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Colombia: Violence Without End?

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The war in Colombia between the army and an irregular paramilitary force, on one side, and various armed left-wing organizations on the other has claimed thousands of lives, and sown terror in the countryside for decades. During the last couple of years, however, the guerrillas have sought to have a greater impact by interrupting daily life in the cities. In Bogotá, for example, a few days before the end of December, a group of Colombian friends considered their holiday options—a trip to the countryside or a long drive to the coast for a few days of sunshine—and decided that the choice would depend on the road conditions. The country’s largest guerrilla organization, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, had declared a holiday truce as a gesture of commitment to the peace talks that have been fitfully underway since President Andrés Pastrana took office a year and a half ago. This meant, one friend said, that there would be no combat activity, and so the beach might not be a bad idea. But other members of the group were doubtful: the guerrillas had said that there would be no combat, but had they said anything about kidnappings?

Kidnappings are the worst danger for civilians who are traveling overland. At roadblocks set up by the guerrillas, which can last for hours, or even days, civilians will be allowed through only if a quick search through a computer database shows that their bank accounts are too small to qualify them as “kidnappable.” Combined with the large number of targeted abductions, these “fishing expeditions,” as they are known, have made Colombia the kidnap capital of the world: last year 2,945 abductions were reported to the police—eight a day. The guerrillas were responsible for most of them, all of which gave the friends’ discussion a certain urgency. If the guerrillas had not included kidnappings in the cease-fire, a long trip was out of the question.

There had been no recent reports of guerrilla roadblocks, and the idea of a trip seemed plausible, until one member of the vacationing party remembered something. The rival guerrilla group to the FARC, the ELN, whose initials stand for Ejército de Liberación Nacional, derives its income almost exclusively from kidnappings and extortion. It is still holding fourteen passengers who were on a commercial plane that was carrying forty-six people when the guerrillas hijacked it a year ago. Founded in 1965, and led by the Spanish priest Manuel Pérez until his death two years ago, the ELN is considered the most intransigent of the various armed left-wing associations that have prospered in Colombia during the last forty years. And indeed, the group of friends quickly realized, the ELN had not declared a truce for the holidays. All plans to spend the New Year somewhere other than Bogotá were immediately canceled.

Roadblocks and kidnappings that affect even the salaried middle class are only one aspect of the new fear in the cities. The ELN conducts campaigns—against the proposed privatization of the energy sector, against the export of the nation’s oil wealth, against human rights violations—by blowing up oil pipelines and electric pylons. They have knocked down 270 pylons in less than a year: brownouts and power cuts have become routine in heavily populated and industrial areas like Medellín and its environs, and darkness threatens constantly in the capital. War refugees living in miserable conditions on the outskirts of the city probably number in the tens of thousands. For its part, the FARC is building up its clandestine structure in the capital; the milicias Bolivarianas—poor and angry youths in the shantytowns who have been recruited into the guerrillas’ support network—are known to be growing.

The war’s new setting is probably the most significant reason why the government of Andrés Pastrana sought peace talks with the guerrillas even before his inauguration, in August of 1998, and why those talks are now going on. Previous administrations attempted negotiations with the FARC, but those efforts always collapsed even as the war grew. The current effort is different from previous attempts because, as proof of the seriousness of its intentions, the government started off by making a great many concessions to the guerrillas. For the first time, and at the FARC’s insistence, the meetings between the government and the insurgency are taking place inside Colombia, in a part of the country where the guerrillas have been active for many years, and from which all troops and police have been withdrawn. And for the first time, the two sides have agreed on a schedule and an agenda for their negotiations.

The talks could collapse again if the guerrillas decide that the foreign aid bill for Colombia now before the US Congress is a mandate for more war. The package proposed by the Clinton administration comes to $1.5 billion, about four fifths of which is earmarked for military assistance. On paper, the aid is supposed to be designed to help the army help the police fight drugs more effectively, but no one I talked to in Colombia this winter seemed inclined to believe that. Most of the money will be spent on training and equipment for a battalion in the Amazon region of Colombia, which will secure coca fields so the police can come in and destroy the coca. The region is the stronghold of the FARC guerrillas, and although the promoters of the aid bill in the United States say that this fact is entirely incidental, it is evidently the critical element in the plan.

The peace talks could still be sabotaged as previous ones have been, by the participants themselves, or by their enemies, who are legion. But a new factor is that, after years of pretending that the war was happening in some other Colombia, many of its citizens among the middle class and the well-to-do, including university students and office workers—people like the frustrated vacationers at NewYear’s—have decided to make their voices heard.

In June of 1998 voters elected Andrés Pastrana, the candidate of the weak Conservative Party, which had not won an election since the maverick Belisario Betancur was elected president in 1982. Pastrana, who served a modestly successful term as mayor of Bogotá in 1988-1990, ran for president in 1994 and nearly won. Four years later his leading opponent was the experienced candidate of the Liberal Party, Horacio Serpa. Serpa, the leader of the social-democratic wing of his party, has a large and faithful national following, although his campaign was handicapped by his long, close association with former president Ernesto Samper, whose administration (1994- 1998) was nearly brought down by drug-related corruption charges.

If elected, both candidates promised, they would do whatever was necessary to bring the FARC to the negotiating table. In May, Serpa won the most votes, but not a clear majority, and a second electoral round was scheduled for June. A few days before the sec-ond vote a photograph was displayed across the top of the front pages of all the major Colombian dailies; it showed the peace adviser for Andrés Pastrana somewhere in the wilderness, deep in conversation with Manuel Marulanda—nicknamed “Sureshot”—the perennial and aging leader of the FARC guerrillas. Sureshot was wearing a Pastrana campaign watch. As Marulanda must have known when he allowed the photo-op, the meeting established Pastrana as the peace candidate. Five days later, on June 21, 1998, Pastrana was elected by a comfortable margin.

Pastrana has kept to his campaign promises, but progress in carrying them out has been erratic. As a candidate, Pastrana had announced that he would withdraw the army from a territory in which the FARC guerrillas would have free rein, so that peace talks could get underway. The joy that greeted the announcement of the talks was tempered in some circles by the realization that the demilitarized zone was in the heart of the coca-growing region of the Amazon jungle—where the FARC has been strong for years—and that this zone was rather large; 42,000 square kilometers, in fact, or about twice the size of El Salvador.

After Pastrana took power, months of tense pre-negotiations with both the guerrillas and the army went by, as the fine points of just how much authority the state would cede were ironed out. At the same time, with Pastrana’s encouragement, the United States got involved: the chief spokesman of the FARC, who goes by the pseudonym of Raúl Reyes, met secretly in Costa Rica with State Department officials. At last, on January 7, 1999, the “peace table” was installed with an oddly festive ceremony that featured jugglers, dancers, politicians of all stripes, and a host of famous entertainers—including a salsa group, Iván and his Bam Bam, and a curvaceous pop star who showed up in skintight leather gear, with her mother by her side—but not Marulanda, who left Pastrana to inaugurate the event sitting next to the guerrilla’s empty chair. (Later, Marulanda said that he had learned of a plot to assassinate him at the inauguration.) Formal talks began two days later, but the FARC suspended them again almost immediately, on January 20, charging that the government had stood by while right-wing paramilitaries escalated their actions; they had killed nearly one hundred civilians in the first three weeks of the year.1

At least, people said, the conservative Pastrana has been able to keep the recalcitrant army in line while the peace process stumbled along. But in May 1999, after Pastrana agreed to renew the demilitarization of the peace zone indefinitely so that talks could begin again, his defense minister resigned in protest, and seventeen army generals and two hundred colonels threatened to follow him.

On the other hand, the generals are still in place, the talks, though they have been suspended much more often than they have been in session, have never actually been broken off, and last January, after a full year of false starts, the two sides actually held working sessions.

It may be the first time that either party is feeling pressure from the civilian population. Colombians are notoriously anarchic—it is one of their great charms—but as the war has come to threaten so many aspects of normal life—going on vacation, turning on the lights, taking the kids to school—they have bestirred themselves. A grass-roots peace movement, probably the largest civic movement the country has seen, is taking an active part in the war and the attempts to end it. In addition to electing the president they thought could best guarantee an end to the war two years ago, voters cast another ballot—a bright green card—on election day, to signify that they wanted peace. (Pastrana was elected with 6.1 million votes; Serpa got 5.6 million. The peace ballot got ten million votes.)

In February of last year, a national march against kidnappings and disappearances was so successful that the organizers thought they would never be able to repeat it, but last October a march for peace brought millions of Colombians out on the streets—five million, according to the most cautious estimates, out of a population of 48 million. The marchers, dressed in white, didn’t take to the streets only in the cities: six hundred towns, small and large, also had demonstrations. (I was in New York City at the time, but I found out about the march when I ran into some Colombian friends who had little Colombian flags stenciled on their cheeks—they had been marching for peace down Fifth Avenue.) The demands of the marchers were addressed equally to the guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitary forces, and the government: uninterrupted peace talks, cease-fire now, and respect for civilians.

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    For its part, the State Department suspended its meetings with the FARC after it assassinated three Indian rights activists from the United States in February 1999.

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