More Jaw-Jaw in Colombia

COLOMBIA may have stepped back from the brink of all-out civil war this week with a new pact for peace talks. Sadly, though, it isn't much closer to resolving its 38-year conflict, which has claimed some 40,000 lives.

Over those years, this war has evolved from a cold-war-era fight against Marxist guerrillas to a complex web of violence including narcotics trafficking and right-wing paramilitaries. The United States joined Colombia's battle against the cocaine trade in 2000 with military assistance and $1.3 billion, while trying to steer clear of the war against the rebels.

Last week's agreement between the government and the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was greatly helped by third-party "facilitators" from the UN and interested countries. This international involvement, which until now had been rejected by both sides, should add momentum toward peace.

But the key factor in restarting the talks was an unaccustomed show of toughness by President Andres Pastrana. After trying hard for three years to hold substantial peace talks, he threatened an offensive against territory controlled by the FARC unless it returned to serious negotiations.

Ironically, the territory Mr. Pastrana was about to invade was ceded to the rebels three years ago as a safe haven, where talks could take place. Instead, the FARC has used it as a base to recruit new rebels, launch kidnapping forays, and control more of the drug trade.

So, even with new talks aimed at having a formal cease-fire by April 7, the question remains: Are the rebels really willing to find common ground with the government? And will they join the democratic process - something their violent communist ideology and history give little hint of?

For its part, the government must rein in Colombia's raging paramilitaries. These right-wing squads have sown havoc in the countryside as they hunt rebel sympathizers and take their own cut of the drug trade.

And what about the US, which was not involved in last week's agreement?

It should push Bogotá to dismantle the paramilitaries and strengthen its democratic institutions, which would be the best hope for peace.

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