Andres Pastrana
Andres Pastrana; drawing by David Levine


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.

On the morning of December 31, 1999, I sat in a penthouse office in the heart of Bogotá with Camilo González, a pleasantly rumpled man who looks not unlike the Juan Valdez character of Colombian coffee ads. González, who is a man of many talents, was sitting in as a technical adviser for the Colombian communications ministry’s Y2K watch. Before that, he was minister of health, as a representative for the left in the administration of César Gaviria. These days, as coordinator of a movement called Citizens’ Mandate for Peace, he is deeply involved with the marches and demonstrations against the war. When we talked, his mood seemed cheerful but cautious. He had unloaded the array of cell phones he carries about his person and spread them out on the table, and as we talked he moved them around as if they were pieces on a chessboard.

I asked González how he saw the chances for peace, given that both the government and the insurgents seem deeply ambivalent, if not divided, about whether they want to make any concessions to the other side. One problem, he answered, is that although the military option is “strategically defeated” after years of confrontation, each of the warring parties believes that it can still make significant tactical advances. “They are suffering from a militarist illusion,” he said, “in which the army believes that, given enough support, it can defeat the guerrillas, the FARC believes that it can continue its territorial expansion, and the paramilitaries believe that they can wrest control of the oil fields from the ELN guerrillas.” (The ELN originally financed its actions with money from the oil companies that operate in the fields on the border with Venezuela: their leverage was the pipeline that they still periodically blow up.)

As the vote on aid in the US Congress draws near, “everybody wants to show off their military capabilities,” González said. “And so what is immediately ahead is an escalation of armed confrontation and at the same time an escalation of talks.”

The big problem the peace movement faces now, González said as he played with the phones, is how to continue to engage the citizenry. After the euphoria of a huge demonstration, frustration can set in when it doesn’t lead to immediate results. Still, he believed that the marches had already had an impact. The right-wing paramilitaries who are fighting the guerrillas had said that they would no longer recruit anyone under eighteen into their ranks; the ELN had hailed the peace movement’s “authentic expression of popular sovereignty”; and even the FARC, in ignoring the movement so resolutely, had given an indication of how large a thorn in its side it is. (Soon, the peace movement would announce a letter-writing campaign, in which people are encouraged to write to the FARC leaders.)

As we chatted, the millennium festivities were already being prepared along Bogotá’s main avenue, the Carrera Séptima, just outside. On Sundays and holidays the Séptima is usually turned into a bicycle path, which gets almost as crowded with bikers and skaters as it does with cars during rush hour. But today there would be a parade instead, of the peculiar, inventive, and informal kind Colombians love—more of a carnival, really. The weather for it was perfect; mild and sunny in this city of biblical downpours. Some people had expressed fear that the evening would turn into a drunken mess, but the street scene so far was mellow: all the city barrios were preparing floats and costumes with a millennial theme, and although it was early, dancers and musicians—jazz quintets, rock groups, salsa bands—were already putting on their makeup and warming up.

The most significant thing about the peace movement, González concluded, was that, even if it failed, it had given people a different way to see themselves. “After the marches we can say to ourselves that we’re a peace-loving country, as opposed to our usual, self-flagellating, ‘we’re a nation of violent, cheating crooks,”‘ he said. Perhaps he was reading too much into a movement that had barely started and could fizzle out any minute. But on this promising day who could blame him?

Something of the same millennial spirit must have been present when the FARC negotiating team and Pastrana’s peace commissioner, Victor G. Ricardo, set off together in February for a leisurely tour of Europe. Ricardo, a pleasant-faced man of average build and average height, gives the impression of being both very intense and intensely unassuming. He is one of the President’s inner circle, and it was he who appeared in the famous photo in the wilderness with the guerrilla leader Marulanda.

When we talked this January in the small, crowded, corner office he occupies in Bogotá’s lovely presidential house, Ricardo went on at length about the need for a spiritual transformation in Colombian society, which might have seemed like a ploy to avoid giving information, except that when one leafs through the three-volume official record of the peace process it turns out that this is also what he says to the guerrillas. The peace effort at this point is all about building trust, Ricardo told me, and this effort was about to bear fruit, as talks finally seemed to start again in a promising way. The second stage would involve convincing the countries that consume cocaine to invest in Colombia so that the legal economy could grow. “It’s a question of saying to the world, ‘Look, Mister World, we have a cocaine problem,”‘ he said. “‘But it is also true that you provide the market for it. Why don’t you help us to solve something that is a problem for everyone?”‘ He denied that the talks were failing to produce results. “Very soon, sooner than you can imagine, you will see some very real results of the effort to build trust we have been working on,” he told me.

And indeed, in the first week of February, Ricardo and all six members of the FARC’s representatives at the peace talks boarded an Iberia flight (the commissioner had spent a frantic morning shopping for suits and ties for all of them) and flew to Madrid. Members of the Spanish, Norwegian, Danish, Swiss, and Italian governments had promised to receive the curious delegation, and for a month the FARC negotiators—who may or may not have traveled outside their native country before, and who have spent all their adult lives in the cocoon of isolation and paranoia that clandestinity generates—were shown versions of socialism, capitalism, and monarchy considerably different from the ones they learned about in their Marxist textbooks. They chatted with politicians, visited factories, talked to the workers, and had dinner with the CEOs. It was an extraordinary idea to have come up with and an almost impossible one to put into practice, and Ricardo emerged from the trip with an enhanced reputation.


No one expected the guerrillas’ military activity to actually decline as a result of their European tour—it is taken for granted by observers and participants in the peace process that all sides will try to reinforce in the field their positions at the negotiating table. But no one expected them to try to assassinate Francisco Santos, either. In this long war it is hard to judge whose ineptitude is greater. Last year someone—presumably on the right—ordered the death of Jaime Garzón, a fiercely funny and politically sophisticated man whose television “newscast,” featuring uncanny impersonations of guerrillas, generals, politicians, and other characters, was a Sunday household ritual. Crowds lined the streets of Bogotá for his funeral. This year, credible evidence indicates that the FARC, which despises the peace movement, took out a contract on Francisco Santos, who started the free-form citizens’ movement for peace of which Camilio González is also part.

In addition to being a scion of the family that owns the daily El Tiempo —by far the largest newspaper in the country—Santos, thirty-eight, is also the paper’s managing editor for news. But he devotes much of his time to the peace movement. In many ways, the movement grew out of the Fundación País Libre, the organization he founded that monitors kidnappings and helps victims and their relatives. Santos got the idea for País Libre in 1991, after he was kidnapped and held hostage for eight months by the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.2

Last January, Francisco Santos was alerted by his various intelligence sources in Colombia that a plot to kill him was underway, financed by the FARC. He realized that he was being tailed constantly. His sources confirmed that the plot involved both the FARC commander of the area around Bogotá and a band of killers-for-hire which operates under orders from a network of criminals who are currently in jail. Early in March, Santos showed up at a restaurant half an hour after agreeing over the phone to meet a friend there. The owner of the restaurant, an acquaintance, said that suspicious-looking men had just come in asking for him. Convinced that the plot against him would continue, Santos decided to remove himself from the country.

Although Raúl Reyes, the FARC spokesman, immediately and energetically denied that his organization had anything to do with the murder plot, intelligence services insist that the guerrillas were responsible. This in itself might not mean much—one could even credit the spooks with pulling off a neat propaganda coup—but the declarations of Manuel Marulanda, “Sureshot,” on one of the extremely rare occasions when he made himself available to reporters, still ring in the ears. He was asked last January whether it was true that he was unfriendly to the press. “It’s not that,” he answered. “The jefes of the press have a lot of debts, and we have to call them in. They distort everything, they are not correct in their dealings with us…so they have these little debts.” What this all says about the guerrillas’ real interest in, or understanding of, what is at stake in the peace negotiations is hard to say: they could be trying to sabotage them without appearing involved. On the other hand, they have been isolated for so long that they may not be able to measure the negative effects of their actions.

When I talked to Santos on the phone recently in his self-imposed exile, he was homesick and lonely. He is by nature chipper and hyperactive, but now that he is spending his days abroad, alone with the phone and the Internet, I had the impression that he felt as if he had been kidnapped again. He was perplexed about the state of affairs in his country. The peace movement has grown out of the conviction that Colombia’s wars cannot be won with more wars, Santos said, but increasingly, since the FARC appears unresponsive to the general desire for peace, people like him feel that they have been put “between the sword and the wall.” He feels that Pastrana requested the new American aid in order to brandish it as a threat against the FARC, but that the plan for spending the money is shaky. For example, he said, “if the aid gets approved, and Pastrana does not have a very concrete plan for dealing with all the civilians who will be affected [in the coca-growing area where the aid is supposed to be used, and where the FARC is strong], it will be a disaster,” because the campesinos who grow coca are by and large supporters of the guerrillas, and there are a couple of hundred thousand of them, and in the past they have proved that they can be mobilized very effectively.

At this stage, Santos thinks, it will be devastating to Colombia if the US aid package is not approved by Congress, because the Pastrana administration is so invested in the effort. But he would like to see most of the money used for social programs rather than military equipment, as the Massachusetts Democratic congressman William Delahunt has recently suggested. Whether that idea prospers or not, he concluded, is now up to the FARC.

Marulanda’s comments on “little debts” and Santos’s assassination plot do not sound as if the FARC were attempting to improve its handling of its image, but it is. Only a few days before announcing that the FARC intended to call in the “debts” of the press, Marulanda had allowed reporters to approach him and lob a few soft questions. The occasion was the inauguration of the headquarters for the talks in the demilitarized zone declared by Pastrana, but it also happened to be the day that Madeleine Albright was meeting with the President in the Caribbean resort city of Cartagena. The press interpreted Marulanda’s apparition as a gesture of support for the peace process, but it was more likely designed to distract attention from the US envoy.

For her part, Albright had a busy schedule in Cartagena, dancing with schoolchildren and dining with Gabriel García Márquez. This was her first trip to Colombia, and what she saw of it—one of the most beautiful fortress cities in the world, quaint streets, deluxe hotels—could easily have led her to conclude that the only thing wrong with Colombia is that it has a drug problem and a guerrilla problem, and that what one does with problems is fix them. But what Colombia has is an environment of violence, in which, as the journalist German Castro Caycedo, who has interviewed many of its practitioners, pointed out to me,

Manuel Marulanda joined the Liberal guerrillas [as a youth, in the early days of the violencia] because his family was getting killed; the founder of the ELN, Fabio Vázquez Castaño, started that guerrilla group because his father was killed. And Carlos Castaño [no relation; the leader of the bloody antiguerrilla autodefensas, or paramilitaries] got into violence because his father was kidnaped and killed by the FARC!

None of these crimes was ever brought to court, and the list of children with murdered parents could go on forever, because, in Colombia, justice works poorly when it works at all. (A small portion of the aid package is allocated to improvements in the legal system.)

Colombia has what is often advertised as the oldest democracy in Latin America. Technically speaking, this is true, but the details have to be taken into account. Citizens were not allowed to elect their own mayors until barely twelve years ago. Popular elections for governors of the thirty-two departamentos took place beginning in 1992. Affiliation with either the Conservative or the Liberal Party was long a requirement for becoming a civil servant. The country was under a state of siege, or of emergency, for most of the last fifty years. The sons, grandsons, or nephews of presidents lay claim to the presidency with predictable regularity, as Andrés Pastrana did. Almost without exception the principal newspapers, television stations, and magazines are owned by the leading political or business families, and until very recently the dominant tone in the most important newspapers and television stations was unfair, intolerant, and full of poisonous class prejudice.


The brutal twenty-year-long episode known as la violencia was a civil war without battles; one in which peasants armed with peasant weapons—machetes, knives—carried out a long series of massacres against other peasants. It lasted from 1945 to 1964. In 1957, the liberal and conservative hierarchs who presided over the killings signed an accord which set the stage for much of what has followed: the two sides agreed that there would be presidential elections but that for the next sixteen years the two parties would alternate power.

That agreement was threatened in 1970, when the populist caudillo, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, ran an upstart candidacy against the Conservative Party nominee, Misael Pastrana, father of the current president. Although Pastrana claimed victory, many historians believe that a majority of the vote may well have gone to Rojas Pinilla. No independent body was ever allowed to count the ballots. Unfraudulent presidential elections have been the norm since 1974, but by that year there were as many as a dozen armed organizations roaming the country—including the M-19 guerrilla movement, which took its name from the 19th of April, the date on which Rojas Pinilla was defeated—and the current survivors, the FARC and the ELN.

Assuming that escalating the war is the most expedient way of bringing it to an end, the question that comes to mind is just which of the many sides in warring Colombia the Clinton administration expects to benefit most from a billion-odd dollars’ worth of weapons. The mere threat of that aid may already have proven useful enough. As the economist and historian Salomón Kalmanowitz—now on the board of the Colombian Central Bank—pointed out to me, “it has made the FARC more willing to internationalize the conflict and make it a political one, to bring in the European countries as participants and supervisors of the agreement—that is why the negotiators went on the European tour—and to allow the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations a greater role, in order to neutralize the US presence.”

The threat of US aid, however, is not the same as the reality of the relatively small, and not beloved, Colombian military suddenly empowered with a billion-plus dollars. For it is they who will be the real beneficiaries of the aid package—President Pastrana, who requested the aid, will be gone from power in just two years. The gift of howitzers and heat sensors, helicopters and planes, assumes that the military establishment is capable of reforming itself from within, purging itself of the officers and soldiers who collaborate with the paramilitaries or with the drug traffickers, and elevating its combat spirit enough at last to take on the guerrillas and win. And it assumes that all of this can be accomplished in the coming two-year period when the military forces would be flooded with aid money. If these calculations are wrong, the consequences will make the present situation much worse.

In Colombia peace has always been achieved by use of force, leading to exclusions that lead to more violence. A great many Colombians who want an end to the war think that the military assistance package might help bring that end about; but on the basis of their past experience they seem to have no appetite for what the immediate consequences of an escalated war are likely to be. Indeed, as the peace ballot and the peace marches would indicate, what people want is not war at all, but a national reconciliation.

As midnight approached on December 31, 1999, “peace” was one of the frequent New Year’s wishes of the group of friends who had failed to leave Bogotá on vacation. The city had turned out to be not such a bad alternative, after all. It was midnight, the Séptima was pleasantly crowded with families and groups of friends, and no one at all seemed to be drunk. The parade had been a success: the jugglers juggled and the dancers danced and the musicians played, but the great hit had been a transvestite on stilts who had two giant balloons with painted nipples strapped across his chest, and outsize balloon genitalia tied on further down—all of which he stopped to wiggle merrily at the spectators whenever they cheered and called out to him, interrupting his stork-like progress down the avenue.

Now it was midnight, and in the crowd smiling men and women turned to perfect strangers and hugged them, wishing them peace and a happy new year. Fireworks bloomed in the sky to appreciative gasps. For now Bogotá felt safe; the holiday truce announced by the FARC would end in a few days.

—This is the second of three articles.

This Issue

April 27, 2000