After three years of rhetoric and recrimination, peace talks with Colombia's largest guerrilla army finally collapsed this week, and on Wednesday night, President Andres Pastrana gave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 48 hours to withdraw its fighters from a safe area in southern Colombia.
As the US-backed military prepares to push back into the region, many fear that the failure of the peace process will drag this violence-weary country into a period of all-out war.
Mr. Pastrana, who made peace the central platform of his government, blamed the negotiation's failure on the intransigence of the 17,000-strong FARC, which the US State Department includes on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, US officials have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Pastrana's attempts to make peace with a group that has kidnapped and killed US civilians, and finances itself with drug money.
In 2000, the US donated $1.3 billion of mostly military aid to help the Colombian armed forces target the cocaine and heroin crops which are protected by both guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. FARC commanders saw the plan as a thinly-veiled counterinsurgency plan and called for its aims to be redesigned at the negotiating table.
"The FARC continue putting obstacles before the peace process, making it impossible for us to continue," Mr. Pastrana said. "To negotiate, you need two. And the sad reality is that the FARC don't want to keep negotiating."
Government troops were put on full alert as the Army's rapid-reaction force prepared yesterday to spearhead the advance into the rebel enclave, a swathe of jungle and savannah the size of Switzerland.
Pastrana handed over the region in 1998 as a venue for peace talks. But the two sides never reached a cease-fire agreement, violence has raged throughout the country.
As time wore on, the talks focussed increasingly on the demilitarized zone itself, says Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
The Colombian Army regularly accused the FARC of using the demilitarized zone to hide kidnap victims, launch guerrilla attacks, and train new fighters. The rebels claimed their commanders' lives were threatened by military patrols around the zone, and possible incursions by right-wing paramilitaries.
"For the last several months, all they've been talking about is the zone itself, and not any of the issues that the talks were supposed to take care of. They ended up talking for three years about the preconditions that the FARC had set for talking," Mr. Isacson said. "Most of all, what was missing was a third party - somebody who could make them stick to an agenda, somebody who could make them stay at the table and keep meeting."
The final break this week came after a three-month deadlock, as the FARC refused to discuss a cease-fire in protest of stepped-up military patrols, checkpoints at the entry to the rebel enclave, and restrictions on foreigners entering the zone.
An opinion poll released Monday showed that only 5 percent of Colombians believed that advances could be made in further talks. Yet, while public support for the peace process has dwindled, the president has repeatedly renewed FARC control over the enclave.
Few Colombians believed that Mr. Pastrana would abandon the peace process just months before his four-year mandate ends in August.
"The best hope now is that somehow the talks can be rescued before the elections. It's hard to imagine that anyone will base their [presidential] campaign on making peace," said Isacson.
Meanwhile, people living in the demilitarized zone fear that paramilitary death squads will arrive in the wake of the Army advance. The far-right militiamen regularly target unarmed civilians they accuse of helping the guerrillas.
After three years living alongside the rebels, many local people fear for their lives, says one inhabitant of San Vicente del Caguan, the largest town in the zone.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said: "Today, the guerrillas are still on the streets, but everyone is terrified about what will happen next."
Yesterday in Bogotá, peace groups lobbied for UN mediation to revive the dialogue.
"If there is no hope of reviving the talks, the country faces an escalation of the war and a catastrophe for human rights," says Jorge Rojas of Paz Colombia, an NGO that supports a negotiated settlement.