GOVERNMENT officials recently visited this dusty town in northern Colombia to watch approvingly as members of a small leftist guerrilla group disarmed and cast their military fatigues onto a raging bonfire. When bullets accidentally left in the pockets of the uniforms began exploding, the officials reacted like other members of the crowd watching the event - they ran like the blazes. The story would be merely funny were it not such an obvious, tragic allegory for the guerrilla violence that will not quit Colombia: bullets that will not stop going off.
There were other explosions on Jan. 25 as the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT) was burning its fatigues and destroying its arms. Two other rebel groups carried out more attacks as part of one of the most ferocious guerrilla offensives in 30 years of Colombian insurgency. Five rebels and a police officer were killed in fighting.
Attacks this week by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have caused at least nine more deaths. Since New Year's Eve, when the rebel offensive began, about 190 people have been killed, including guerrillas, soldiers, and civilians.
Beyond the cost in lives, guerrilla wars are expensive in other petroleum industries, transportation, and communications networks have caused damage estimated at $97 million.
The level of violence has forced the government to rethink its partly successful peace policy that has led to the disarmament of the PRT and another group before it. The April 19 Movement (M-19) last March became the first Colombian rebel organization to lay down its arms and transform itself into a political party.
Two other rebel groups, compelled by the M-19's political success, are concluding peace agreements with the administration of President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo.
The government was willing to rework its peace policy to draw the FARC and the ELN into negotiations, said Jes'us Ant'onio Bejarano, the government's representative in negotiations with rebels. He did not give details.
The policy so far has focused on giving former rebels an opportunity for political participation, though it has not allowed for changes in the country's basic socioeconomic structure.
The FARC, which is leading the latest offensive, answered Mr. Bejarano by saying it, too, would be open to a new round of negotiations. But the group continues to make the talks contingent upon on a bilateral cease-fire, rejected by the government in the past. Mr. Gaviria's administration says the FARC and the ELN should suspend armed action first.
Some analysts say fruitful peace talks are unlikely, despite encouraging statements by both sides. Many Colombians fault the government for its inability to convince the Armed Forces of the need for serious negotiations.
``We are seeing a terrible crisis in national security,'' says Eduardo Pizarro, a Bogot'a political scientist. ``There is a complete divorce between peace rhetoric by civil authorities and belligerent actions by the armed forces. The government cannot control the Army.''
Even as the FARC was expressing interest in new talks with the administration, military commanders were sending their own message. El Tiempo newspaper reported Monday the Army had sent a special elite brigade to southeastern Colombia to intensify the war against the guerrillas.
``It is lamentable that we have an Army that does not want to cooperate in efforts to seek peace with insurgents,'' says Rafael Serrano Prada, a Conservative Party congressman serving on a commission that just reestablished contacts with FARC leaders.
Such contacts had ended in December, after the Army seized the FARC headquarters, called Casa Verde in southeastern Colombia.
Army commanders touted the operation against Casa Verde as a historical victory, despite failing to capture any FARC leaders. Now after nearly a month of massive rebel retaliatory attacks, many Colombians are convinced that taking the FARC headquarters was unwise.
``The government had no idea of the consequences of the attack on Casa Verde,'' says Mr. Pizarro. ``They have been ... beyond our worst predictions.''
The Colombian oil industry has been hard hit. Guerrillas' dynamiting pipelines have spilled more than 30,000 barrels of crude. Those attacks, combined with rebels' destruction of drills and other equipment, have reduced the country's daily oil output to 245,000 barrels from 470,000 barrels. The ELN is reportedly holding hostage six foreign petroleum engineers, including three US citizens.
Pizarro says that, under the circumstances, the government can only hope to return to the standoff with the FARC and the ELN that existed in December.
``The government might be able to achieve an armed truce with the rebels and reduce the level of violence for a time. But that's much different than entering a fruitful dialogue,'' he says.
Mr. Serrano disagrees, saying that Colombia can no longer tolerate such a draw. ``The country does not want an uneasy truce,'' he says. ``It wants a radical definitive solution to this problem.''
He urges the government to compromise by declaring a cease-fire and discussing rebel proposals for economic reform, including a possible reorganization of the petroleum industry.
Others urge rebels to make similar compromises. Valent'in Gonz'alez, the PRT's leader, says the FARC and the ELN should be willing to disarm and join a progressive party encompassing all former leftists groups.
``We want to form a political organization, not just of leftists, but including everyone who wants to make Colombian democracy more participatory,'' he says.