Colombia's peace in limbo

Today's talks to end 40-year insurgency were postponed. The holdup: monitoring of a rebel area.

Peace talks that were to have started today between the Colombian government and Latin America's longest-fighting guerrilla army were put off once more over the weekend, throwing the much-criticized peace process championed by President Andres Pastrana into uncertainty.

At issue is an international verification commission to monitor a chunk of land the size of Switzerland under the essential control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The demilitarized zone, or zone of dtente, was created so the Marxist rebels could enter peace talks with the government without fear of military pressure as both sides work toward ending nearly 40 years of conflict. But there are signs the rebels are using the 16,000-square-mile zone to stage new attacks.

Observers fear that Saturday's failure to reach agreement on a monitoring mission could allow either the rebels or a resurgent Colombian Army to use the postponement to return to military habits in Latin America's last cold-war conflict.

In January Mr. Pastrana, who was elected last July on a pledge to make peace a priority, pulled the Army out of the dtente area in the country's southern jungle as a way to push negotiations forward. But his bold initiative appears to have bit back. Most Colombians believe the government has given away too much without getting anything in return. Guerrilla offensives earlier this month just outside the demilitarized area appeared to confirm suspicions that the zone is being used by the 15,000-strong FARC as a training and staging area.

Formal peace negotiations initially announced with much fanfare for July 5 were first put off until today over the verification issue. Now, the two sides are to meet July 30 to try to set a date for formal talks to resume.

Human rights concerns

In a country that in nearly four decades of civil conflict has known some of the worst violence of a violence-prone continent, there is little hope that the talks will go very far very fast.

The case of Guillermo Lombana Lizcano is just one example of the many reasons why. A forestry student living with his ranch-hand father in San Vicente de Cagun, the dtente zone's largest town, Mr. Lombana was picked up last April by patrolling guerrillas. He has not been seen since.

FARC representatives told Colombian human rights officials that Lombana is being held because he was involved with a paramilitary group. Lombana's father says that is simply not true.

But the crux of the problem is that the guerrillas are imposing their own sense of law and justice in the zone where Pastrana had told Colombians that the country's' democratic institutions would continue operating.

"I hold the president of the republic responsible for this, because he is who decided to leave us alone out here," says Mr. Lombana senior. "We were promised a birthplace for peace, but instead we got a laboratory for bullets."

Different ideas of 'justice'

Officials in the zone say it won't be easy to reduce tensions. "We are talking about two very different concepts of justice," says San Vicente's mayor, Oscar Garca. "For most Colombians, a state of justice comes with guarantees and freedoms, and not with a rifle in your ribs."

FARC soldiers, many of them teenagers, walk around town with machine guns slung over their shoulders. Residents have complained of guerrillas commandeering trucks and other equipment.

"Very often the guerrillas resolve things themselves, and many times it's opposed to the way we think the resolution should have been done," adds Alvaro Castel Blanco, staff attorney with San Vicente's branch of the national People's Human Rights Defenders' Office.

Lombana's case is actually one of the more hopeful of the dozens the defenders' office has registered. While rebel officials say he is alive, they acknowledge having "executed" 11 other civilians.

"These cases involved people who were agents of the Army who infiltrated the zone," says Raul Reyes, a member of the FARC's seven-member secretariat and one of three guerrilla leaders designated to negotiate with the government (see related story, right). Interviewed 100 miles outside San Vicente near a guerrilla camp, Comandante Reyes adds, "The people's defender is using this matter to condemn the peace discussions."

Such cases of human rights abuses are just one reason the Pastrana government wants an international verification commission in the demilitarized zone.

"How international human-rights standards are being respected or not in the dtente zone is key to the peace process's credibility," says Fernando Cepeda, a political scientist at Bogota's University of the Andes. The government also wants to be able to reassure a dubious public that the zone is not being used by the guerrillas to build themselves up.

"The FARC have taken advantage of the [dtente] area," says a US official who declined to be identified. In the recent fighting "the government forces were able to show undeniable evidence of them using it as a staging area."

But other factors are also modifying past assumptions about Colombia's conflict in a way that could prompt the rebels to become more serious about negotiations, some analysts say. For one thing, the country's long derided Army, often seen as inept and irreparably corrupt in the past, is showing some fruits of a multiyear reform process.

Referring to the military's past sordid human-rights record, which has kept it off limits to US military assistance except for antinarcotics missions, the US official adds, "I think it has begun to turn around. We've seen some attention to the issue" of military impunity in human-rights cases, and "some tough decisions about removing people from the ranks."

Despite such changes - and public impatience with the lack of progress on peace - few Colombians openly push for the Army to attempt a military solution to the conflict, at least for now.

"I'm optimistic that the talks will eventually get going and really lead toward peace," says San Vicente's Mayor Garca. "I have to be, because the contrary would be insanity."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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