Latin America's Longest Guerrilla War Tries a Short Cut

Colombia's president takes a soft approach in talks with guerrillas. But some doubt if he can deliver on promises.

IN early February a well-dressed man walked into a bank in Cartagena, Colombia, and asked to meet the branch manager to discuss a large investment he planned to make in the area.

But when he met with the manager, he revealed both his real identity - a soldier with one of Colombia's largest guerrilla organizations - and what he wanted: 500 million Colombian pesos ($60,000).

Not only did the man link himself with the same group that police suspect of killing 10 people in a November terrorist attack in Cartagena, but he also spelled out his extensive knowledge of the bank manager's family - a chilling revelation in a country where on average four kidnappings take place each day, many by guerrillas as income-producing ventures.

The man got his money.

The incident illustrates one reason why the road to a peace settlement between the Colombian government and South America's longest-fighting guerrillas will be neither rapid nor easy. The guerrillas have learned to use extortion, kidnapping, and in some cases drug trafficking, to keep the war chests overflowing.

Colombia's guerrilla movement began fighting to overthrow the government in the late 1950s after the two dominant political parties formed a National Front that alternated presidencies. Each guerrilla organization was aligned with a communist regime. By the early 1990s, the government reached pacification agreements with several organizations, but those still fighting say the political system needs further widening and lacks social justice.

Despite optimism over President Ernesto Samper Pizano's conciliatory approach to peace with the guerrillas and recent signals that talks are nearing, observers here say a long and complex list of reasons beyond money will make a settlement difficult to achieve.

It's more than the money

Those reasons range from Colombia's widely operating antiguerrilla paramilitary groups, to guerrilla doubts about the government's ability to deliver on political commitments, to drug traffickers' interests in seeing the guerrilla war continue.

``If I am optimistic, it's because this [Samper] government sincerely wants peace and not simply to defeat the guerrillas, an approach that hasn't worked in the past,'' says Alfredo Molano, a sociologist and specialist here in Colombia's guerrilla war. ``My fear is that the Colombian state is not strong enough to offer the political guarantees to make a settlement work.''

In mid-February the Samper government appeared on the verge of sitting down with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest of three principal guerrilla organizations. Earlier, President Samper had met a key guerrilla demand when he announced that a cease-fire would not have to be in place in order for negotiations to get under way.

But since then, expectations have waned as the government has sent mixed signals over who will be allowed as representatives at the negotiating table and where the talks will take place.

High-ranking justice officials have said no guerrilla leaders under arrest warrant would be accepted at the talks. But Carlos Holmes Trujillo, the high commissioner for peace, rejected that position in the interest of getting the talks going.

``The government wants to deal [with the guerrillas] strictly on a political level and separate the negotiations from any judicial issues that would condemn the outcome from the start,'' says Gabriel Murillo, political science chairman at Bogots University of the Andes. The government has also said such issues as drug-trafficking and kidnapping will not be discussed.

Such magnanimity might suggest the Samper government is more anxious to settle with the guerrillas than vice versa. Indeed, the guerrillas hardly appear to have their backs against a wall - the FARC alone is thought to have grown by several thousand armed members in recent years, and total guerrilla income is estimated by some at more than $125,000 a day.

But observers close to guerrilla thinking see a genuine desire to lay down arms if Colombia's political structure, dominated by the ideologically close Liberals and Conservatives, can make room for them. ``What the guerrillas want is a true opposition party and that respect for their level of influence be guaranteed,'' Mr. Molano says.

At the top of guerrilla demands in any eventual talks will be civilian control of the country's armed forces and a reining in of the complex web of paramilitary groups that operate in Colombia. The paramilitary groups might continue opposing the guerrillas once they become a legal political opposition force.

The question is how much sway Samper has over the paramilitary groups. Most observers think not much.

According to Molano, controlling the paramilitary will mean breaking its relationship with the country's armed forces. And that will require cooperation from the United States, he insists. ``The US has great influence over our armed forces. If the US has the will to force a liquidation of this paramilitarism, it could be ended.''

Since nothing is given for nothing in a negotiation, Molano says the guerrillas might eradicate narcotics cultivation in Colombia in exchange for an end to the paramilitarism. ``The only group that can make an end to cultivation here possible is the guerrillas,'' he says. ``I think a deal could be struck.''

Kid glove approach

The government is also having to deal gingerly with public opinion. While Samper, who took office last August with a philosophy of national conciliation, is popular, part of the public is tiring of what they consider a kid-glove approach to the guerrillas. Irritation rose last month when FARC forces shot down a military helicopter involved in narcotics eradication, killing two soldiers.

Urban residents especially are getting impatient. ``I don't see the guerrillas being in any hurry to enter what is likely to be an unfavorable legitimate political life when they have a pretty lucrative business going,'' says Hernan Mancera, a business administration student here.``I'm for negotiations, but I think the government has to put some kind of pressure on them so they want to talk.''

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