ONE of Colombia's main guerrilla groups, the National People's Army, or EPL, has gathered many of its forces in this town on Colombia's northern coast as part of peace negotiations with the government - the most serious to date. The EPL is following in the footsteps of the M19, which last April disarmed and transformed itself from a leftist guerrillas organization into a political party under a government peace plan. The first political party set up by Marxist guerrillas was the Patriotic Union. Within four years of its founding in 1984, 550 of its members had been shot, apparently by right-wing death squads.
The EPL is breaking new ground because its movement toward disarmament is both more difficult and potentially more rewarding than the M19's peace initiative.
``The peace process with the EPL represents a whole new set of challenges,'' says Tom'as Concha, one of the government representatives in the current talks. Founded in 1967, the Marxist-Leninist organization is more powerful and militant than the M19 was as a guerrilla group. And it is already asking more from the government.
EPL demands include drafting a new constitution and increasing representation of smaller parties in the congress. Colombia's president-elect, C'esar Gaviria, has pledged to implement them when he takes office Aug. 7.
However, Colombia's extreme rightists see no need to make concessions to guerrillas they say can be defeated militarily.
``The peace process with the M19 had many enemies,'' Mr. Concha says. ``This one with the EPL has more.''
But along with greater problems come potentially greater rewards for both the government and the Colombian left.
The startling third-place finish in Colombia's May presidential election of the M19 candidate, Antonio Navarro, spurred the momentum of their peace initiative, EPL leaders say.
``Navarro's performance was more proof of Colombians' yearning for peaceful democratic change,'' says Hernando Guapacha, an EPL commmander. ``Right now the alternative of making war no longer exists.''
German Rojas agrees: The best war for the EPL to defeat its enemies, especially right-wing death squads, is to isolate them politically, says Mr. Rojas, one of several M19 leaders who recently visited the EPL's ``peace camp.''
``Death squads flourish during times of war,'' he says. ``Their political foundation falls through during times of peace.''
EPL military chief, Bernardo Guti'errez, says the EPL would eventually like to form part of a ``grand leftist alliance'' to attract voters disenchanted with the Liberal and Conservative parties. ``We believe that a wider, more pluralistic democracy is possible without armed struggle,'' he says.
Government negotiators say the state, too, has a lot at stake in the talks. The EPL's disarmament would free up thousands of government troops for the fight against drug traffickers.
``The Army's focus on defeating leftist guerrillas throughout the years caused it to drop its guard on other fronts like the fight against drug traffickers,'' Concha says. ``As more guerrilla groups begin to seek peace, that situation will change.''
Peace with EPL - the country's second-largest rebel group with an estimated 2,000 armed men - would also increase the pressure on two other main rebel forces to begin negotiations.
``If the government can make peace with the EPL, other guerrilla groups will find it impossible to continue their armed fight,'' says Jorge Melo, a political science professor at Bogot'a's National University.
But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - the country's largest group - and the National Liberation Army have said they are unwilling to accept the government's peace plan.
A possible breakdown of the peace initiative was evident from the start. Just hours after Mr. Guti'errez expressed the EPL's desire to begin negotiations, the group's leader, Francisco Caraballo, said in a written statement that the government's peace initiative was unacceptable.
EPL troops at the ``peace camp'' said the declaration had created confusion in the ranks. Said one rebel anxiously awaiting the meeting, ``If we don't achieve unity, this peace process will be like a long sentence ending with a big question mark.''