Marking the end of attempts to bring peace to Colombia after nearly four decades of civil war, President Andrés Pastrana returned over the weekend to the same dusty town where, three years ago, he launched a negotiation process with the country's left-wing rebels.
He flew into San Vicente on Saturday, just hours after elite army troops marched into the town, while government war planes flew round-the-clock bombing sorties against dozens of guerrilla targets.
An angry Pastrana had earlier given the rebels two-and-a-half hours to withdraw from the region, which was ceded to the rebels in 1998 as a setting for the peace talks.
The ailing negotiations collapsed last week, after rebels hijacked a domestic airplane. But Mr. Pastrana, who built his presidency around the promise of peace, insisted that he remains committed to a negotiated settlement.
"The book of peace has always been open; the chapter where we close it is when we sign a peace deal," Pastrana told hundreds of townspeople gathered in the plaza.
But with presidential elections looming in Colombia, few of Mr. Pastrana's political rivals are willing to identify themselves with a new peace effort. One of those presidential candidates, Ingrid Betancourt, an outspoken critic of the guerrillas, was abducted by rebels Saturday as she drove toward San Vicente, about 170 miles south of Bogotá, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, there are signs that the US is eyeing a deeper involvement in Colombia's complicated civil war.
"For now, the voices of peace have been silenced," says Congressman Gustavo Petro, a former commander with the defunct M-19 guerrilla group, which signed a peace deal with the government in 1991.
The sudden decision to end the moribund peace process talks came after two pistol-wielding rebels hijacked a local flight early Wednesday and forced the pilot to land the plane on an isolated mountain road. The hijackers bundled Senator Jorge Gechen Turbay, president of the Senate peace commission, into a truck and disappeared into the hills.
The remaining 29 passengers and crew were freed unharmed, but the hijacking caused outrage among many Colombians who have grown increasingly skeptical that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) was serious about making peace. The government and the rebels were supposedly drawing up cease-fire deals to present in April, but the hijacking came amid a nationwide wave of FARC bomb attacks.
Over the weekend, as US-made Black Hawk helicopters circled over San Vicente, Pastrana blamed the rebels for sinking the peace talks. "They were the ones who made the decision to break away from the negotiating table," the president declared. "The Colombian president never abandoned his seat at the peace table."
But with just six months until the end of his administration, and a constitutional ban on re-election, there is little chance that Pastrana will oversee an end to Colombia's 38-year war.
Meanwhile, there are growing signs that the Bush administration is considering deeper US involvement in the conflict, which some believe could eventually become a new front in the war on terror.
Two US Army officers accompanied Pastrana on his visit to San Vicente. They refused to speak to the press, but the trip came just a day after administration officials announced US plans to increase intelligence-sharing with the Colombian military and to donate spare parts for military hardware.
Colombia already has received more than a billion dollars in military aid, including 14 Black Hawk and 33 UH-1N Huey helicopters, plus training and equipment. Under US law, the aid can only be used for operations against the narcotics industry, not against the rebel groups. But there are indications that the Bush administration is planning to cross the already blurred line dividing counternarcotics from counterinsurgency. Early this month, senior US officials announced that they would seek congressional approval of a $98 million request that would pay for helicopters, communications equipment, and training for Colombian troops to guard the Caño Limón pipeline, which transports crude oil pumped by the US company Occidental Petroleum.
"For the first time, the administration is proposing to cross the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy at the time. "This is no longer about stopping drugs, it's about fighting the guerrillas.
Since Sept. 11, Colombian officials have increasingly sought to alter perceptions of the Colombian civil war, portraying what was once the war on drugs as another part on the international war on terror. Military officials are careful to call the rebels "terrorists" instead of "narco-guerrillas."
The 17,000-strong FARC, which previously carried out most of its actions in rural areas, has stepped up a campaign of urban bombings and attacks on bridges, water reservoirs, and electricity pylons.
"The moment that the FARC decide to leave terrorism, combat drug-trafficking, and convert themselves into an insurgent group which seeks a political solution, I think we can start negotiating," said Pastrana this weekend.
If that ever happens, says Congressman Petro, the negotiations must take on a different form from the recent effort. "This was a meeting between the leaders of two armed groups, excluding the rest of Colombian society," he says. "We either rethink a new kind of democratic peace process and agree to reconstruct the country, or Colombia will destroy itself."