Colombia softens stance on leftist guerrilla groups

President Alvaro Uribe has opened peace talks with the ELN and offered amnesty to 38 FARC guerrillas.

In the past few weeks, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe appears to have taken an unexpected turn to the left.

Known for his aggressive military tactics and fierce rhetoric against the leftist "terrorists" he says are destroying his state, Mr. Uribe has made recent overtures to the both the FARC guerrillas and the smaller rebel National Liberation Army (ELN).

The concessions are notable at a time when Uribe is also leading a controversial effort to demobilize 20,000 right wing paramilitaries while awaiting word on a court decision about whether he can run for a second term. But some are skeptical of his motives.

"Uribe is trying to remove the stigma that he is only willing to talk and come to agreements with [right-wing] paramilitaries," says Alfredo Rangel, head of a Bogotá defense think-tank. "These gestures of Uribe's don't necessarily guarantee success, because they are done more for the public and the media than with the real intention of making effective contact."

Uribe's biggest shift has been toward the ELN. In a speech the day after the ELN returned the bones of the former governor of Quindio state Ancízar López, who died three years after being kidnapped by the group, Uribe suddenly said he was willing to "put aside personal convictions" and recognize the existence of an internal armed conflict in Colombia, something he had vehemently denied for months in a bid to paint his foes as terrorists and not legitimate armed actors. The ELN had demanded that concession as a pre-condition for talks.

On Sept. 12, Uribe arranged the temporary release from prison of Francisco Galán, a bearded ELN leader who has been in jail since 1992. Mr. Galán has three months to jumpstart talks with the 3,500-member ELN, which has been significantly weakened over the past couple of years.

Alvaro Jimenez, a leftist activist who is helping mediate between the government and the ELN, calls the talks a "serious effort," but said they will be difficult.

"The results don't only depend on the ELN and the government, they depend on a lot of factors," Mr. Jimenez says. "We think that the government and the ELN have a lot of points of agreement."

Uribe has yet to publicly invite the FARC to the negotiating table in Colombia. But under pressure from the hundreds of families of kidnapped citizens, he has been gradually softening his attitude towards a so-called humanitarian accord that would swap jailed guerrillas for about 60 high-profile political prisoners, including three Americans. And he no longer demands a cease-fire or that the talks take place outside of Colombia.

The president's sudden willingness to negotiate with both left-wing groups may have more to do with outside pressure than a major shift in Uribe's beliefs. He has been the object of intense international criticism concerning negotiations with the paramilitaries.

A so-called "Justice and Peace" law passed in June has been called a sham by human-rights groups because it pardons large groups of the fighters and may protect top commanders, often accused of being drug dealers, from extradition to the United States.

The right-wing militias, created in the 1980s to protect landowners and drug kingpins, are expected to completely demobilize by the end of the year. But in a surprise move, Uribe recently announced that 38 leftist FARC guerrillas, rather than the paramilitaries, would be the new law's first beneficiaries.

With his popularity remaining at a stellar 70 percent after three years in office, analysts contend Uribe is trying to influence public opinion before the imminent court decision about whether he can seek reelection in May 2006.

"We are in an electoral campaign," explains Fernando Giraldo, dean of international relations at Bogotá's Sergio Arboleda University. "Uribe is establishing an electoral strategy so that the opposition doesn't co-opt the subject of peace."

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