that would prohibit actions like these they considered that they could continue acting like they did before, even though kidnapping and hijacking airplanes are violations of international humanitarian law," he said. "These have been things that they've been doing for a long time, so they considered that until they signed a cease-fire agreement these kinds of actions were acceptable. But without a doubt the long series of abuses and actions on their part as well as the international climate after September 11, they either did not take it into account or simply ignore the consequences."

The peace process was also undermined as the FARC used its safe haven, which was the size of Switzerland, to launch attacks, hold kidnap victims and raise revenues from drug cultivation and trafficking. Over the years, President Pastrana came close to suspending the talks - but each time a last minute accord would save it.

On January 20, just as the Pastrana government was about to dissolve the rebel enclave the two sides agreed to discuss a truce that would lead to concrete accords by early April.

But now, with government troops retaking control of the former enclave, the conflict is bound to escalate. The FARC, which numbers some 17,000 fighters, has stepped up its attacks against Colombia's infrastructure - including downing power lines that have left many areas in the country without electricity.

Analyst Alfredo Rangel warns these attacks will increase even more markedly in the months ahead. Mr. Rangel told the El Tiempo newspaper rebel actions such as destroying bridges may even affect Colombia's export sector by seriously disrupting the transport of petroleum and coffee.

Other analysts agree. But analyst Bernardo Gutierrez, who works for a non-governmental organization, Medios Para la Paz, does not expect a total war that would seriously destabilize Colombia. He said the FARC does not have the capacity for destabilizing Colombia. But, he said, the guerrillas do have the capabilities of creating a lot damage and inflicting a lot of pain. He went on to warn there may be an upsurge of attacks in the cities.

The FARC has said it is willing to resume peace talks, but with a future government. Presidential elections will be held in May, and the winner will take office in August. Meanwhile, the Pastrana government is pursuing peace talks with the ELN, but those negotiations are being held in Havana.

Mr. Garcia Pena, who was the government peace negotiator from 1995 to 1998 during the previous Samper administration, is not optimistic about an end to the Colombian conflict any time soon. "The tragedy of the Colombian wars is that today the guerrillas are stronger than ever, the paramilitaries are stronger ever, and the Colombia army is stronger than ever," he said. "So we have three very powerful fighting machines that are ready to go at it and so I think that in military terms these years have not meant the parties have stopped or have suspended their acquisition of arms or training of soldiers and so forth, so we're up against some very powerful organizations."

Most Colombians appear to understand this, though few apparently disagree with President Pastrana's decision last week. But this does not make it any easier to face the violence and tragedy that lies ahead.