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Dove Intends to Teach a Country of Hawks a New Way to Fly

Despite four decades of conflict, Colombia's top peacemaker refuses to give up his fight

By David Aquila LawrenceSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1997



BOGOT, COLOMBIA

Inside a government office block, among hundreds of paper-pushing men in suits, sits a long-haired man facing a life-sized poster of singer Jim Morrison. Daniel Garcia Pena isn't the government type - he didn't even support the presidential candidate who picked him to be Colombia's top peacemaker.

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"I don't work for the government. I work for peace," Mr. Garcia Pena says.

Peacemaking in Colombia is not a vocation with much historic success. The current war with leftist rebels dates back about 33 years. The 10 years before that was a decade of such civil mayhem that Colombians simply refer to it as "The Violence."

In fact, guerrilla strength is at an all-time high and still growing. The insurgents have been flexing their newfound muscles in a campaign to shut down this year's local elections. The Army has also escalated its activity of late, staging what it calls the largest offensive since 1990 in the south of the country. And on Sept. 29, the guerrillas sent a communiqu casting any negotiations in doubt.

Nevertheless, Garcia Pena, who's held his office for three years, won't let himself be discouraged. "If you look into the past, on the eve of peace there's always been increased war. That's been the rule in Colombia as long as we've been talking about these matters," he says.

Garcia Pea bases his optimism on changes he sees in Colombia. "Different segments of the population, especially the elite, are much more aware that there's a war going on, that this war is going out of control. And there is a growing consensus in the country that peace requires social change," he says.

The main change the rebels are demanding is land reform - something Colombian presidents have been promising for years. The guerrillas also take issue with the government's human rights record - especially its tolerance and even covert support of right-wing paramilitary groups, who routinely massacre civilians accused of supporting the rebels.

But the guerrillas themselves have been accused of violating human rights. In addition to killing civilians accused of collaboration with the government, in recent years the rebels have relied upon kidnapping rich Colombians as a main source of funds. They also squeeze "protection" money from large landowners and drug traffickers, prompting the Army to label them "narco-guerrillas."

Despite the complaints of each side, Garcia Pena maintains that all the armed factions have come to a common realization.

War as a no-win situation

"None of the sides can win through military force. Everyone agrees on that," he says. "It's those who participate in the war who know it more than any other Colombians - they've seen the realities of war up close. So that's a starting point."

But critics from all sides doubt that peace is possible under this administration.

"The fruitless efforts of the government of [President] Ernesto Samper to make peace have done nothing save increase the number of unanswered deaths and acts of terror," said retired Gen. Harold Bedoya recently. General Bedoya was head of the Colombian Armed Forces until he was fired by President Samper this summer. Bedoya had criticized the government's willingness to negotiate with guerrillas.

"There are very dim chances. The guerrilla have no incentives to negotiate with this government.... And many political actors don't want Samper to leave office with the sense that he has opened the gates for the peace process," says Juan Tokatlian, a political scientist at Bogota's National University.

After three years of nonstop scandal in office, the desire to deny Samper credit for a peace agreement is a problem, Garcia Pea admits.

"Even friends of mine say, 'Lets wait until Samper leaves,' " he says. "Well, I think that's absolutely selfish and unpatriotic. Samper will be gone in a few months [when his term expires]. But the war will continue for many more years if we don't do something about it now. "

Critic forms a peace team

Garcia Pea, a former history professor at Bogota's prestigious University of the Andes, got his job by being a vociferous critic of Samper's predecessor.

When he and his colleagues were asked by Samper officials to join the peace team, "They said, 'You guys were the most critical of the last administration. Samper wants something new,' " Garcia Pena remembers with a laugh.

But his involvement with peace efforts goes back far before the Samper administration. In the 1980s he was involved in a program that helped former guerrillas return to society. Many of them formed a political party called the Patriotic Union. But after they laid down their arms, members of the party were murdered by right-wing death squads.

"When you make peace with only a few of the people, it's hard for them to be immune from those who are still making war," Garcia Pena says.

"The next peace must be the final peace, where everyone is included."