Hopes dim for ending Colombia's guerrilla war

Recent outbreaks of violence threaten the sluggish peace process, which faces a crucial Sunday deadline.

Even before this week, many Colombians had grown tired of the country's slow-moving peace process. After three years of intermittent contacts with the two main guerrilla factions, President Andrés Pastrana has little to show for his efforts and fighting continues throughout the country.

A weekend of violent guerrilla defiance, followed by the Tuesday murder of a lawmaker have pushed talks with the largest rebel army to the brink of collapse.

Against the backdrop of a US-led campaign against terrorism, Mr. Pastrana may find it increasingly difficult to justify negotiation with any of the country's armed factions - three of which are included on the State Department's terrorist blacklist.

In the new global context "there will be a tendency to see things in terms of good guys and bad guys, and a strong skepticism of negotiating with groups which are designated as terrorists," says Michael Shifter, Vice-president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank.

US officials were already skeptical about Pastrana's decision to cede a huge swath of jungle and savannah to the largest rebel group as a condition for talks. The president's critics say that the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have converted the safe-haven near the Ecuadorian border into a state within a state.

Their worst fears seemed to be confirmed Saturday, when machine gun-wielding rebels barred the path of Horacio Serpa - a leading contender in next year's presidential elections - as he tried to lead thousands of supporters to a campaign rally inside the zone.

Hours later, troops in northern Colombia found the bullet-riddled body of Consuelo Araujo, a popular former culture minister kidnapped by FARC rebels on September 24th.

The two incidents came at a crucial moment in the peace process: by midnight Sunday President Pastrana must decide whether to renew the rebel safe-haven. "Through their defiant acts, the FARC have notified the country that they are determined to discredit a political solution to the conflict,'' Pastrana said.

Colombian senators suspended debate on all subjects other than the peace process after opposition legislator Octavio Sarmiento was shot dead Tuesday, allegedly by members of the paramilitary umbrella organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the FARC's bitter enemy.

After the recent violence, several prominent politicians have called on Pastrana to suspend the peace process, and on Tuesday, the country's largest national newspaper, El Tiempo, published an opinion poll showing that 61 percent of those consulted believed that the peace process should be abandoned. In the same newspaper, one columnist said that Colombians "must respond to the FARC with the same firmness and valor as the Americans did to the attack on the World Trade Center."

According to political analyst Marco Romero of Bogotá's National University, Colombian hawks were quick to use the September 11 attacks as a justification for a tougher stance against the guerrillas.

"Colombian warmongers have used (the attacks) as excuse to throw fuel on the fire. They see it as moment to harden positions, to stop making concessions and play a strategy of war," he says, adding that elements within both the guerrillas and the government still believe that they can improve their negotiating position - or even win a victory - through military force.

In the past two years, Washington has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into equipment and training for the Colombian armed forces in the name of the war against drugs. Both rebels and right-wing paramilitaries fund their campaigns with drugs kickbacks.

Now, it seems that the rebels fear that America may release more aid in the name of the campaign against terror. In a statement shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, FARC accused the US of using the "painful events" as an excuse to unleash a "global witchhunt."

Neither the FARC nor the National Liberation Army (ELN) has ever struck within the US, but both are on the State Department's blacklist of terrorist organizations, as is the AUC. The FARC has said it considers US military advisers as military targets, and it often bombs pipelines and railways serving US firms in Colombia.

But the group's anti-imperialist rhetoric has been tempered with a degree of political pragmatism: In the past FARC commanders have also met with State Department officials and US congressmen.

"There's a strong distinction between the anti-imperialist discourse we hear from Colombia's guerrillas, and the actual threat that they pose to the US," said Inter-American Dialogue's Michael Shifter.

However, Washington was angered by recent allegations that members of the Irish Republican Arm (IRA) had visited the FARC's haven to teach bomb-making skills to the Colombian rebels.

Some US lawmakers are already making a link between the Colombian conflict and America's wider agenda.

Referring to the murder of Ms. Araujo, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska told CNN that "this sea around us of terrorism and terrorist acts are maybe not part of the same conspiracy, but nonetheless, the civilized world is at war against that."

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