Javier Casella/Colombia's Presidential Office/AP
President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with his Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon as other cabinet ministers surround him after he announced the signing of a preliminary agreement to launch peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC Sept. 4.

Drug trafficking dampens Colombia, FARC peace talks

For the fourth time in three decades, the Colombian government is attempting to to reach a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. But questions of the FARC's leadership's involvement in drug trafficking could spoil the talks.

The image is seared in Colombian minds: The country's president sits on a big stage looking glum, hands folded in his lap, next to an empty chair.

It is January 1999. At the inauguration of peace talks, the founding leader of the Western Hemisphere's biggest leftist rebel army has snubbed President Andres Pastrana.

Cursed, the peace talks drag on for three years in a safe haven the size of Switzerland that the government has ceded to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which wages war elsewhere, kidnaps and extorts unabated and expands its cocaine business.

Ten years later, in a wealthier, far more stable Colombia, a different president is giving peace yet another chance.

"Any responsible leader knows he can't let pass up a possibility like this to end the conflict," President Juan Manuel Santos told the nation Tuesday in announcing an accord with the peasant-based FARC to seek "a definitive peace."

An hour later, by pre-arrangement, the FARC's commander, Timoleon Jimenez, announced the rebels' participation in a videotape played in Havana.

The talks will be the fourth attempt in three decades to end the hemisphere's longest-running conflict.

The preliminary accord, signed Aug. 27 after six months of secret exploratory talks in Cuba, calls for talks to begin in Norway in the first half of October, then return to Havana.

Several days of talks will be held in Oslo, an exact date has not been set, before they move to Cuba a few weeks later, a senior Colombian official said Wednesday, speaking on condition he not be further identified due to the subject's sensitivity.

The government negotiating team, announced by Santos on Wednesday, will include the two men who led the preliminary talks, national security adviser Sergio Jaramillio and former peace commissioner Frank Pearl.

Also named to it are former Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle, widely respected former national police director Oscar Naranjo, former armed forces chief Jorge Enrique Mora and Luis Carlos Villegas, president of Colombia's main business group.

After taking office in mid-2010, the 61-year-old Santos said the FARC, badly weakened by a decade-long US-fortified military buildup, would need to seriously curtail hostilities if its peace overtures were to be taken seriously.

As a condition for launching the talks, the FARC agreed to halt ransom kidnappings, the senior official said. It also agreed for the first time, the official said, to disarm at the signing of a peace agreement. Demobilized rebels would then take part in everything from destroying coca crops to launching political movements.

The talks will now proceed, outside Colombia, without any halt in combat and without any safe havens.

The Andean nation's internal conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, has not persisted a half-century by accident. It is maddeningly complex in a country with one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor and the second largest internally displaced population after Sudan.

Potential spoilers to a peace deal abound, particularly to the agrarian reform and rural development that Santos, a social progressive, says would be part of a successful deal.

Resistance can be expected from wealthy ranchers and plantation owners allied with Alvaro Uribe, who as president in 2002-2010 waged war without quarter against the FARC while making peace with far-right militias that did most of the dirty war killing.

And then there is drug trafficking.

It fuels all of Colombia's illegal armed groups: the rightist militias, their successor gangs and the FARC itself.

Five of the six members of the FARC's ruling Secretariat, including Jimenez, are deemed major drug traffickers by the US State Department, which has $5 million bounties out for each of them.

It is not clear how Washington would deal with them if the conflict ends. Colombia's congress passed a law in June that sets a framework for amnesties and pardons for rebel leaders.

Police and soldiers in Colombia mixed up in the illegal drug trade aren't exempt from prosecution. Would FARC commanders get a waiver?

Pastrana, who served as Colombia's ambassador to Washington after his presidency, called drug trafficking "a very important element" of peace talks and said "it would be good to invite the United States as well into this process."

Washington is a close ally of Colombia, but Santos has already exhibited considerably more independence than Uribe.

The White House issued a statement Tuesday praising the preliminary accord as a "milestone" and asking the FARC to "take this opportunity to end its decades of terrorism and narcotics trafficking."

The accord was brokered by Norway and Cuba and they will "facilitate" the talks while Venezuela and Chile "accompany" them.

It remains unclear whether that means they will sit in on negotiations. The talks will be direct, with no international mediation, the senior Colombian official said.

Jimenez, better known as "Timochenko," acknowledged that a decade of intense military pressure, including the killings in raids of two top FARC leaders since Santos took office, had helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table.

It has lost roughly half its fighters in the past decade as Washington funneled an average of $700 million a year in mostly military aid to the government.

That has not prevented the FARC from stepping up hit-and-run attacks in recent months, targeting oil and coal installations in raids that have cost Santos politically.

But the insurgency has also suffered from increasingly more effective air attacks, thanks in part to sophisticated U.S. infrared and targeting systems fitted on its warplanes.

Santos stressed Tuesday that he will not cede an inch of territory: "Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity."

He also said the talks would not be open-ended,

"They will be measured in months, not in years," he said. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue."

Some analysts say results will need to come quickly or Colombians will lose patience, especially if the violence does not abate.

"Santos is taking a huge political risk," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "It is still far from clear whether the FARC is serious this time."

Shifter believes the issue will consume the second half of Santos' four-year term.

Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek re-election.

Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.

Frank Bajak is the AP's Chief of Andean News. He has covered the Colombian conflict for more than a decade. Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak

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