Colombia Calls Its Rebel Armies the 'New Cartels'

After guerrilla offensive, Bogot is engaged in a spin war

Colombia's 40-year war with leftist guerrillas appears to have moved temporarily to the public-relations field.

After a September offensive, the guerrilla armies know they are in a strong military position, but in need of a public-image upgrade. The rebels are demanding that the mothers of 60 captured government soldiers - as well as the international press and the Red Cross - be present at any prisoner release, guaranteeing wide publicity for tearful mother-son reunions.

Such conditions reflect no sentimentality on the guerrillas' part. With little possibility of near-term negotiations in South America's oldest and deadliest civil conflict, predictions are growing that the country is in for a "dirty war" in which rural civilians will suffer the most. Both sides appear to be tending to their image in preparation for the ugly months many observers believe are ahead.

"The most bellicose sectors of the military and the private business elite are pushing for a direct confrontation," says Juan Tikatlian, a foreign policy specialist at the National University here. "And as in the past, the civil population will suffer the most" in such a conflict.

The Army, humiliated after a September guerrilla offensive that left more than 100 government soldiers dead and revealed how easily Army outposts can be overrun, is in no mood for negotiations. The Army, which stood behind scandal-hounded President Ernesto Samper Pizano in his darkest hours this year, is also looking for payback in the form of a higher military budget and more sophisticated arms.

The Army is set on regaining the upper hand before any serious negotiations with the guerrillas are contemplated. But surveys show the Colombian public considers the Army inefficient, corrupt, and lacking a clear strategy for confronting the guerrillas, telling the Army that it too has a public-relations problem. And that helps explain why some top Army officers are pushing the thesis that the country's largest guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has become Colombia's top drug cartel with the fall of the Cali cocaine cartel.

The guerrillas have no reason to negotiate away the solid footing they have gained in large swaths of country the central government has virtually abandoned. The FARC, the largest and most powerful of four distinct guerrilla organizations, is well-armed, wealthy - following years of kidnapping, extortion, "tax" collection, and symbiotic involvement with Colombia's illicit drug trade - and in fact is the only "government" some of the country's rural population knows.

The latest offensive was designed in part as a psychological measure, says Mr. Tikatlian, to drive home to the country's urban centers the guerrillas' growing strength. Their destabilizing power is being felt in Colombia's traditionally unflappable economy, where disarray caused by the rebel offensive has sent prices skyward, and already trimmed an estimated 0.5 percent off the country's annual economic growth.

In this situation, amid heightened concerns over crime and social instability, government officials from President Samper on down increasingly label the guerrillas ruthless delinquents void of ideals, bent on amassing fortunes through drug trafficking.

"We are facing a guerrilla movement with no legitimacy, and only a monetary ideology," says Colombian Foreign Minister Mara Emma Meja. The guerrillas could once claim a legitimate "voice," she says, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and other sources of support, they gave up their political and social ideology for enrichment via drug trafficking. "Without [the guerrilla] involvement in that business," she adds, "we would be a lot closer to peace."

But analysts and even government officials disagree. "The FARC is not a cartel; it's simply not true," says Daniel Garca-Pea, the Samper-appointed high commissioner for peace. The guerrillas "tax" drug traffickers just as they do legitimate businesses, he says, "but [they] do not take this money to buy luxurious houses ... the money goes to buy arms and other military equipment."

Though officials say Mr. Garcia-Pea minimizes the cartel thesis for the sake of peace prospects, other analysts concur that, while the guerrillas make money off drugs, their aims are social and political reform.

"They want a reform of the armed forces, with an end to military impunity and a smaller military budget," says Alfredo Molano, a noted Colombian guerrilla expert. "But they are also demanding agrarian reform, political reform, and renegotiation of policies for foreign investment in oil exploration and development."

Many analysts worry that Colombia's heightened discussion of what are now called "narco-guerrillas" will lead the US to reverse its ban on military aid to Colombia, which followed documentation of human rights abuses by the Colombian military.

"The US government knows there is some connection on the part of some guerrilla fronts with narco-trafficking," says US Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, "but we do not believe that all guerrilla fronts are connected" with the drug trade.

Foreign Minister Meja says the guerrilla war is an internal problem. But analysts insist the "narco-guerrilla" argument is not just an Army image-builder, but to improve prospects for US military aid. "If the US ever accepts the narco-guerrilla thesis," says Mr. Molano, "it's the end of peace negotiations."

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