A THREE-DECADE guerrilla conflict in Colombia may have its best chance yet of coming to a close, furthering a trend in Latin America.
Just 100 days after taking office, President Ernesto Samper Pizano has broken tradition by making concessions to leftist guerrillas to woo them into talks while promising to rein in the military more.
But reaching a peace pact with leftist guerrillas that will bring them into civil society may not be easy. The new president must deal with the country's three main leftist groups, who vary in ideology and goals: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL).
The guerrillas, scattered across the mountains and jungles of Colombia, number near 10,000. They have a strong presence in about a third of cities and towns, with many sympathizers.
Mr. Samper's plan, unveiled last week, won limited praise from both the guerrillas and the military. He is allowing the guerrillas much say in setting the time frame, agenda, and location for negotiations. And in perhaps the most significant departure from the past, the government will not insist that the guerrillas stop their attacks before talks begin.
``That was one of the factors which caused the breakdown of talks between the guerrillas and [former President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo's] government in 1992,'' says Daniel Garcia-Pena, a member of the government-appointed peace commission. ``We all realize that the cease-fire will probably come only at the end of the process, and we are prepared to tough it out.''
ELN spokesman Francisco Galan called the plan ``positive'' and said the time for talks was ripe. A FARC communique said the group is ``willing to begin conversations.'' The military is tight-lipped but hopeful. ``We are optimistic and support the president's initiative,'' a spokesman said.
``Frankly, the reaction has been heartening,'' Mr. Garcia-Pena says. ``Even extremists, both on the right and the left who in the past have been opposed to any type of dialogue, have warmed to the idea.''
If peace is achieved, the military will eventually be reduced in size, and its members will also have to be educated to return to civil society.
[On Tuesday, Samper ordered six military and police chiefs into retirement in a security forces shake-up following allegations of rampant corruption and human rights abuses.]
Samper says he would rather negotiate on a national level, but guerrilla leaders are pushing for separate, regional talks too.
They also differ with the president on where to hold the talks. The governments of the Netherlands and Costa Rica have offered to host the negotiations. Samper prefers to hold the talks abroad for security. The guerrillas, calling for the talks to stay in Colombia, are using location as a test of the government's commitment. ``They want to see just how much the government can control its own military and really guarantee the guerrillas' safety within Colombia,'' Garcia-Pena says.
But there is also evidence of good faith on the part of the guerrillas. According to official government figures, guerrilla activity decreased in the first 100 days of Samper's administration.
``That's only partially true,'' Garcia-Pena says. ``There were fewer attacks recently ... but the guerrillas almost doubled their activity ... as a kind of farewell to Gaviria and to differentiate its treatment of Samper,'' he says.