Peace elusive in Colombia

After eight months without visible progress, no one can be very hopeful about the success of the Colombian government effort to negotiate peace with the country's guerrilla armies. Negotiations are the only way to end Colombia's destructive intramural warfare. But, paradoxically, they are only likely to produce a peace settlement if the government first improves its capacity to wage war, by strengthening the nation's armed forces and making them more professional.

Colombia's internal wars have gone on for more than 30 years, and killed upwards of 35,000 people, mainly civilian noncombatants. In recent years, the war has expanded and become more deadly, putting Colombia and its institutions under terrible strain. Since the mid-1950s, Colombia could boast an uninterrupted period of constitutional rule and a record of exceptional economic performance. Both these achievements are now in danger.

The country's two main guerrilla groups now have more than 20,000 men and women under arms, and appear to control about half the country's territory, albeit its least populated half. Because of their involvement in the drug trade, they have no shortage of resources to sustain their operations. Guerrilla violence has, in turn, provoked the emergence of brutal paramilitary groups that now have some 5,000 soldiers.

The violence costs 3,500 lives a year - and 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes, the fourth largest displaced population in the world. No Western Hemisphere nation suffers worse levels of human rights abuse. The killing and brutality is devastating Colombia's political and legal institutions and undermining its social and economic advance.

That Colombians want peace is crystal clear. All three candidates in last year's presidential election campaigned on peace platforms. Since his election last June, President Andrs Pastrana has made peace negotiations the top priority of his administration. He has assumed enormous political and personal risk in meeting with guerrilla leaders, and in accepting the demand to remove government troops from large swaths of territory. But nothing much has been accomplished so far. The guerrillas have made no concessions. Their deadly attacks continue - and paramilitary groups have maintained their vicious crusade.

Unless some measurable progress is achieved soon, popular demand for a peaceful settlement with the guerrillas may turn into a demand for their military defeat. No one has unlimited patience.

And as it has in so many other countries, the search for a military solution could well produce more bloodshed, death, and destruction. Support for the paramilitary forces and their death-squad tactics would likely grow under such conditions.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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