Colombia's truce with rebels shaky as antidrug drive gears up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Just when it appeared that Colombia's 28-year-old civil war was abating, there are hints that it could erupt anew. The government and the Marxist-leaning Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) signed a cease-fire agreement on April 1, but since then government actions against drug traffickers have infuriated some segments of the rebel group.

Some observers in Bogota, the Colombian capital, worry that the cease-fire, scheduled to go into effect May 28, could unravel.

The controversy centers on the government's imposition of a nationwide state of siege after the April 30 assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. It is generally thought that Mr. Lara - whose campaign against Colombia's $2-billion-a-year drug business seemed to be achieving some success - was killed by drug traffickers.

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Some Colombian officials and other observers think FARC is involved with drug traffic, but there has never been concrete proof of this and rebel leaders have consistently denied involvement. Some of Colombia's biggest drug dealers also say FARC is not involved.

Colombian President Belisario Betancur Cuartas says the state of siege is absolutely necessary ''if we are to effectively deal with the drug traffickers.''

Another government spokesman said, ''The drug situation is at a point where we could bring in many arrests and put a major dent in the traffic if we can operate with a freer hand.''

But FARC worries that the government may use the state of siege as a pretext for jailing guerrillas or taking other actions against them which they say are forbidden by the impending cease-fire.

They argue that the siege declaration allows the government ''to carry on whatever activity it wants to as we lay down our arms.''

President Betancur, like his recent predecessors, has been preoccupied with the problems of guerrilla warfare and drug traffic. But he signaled early his willingness to work out peace accords with rebels while insisting on an ''all-out, determined effort to eliminate the traffic in drugs.''

His government's truce with FARC has been widely hailed by Colombians, who are tired of the generation-long civil conflict. The government views the cease-fire as a way of returning the guerrillas to the mainstream of Colombian life.

Rebels have been encouraged ''to organize themselves politically, economically, and socially.''

''We have got to bring peace to the Colombian countryside, recognizing some of the inequities in our society and correcting them, and we have also got to clean up our image, eliminating the odious drug traffic,'' President Betancur said in an interview last year. ''We will not stop until we do just that.''

The President says he hopes the accord with FARC will lead other, smaller guerrilla groups to join in a truce with the government. But this is unlikely if elements of FARC bolt the accord out of anger over the state of siege.

FARC and other guerrilla groups emerged in the late 1950s arguing that Colombian governments were corrupt and unjust. Their members were largely young men and women. FARC, which has received at least verbal support from Cuba's Fidel Castro, has called for installation of a leftist revolutionary government.

At least 20,000 Colombians, including close to 1,500 soldiers and policemen, have been killed since 1958 in warfare between the guerrillas and government forces.

FARC, the biggest and the oldest rebel group, appears to consist of more than 2,000 guerrillas and at least 5,000 support people, centered mainly in the countryside.

Led by Manuel Marulanda, who is known as ''Sure Shot,'' FARC is often more than a match for Colombia's 65,000-man Army. But FARC has never won wide allegiance among the Colombian population.

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