The Backyard Balkans

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Despite its violent drug cartels, Colombia has been regarded by most Americans as something less than a national security threat. But today Americans have to consider what might be called Yugo-lombia, the possibility that the country could soon be cleaved into three volatile, Balkan-like states as a result of a boiling 34-year-old civil war. Much of the north is already ruled by right-wing paramilitary groups that are notorious drug traffickers. A dysfunctional federal government and a feckless military cling to the nation's urban midsection. And more than 20,000 Marxist guerrillas lord over the vast south, where they control Colombia's borders, make a fortune on kidnappings and guard the coca harvests used to make cocaine. Add in the thousands of refugees fleeing massacres perpetrated by all sides, and America has a backyard Balkans for the 21st century.

Last Thursday marked what may be Colombia's best chance to avert a hellish future. At the southern town of San Vicente del Caguan, inside the jungle realm of the biggest and fiercest Marxist guerrilla group--the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)--the rebels and the government of President Andres Pastrana Arango began the country's third attempt at peace in 17 years. But the fiesta of tropical bands, stuffed pig and beer, attended by luminaries like Colombia's Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, couldn't rise above the jolting absence of the FARC's mysterious 68-year-old chief, Manuel ("Sureshot") Marulanda. He had been expected to attend but instead left Pastrana forlorn at the head of the table and the peace talks in doubt. Marulanda privately told government officials he still supports the process but warned, "We will remain in a fighting stance."

The FARC said Marulanda feared an assassination attempt, but many Colombians fear that the guerrillas aren't really serious about peace. Sureshot's snub makes the U.S. nervous as well. If Pastrana's efforts fail to hold Colombia together--if the FARC solidifies its sovereignty over coca-land--the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia could unravel. Washington spends more than $100 million annually to help Colombia's national police destroy coca crops but to little avail--largely because the FARC earns 40% of its estimated $1 billion annual income from a tax it levies on coca farmers to protect their harvests from government eradication.

The security risks associated with a Yugo-lombia are immense. Flanking Colombia's potential meltdown are the Panama Canal--which the U.S. will hand over to Panama this year--and Venezuela, America's No. 1 foreign source of oil. Already, encroaching Colombian guerrillas are extorting "revolutionary taxes" from Venezuelan landowners.

Those concerns have sparked a growing debate over whether the U.S. should get more involved militarily in Colombia. The U.S. aid packages for the country are explicitly labeled for narcotics work only, to limit the impression that the U.S. supports any kind of anti-Marxist military actions. Though Pentagon officials are privately urging the funding of a new elite Colombian antidrug army corps--which might help check the FARC as a regional security threat--no one is suggesting an El Salvador-style intervention.

Pastrana, 44, a Conservative who took office last summer, is doing what he can to keep the country intact. By any standard, his trip into the heart of FARC territory last week was courageous. "I did not become President of Colombia to preside over its dissolution," he recently told TIME.

But FARC officials really believe that they could govern their own nation. Along the Caguan River, in southern Caqueta province, the rebels have created their own public services, including agricultural banks. FARC toll booths along the rugged dirt roads collect 2,000 pesos ($1.25) a vehicle for improvements. And the FARC recently held a local election under quasi-Marxist rules, which meant that voters could choose among candidates from a single FARC-supported party. Afterward, a FARC leader assured TIME that the party's success will spread. "We have every intention," he said, "of governing as much of this country as we can." That mild-sounding proposition could be a lethal battle cry.