In what will be the country's first direct peace talks since 1992, Colombia's President Andrs Pastrana is set to meet with the leader of leftist rebels on Jan. 7. In just the last decade the war is estimated to have claimed 35,000 lives, and Mr. Pastrana came into office last August promising peace talks.
The Clinton administration has voiced support for Pastrana's peace effort. But at the same time it raises questions based on evidence that the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), finances its insurgency by taxing drug trafficking in the south of Colombia, the source of most of the world's cocaine.
Last year Colombian police seized more than 59 tons of cocaine and 770 pounds of heroin - worth about $1 billion wholesale in the US - according to a report issued Saturday in Bogot. And, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Colombia supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine and about 60 percent of the high-grade heroin sold in the US.
The hope is that the drug traffic might be brought under control with a solution to the civil war.
"This is a great achievement on the road to peace," said President Pastrana last week of his planned meeting with the country's biggest guerrilla leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, commander of FARC, who has been in the mountains fighting the state for more than 30 years.
Pastrana needs something to show for his efforts. Six weeks ago he complied with the guerrillas' demands and withdrew the Army and police from a piece of the jungle the size of Switzerland, effectively handing it over to the rebels for three months so talks could be held.
But since the negotiation zone was created, intense fighting has continued, and critics within Colombia and the United States say Pastrana is giving the guerrillas too much.
The US is worried that the negotiation zone, which Colombians are calling a "laboratory for peace," may in fact become one huge laboratory for processing cocaine while the police and Army are gone.
"We wish Mr. Pastrana well and we want peace, but not peace at any cost," said a Republican senior congressional aide in Washington recently.
Objections in Colombia stem from the perception that the FARC is negotiating from a too strong position. The group now numbers some 15,000 and has begun to attack and destroy entire Army installations in the last few years.
Critics say the FARC is planning to step up its strategy and start attacking small cities. The Colombian military has been calling on the US to help it fight the rebels, and this fall Congress heard the call loud and clear, doubling US aid to the Colombian police and military to well over $200 million.
THIS is all considered antidrug aid, but US government officials say that the line between fighting drugs and fighting rebels is very blurry. Earlier this month US Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that the US would help Colombia create an antidrug battalion within the Army. US funding has in the past favored Colombia's police force instead, because it is more directly involved in fighting drugs.
The Army also has human rights problems based on its strong links to paramilitary death squads, which has put US assistance on hold.
While Pastrana's election seemed to show that Colombia was ready to try for peace, the first weeks of the peace process have done more to sow distrust than they have to build bridges. The government announced that it had completed a troop withdrawal on Nov. 7, but to the surprise of the guerrillas - and some say to Pastrana as well - 130 soldiers had been ordered to remain in the zone.
Only last week, announcing the Jan. 7 meeting, did Pastrana's negotiating team say that the final 130 troops would be pulled out.
A leading theory is that elements within the military ordered the troops to stay behind in an attempt to sabotage the peace process, says Alejo Vargas, a Colombian political analyst and vice director of Bogot's National University. But there is still no clear explanation of the events, and when the two sides get to the table, they will find that they have vastly different agendas, he adds.
The FARC's main demands involve land redistribution and political reform, as well as a restructuring of the role of the armed forces.
"The rebels want to share the power of the state," Mr. Vargas says. "The elite are picturing some sort of reinsertion of the guerrillas into society. The guerrillas are seeking deep reforms of society. But that's what talks are all about, resolving those differences."