Letter From Colombia: Talking Peace, Making War

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Colombia's government and the country's biggest guerrilla army are further along in peace talks than ever before. Now that they've settled on a timetable for actually accomplishing results, the fighting is getting worse. Anywhere else, that might be paradoxical. But it's exactly what Colombians were expecting. In fact, Armed Forces Commander Fernando Tapias tells TIME, the next 60 days will be filled with tension and the next three years could see the heaviest fighting yet. And the Colombian government wants even more help from the U.S. in fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

There may be a timeout for elections. Colombians will be electing a president on May 26, and members of congress and mayors before that, in March. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who so far control the rhythm of combat, may want to avoid a hardline presidential candidate from winning — which he could do if the FARC don't agree to a temporary ceasefire.

At "Tres Esquinas," a military base carved out of the Southern Colombia jungle where the U.S.-financed "Plan Colombia" has its field headquarters, commanders and soldiers — and their U.S. advisers — are planning to step up the pressure on the FARC's drug enterprises. Peace will be won by the "force of arms," says the top Colombian Air Force commander at the base.

That's FARC doctrine too. Emerging from its jungle and mountain hideouts, the guerrillas have been ambushing troops and blowing up so many electricity pylons that some provinces are rationing electricity. Sabotage could hit Bogota itself, where the FARC has its urban "militia" in the slums at the capital's southern end. In Washington, the Colombian ambassador is lobbying for the U.S. to drop the Plan Colombia restriction that limits U.S. aid strictly to the drug-war campaign. The Colombians want U.S. training for a new mobile battalion that would protect the country's infrastructure.

All eyes are on Washington. Ever since September 11, the Colombian brass and Colombian civilians in general have been hoping aloud that the FARC's presence on the State Department's international terrorist list signaled more U.S. help — though not troops — against the FARC. Specifically, the Colombians want more U.S. technical intelligence, including help intercepting FARC sat phone calls.

Both the FARC and the government say they want peace. So what's the problem? The big reasons: the FARC makes a lot of money from the drug business — which they'd presumably have to renounce if peace came; the military is itching to hit decisive blows at the FARC in order to force the guerrillas to beg for peace. Then there are the far-right and murderous paramilitaries, who also plan to keep killing, and who hate the existence of the "FARC-land" enclave. Everyone wants peace — but on their terms.

All of the "armed actors," as Colombians call them, have used the three-year peace process to build up their arsenals and their fighting strength. And the drug business, the economic engine of conflict, is prospering. So far, the big victory of Plan Colombia is — according to official stats — to have stopped an increase in coca plant cultivation.

And yet, peace negotiators now are being prodded by a U.N. diplomat and a group of 10 European and Latin American ambassadors. Lame duck President Andres Pastrana bet his presidency and career on peace and he may be the first Colombian president to turn over a peace process in motion. But this is Colombia. By the logic of a place where civil conflict has been nearly constant since independence, peace in motion means warriors on the march.