Protecting Colombia's peace

The signing of the cease-fire between the Colombian government and the M-19 guerrillas in late August means that 90 percent of Colombia's guerrillas have laid down their arms and are willing to push for their demands in the political arena. Colombian President Belisario Betancur must now build confidence in the truce and move his country toward the economic and social reforms that the guerrillas and their ''constituents'' are demanding. The United States should support him in his efforts.

This historic peace may bring an end to over 30 years of political violence in Colombia between the military and various guerrilla bands.

Colombia's peace, however, may be shattered if regional military leaders or armed vigilante groups continue their efforts to crush the guerrilla bands and wipe out or terrorize the populations that support them. Such repressive tactics have been heavily employed in Colombia over the last six years either by the security forces or with their complicity.

The latest treaty was literally almost shot to pieces before it could be signed, when in an ambush policemen shot and apparently tried to kill the No. 3 commander of the M-19 guerrillas, Carlos Pizarro Leon Gomez, as he was on his way to sign the historic record. The police ambush occurred despite the government's guarantees for safe passage and testifies to the precariousness of the cease-fire. A group of Colombian journalists and I accompanied Pizarro to the small town of Corinto, where the cease-fire was to be signed. The police clearly knew who they were looking for because they allowed our car and a jeep full of M-19 guerrillas to pass through their roadblock before stopping Pizarro's truck and opening fire on it.

President Betancur reacted instantly, removing the police forces, guaranteeing the safety of guerrillas, and dispatching a helicopter to fly the wounded to a hospital.

President Betancur now must convince Colombian security forces, who have opposed the negotiations, that peace and further dialogue with the guerrillas is in the national interest. But given the Army's predilection for acting independently of civilian authority, such a task will be difficult.

President Betancur is also committed to convening the ''National Dialogue,'' which the M-19 have called for. It would bring together the disenfranchised sectors of society - small farmers and businessmen, peasants, and the urban poor - to formulate solutions to the social, economic, and political crises confronting them. These sectors seek to redress the problems of the inequitable distribution of land, income, and political power, areas in which the Colombian elite have historically obstructed change.

As a sign of his determination, Betancur recently forwarded land-reform and electoral-reform proposals to the Congress. Colombia needs technical and monetary assistance in order for these and other reforms to achieve any measure of success. Betancur will need strong political support within Colombia to gain approval of the reforms before mid-1985, when maneuvering starts for the elections in the spring of 1986.

Perhaps the Contadora nations and Colombia's democratic neighbors to the south can help fend off further violence in Colombia by supporting inter-American Development Bank loans and by convincing the Colombian military not to meddle in politics. The US and other Western democracies also should make it clear that they will not tolerate any breaking of the truce or the taking of justice into its own hands by the Colombian military. Withholding of military aid could be a lever.

The Reagan administration and Congress should encourage Colombia's government and politicians to accept needed reforms. The US also should provide bilateral credits and technical assistance and push for easier payback terms on Colombia's

President Betancur needs to control the military and enact various reforms in the short ''window of opportunity'' of peaceful dialogue open in Colombia. Only with the hard work and support of Colombians and the world community can Betancur continue his quest for peace and stability in his country.

George C. Rogers is an associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a civic-religious human rights organization.

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