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Colombian Rebels Sabotage Peace Hopes
JUAN FORERO . NY Times . 25 february 2002

Ingrid Betancourt, the presidential candidate who was kidnapped

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUÁN, Colombia, Feb. 24 — Just a month ago, there was a breakthrough in troubled peace talks here between the rebels and the government. But in the last week, the rebels hijacked a plane and kidnapped a senator, prompting President Andrés Pastrana to take back a big block of land granted to the rebels as a kind of fief free of army intervention.

On Saturday, the very day that the president visited this formerly rebel- held town to demonstrate the government's authority, the rebels struck again, kidnapping a high-profile presidential candidate.

These events, Colombians are well aware, mean an intensification of the 38-year civil war.

People in this gritty jungle town and across much of Colombia have cast blame squarely on one group: the rebels, whose string of bombings, kidnappings and other violations eventually led President Pastrana to break off negotiations abruptly last week. The kidnapping on Saturday of the presidential candidate, Senator Ingrid Betancourt, long a critic of the rebels, was like an exclamation point on the week's events.

"The government was making offers, but the guerrillas did not reciprocate, they just were not willing," said Jorge Alberto González, a 45- year-old pharmacist. "They did not understand everything that they had been given at that moment."

What the rebels had was a prize that no other Latin American guerrilla organization had ever enjoyed: its own dominion, granted by the government.

To induce the rebels to negotiate, in November 1998 President Pastrana ceded this town and a vast region around it as a venue for talks. The military was withdrawn, and the rebel group, which had its origins in a peasant uprising nearly four decades ago, was granted control of everything from the courts to road- paving to the municipal police force.

But almost from the beginning, the process that began with such high hopes began to unravel. On the first day of talks, Jan. 7, 1999, the rebel leader, Manuel Marulanda, failed to show up, leaving Mr. Pastrana alone on a dais in the center of town. Such lapses persisted for three years, while the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or the FARC, its Spanish acronym), was increasingly accused of using the enclave to plot military offensives, hide kidnapping victims and store arms.

The end came last Wednesday when Mr. Pastrana, who had promised to make peace his top priority, broke off talks after rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senior senator on board. The air force followed up with bombing runs aimed at dispersing the rebels, and soldiers are moving in to establish government authority.

For many residents, people accustomed to hardships like power failures and indifference from the central government, the demise of the peace process has been taken in stride. They had hoped the region would serve as an incubator for talks, but several concluded early on that the rebels were not really committed to negotiations.

"I do not think they ever had a willingness for peace," said Robert Hermosa, 26, a farmer. "Across the country, all we saw them do was acts of violence and terrorism."

Unlike many of their countrymen outside the zone, residents are not bitter at the guerrillas.

This region was spared much of Colombia's violence because the army was banned and the overwhelming guerrilla force prevented renegade death squads from establishing a presence.

But the people here said they had expected more from a guerrilla group that called itself the Army of the People. "They never came out with any proposals, anything," said Jairo Cuéllar, 35, another farmer. "So it was their fault. The government put it all in their hands, and they did not do anything with it."

The outlook, in Colombia and abroad, was far different in 1998, when the zone was ceded. Foreign diplomats, particularly from European countries, saw some justification then for rebellion within Colombia, a highly stratified and often corrupt country that has shut most people out of any say in government.

Urban Colombians, though long suspicious of the rebels, were cautiously optimistic that the group was serious about negotiations. After all, Mr. Marulanda, the group's leader, had met with Mr. Pastrana when he was running for president in 1998, an encounter that helped solidify Mr. Pastrana's image as the peace candidate.

"They were considered, in many quarters, legitimate interlocutors working on a peace process that was something necessary," said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami.

But, he added, the rebels quickly lost that legitimacy by stepping up their violence while failing to take advantage of the pulpit that the demilitarized zone provided to offer their political proposals to restructure Colombia.

Marc Chernick, a Georgetown University professor who has studied the peace process here and elsewhere, said the rebels could have gained political capital by setting up agricultural programs, for example, to highlight the flaws in rural development in the rest of the country.

"The FARC are very resistant to the politics of gestures, symbols, unlike the Zapatistas, who are masters of that," explained Mr. Chernick, referring to the media-savvy rebels of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. "They say it's not up to them to give gestures of peace, and it's not up to them to play symbolic politics."

The group did make it difficult for outsiders to see much of the region past San Vicente. Rebel commanders did little to dispel government reports about murders and the growing of coca, the raw material of cocaine. Critics like Human Rights Watch were lambasted by the rebels as puppets of Washington.

The rebels, who have been dispersed from this town and other areas by the army offensive, have continued to insist that they remain interested in negotiating. "We maintain our will for peace," Marcos León Calarcar, a rebel representative in Mexico, said in a report by the Reuters news agency. "We still hold in our hands the flag of peace."

Today, though, few people seem to believe this.

"One has to conclude," said one foreign diplomat who has strongly supported the peace process, "that the FARC are primitive and perhaps never committed in good faith to negotiations."

And even if the group were willing to open a dialogue with Mr. Pastrana's successor, the winner of presidential elections in May, as guerrilla commanders said in a recent communiqué, the political climate has changed considerably.

Colombian society has shifted sharply to the political right, with polls showing most people here having lost faith in the peace process and in the rebels. Polls also show that most Colombians will vote in May for Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who has harshly criticized the rebels as terrorists and drug traffickers.

Internationally, the outlook is also different for the rebels. European governments have refused visas to the same guerrilla commanders who once toured their capitals. the United States is considering offering intelligence on rebel activities to the Colombian Army; until now Washington has been barred from involvement in counterinsurgency operations.

"They lost the international political battle, in this country and abroad," Mr. Pastrana said recently. "Today, there is a complete union of forces against them, from all institutions and the international community."