A dramatic raid in which Marxist rebels burst into a regional parliament building and abducted 12 politicians has confirmed what many Colombians had long feared. After nearly 40 years of violence, the country's largest guerrilla group has brought its war to the cities.
The audacious kidnapping came just days after a wave of suspected rebel bomb attacks in and around Bogotá, spreading panic through the capital.
Against the backdrop of a failed peace process and the current presidential election campaign, the attacks are to likely to boost support for hardline candidate Alvaro Uribe, who has promised to crack down on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other guerrilla factions.
But past experience has shown that after 38 years of war, the rebels are adept at improvising. And if the urban attacks continue, the urban population may well lose its newfound enthusiasm for all-out war, says opposition Sen. Juan Manuel Ospina.
"This is the start of a new chapter in the conflict," says Mr. Ospina. "It will be a tough time, but it may eventually open the way for a negotiated settlement."
Disguised as an army bomb squad, some 30 guerrillas marched into the state assembly hall in downtown Cali last Thursday and ordered officials to evacuate the building. Leading a fake bomb-sniffing dog and shouting orders through a megaphone, the bogus troops hustled the politicians into a waiting minibus and disappeared with their victims into nearby mountains.
The minutely planned raid was a dramatic show of strength, and proof of FARC's relatively new capacity to operate in urban areas, says one Western security consultant. "This is the natural progression of a guerrilla war," the consultant says. "If the FARC were losing strength, they would be hiding out in the mountains, not driving through city centers. They're showing us what they can do."
Since it was formed in the mid-1960s, the FARC has concentrated on building its strength in regions long neglected by the central government.
Colombian cities grew into sophisticated modern metropolises, while almost unnoticed a bitter civil war played out in the rest of the country.
"The conflict is very old, but until recently it has been irrelevant, because the armed groups controlled only marginal territories," says Ospina. "In Colombia, we learned to live alongside violence."
By the mid-1990s, the violence had become harder to ignore: FARC grew to a force of some 17,000 men, mobilizing like a regular army, and chalking up a string of devastating victories over the state security forces.
In recent years, satellite intelligence and improved air support helped the US-backed military retake the initiative on the battlefield. But as a moribund peace process headed toward collapse, the FARC had already switched to a new set of tactics.
Rebel units have attacked infrastructure targets in hit-and-run raids throughout the countries and kidnapped local and national politicians, seeking to exchange the hostages for guerrillas held in government jails.
President Andres Pastrana finally broke off talks in February after FARC gunmen hijacked a domestic airliner and abducted a senator who was onboard.
One indirect beneficiary of the recent attacks is presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe, who has said that he will only resume peace talks if the rebels first lay down their weapons.
His promise of a firm stance against FARC has found an echo in Washington. Rep. Henry Hyde last week called for military aid currently restricted for anti-narcotics operations to be freed up for counterinsurgency purposes.
But the rebels' ability to adapt to circumstance proves that any attempt to win a military victory is doomed to failure, says Camilo Echandia, a political analyst at Los Andes University.
Eventually, Colombia must realize that the only way out of the nightmare is a negotiated settlement, says Ospina.
"The current situation will intensify, but sooner or later, people will realize the heart of the solution is a political settlement," says Ospina. "The pendulum will swing back towards negotiation."