Why Colombia's President Slept Over at a Guerrilla Base

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Soldiers from the Colombian rebel group FARC parade at their headquarters

When a Colombian as rich and powerful as President Andres Pastrana spends a night in the tiny town of Los Pozos as a guest of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it's usually because he's been kidnapped. But while Pastrana chose to stay overnight of his own free will Thursday, he is indeed captive to a political dilemma few would wish on their worst enemies. The president began a second day of talks Friday with Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the 72-year-old leader of the 17,000-strong Maoist guerrilla army that controls almost half of his country. And while Pastrana isn't quite begging, it's plain to see that Marulanda holds all the cards.

Although the government has 30,000 men under arms, it's generally agreed that they're no match for FARC's better-armed and more mobile guerrillas — and that remains true even though the U.S. has begun funneling aid to the government forces as part of its war on drugs. The reason for the imbalance, in part, is that the FARC is estimated to earn some $700 million a year from selling protection to the narcotics industry in zones under its control — and that, together with their supplementary income from the hundreds of kidnappings they undertake each year, makes them the wealthiest and best-equipped leftist guerrilla movement in history.

A profitable safe haven

Pastrana campaigned for office three years ago on the promise of bringing peace to the war-weary country, and immediately set about pursuing unprecedented negotiations with the FARC. To that end he effectively ceded some 40 percent of the country to the rebels by ordering the military to stay out of a 16,200-square-mile "safe haven." But while there's been little progress toward a negotiated settlement, the "safe haven" has become a base for the guerrillas to mount new attacks elsewhere in the country, and to keep kidnap victims and other prisoners. That has the military pressing Pastrana to dispense with his "safe haven" order. In addition, there has been little public enthusiasm for a Pastrana proposal to declare a second safe haven elsewhere in Colombia to be occupied by the ELN, a smaller leftist group, in a bid to bring them into talks.

Opposition parties pressing for a military solution to the country's 40-year civil war are gaining in popularity, and many military officers remain inclined to cooperate with the efforts of right-wing paramilitaries to take the war to the FARC and ELN, in a manner that shows little regard for the human rights concerns that supposedly govern U.S. aid shipments to the government forces.

A peace plan that has delivered little

Pastrana is plainly caught in a very unhappy place. His armed forces and a growing section of his electorate wants a tougher line against the guerrillas, but he knows that escalating the war is unlikely to bring it to an end. And U.S. support was predicated on backing a peace plan that appears to have delivered very little. Meanwhile, many in the Pentagon remain leery of being drawn deeper into the potential quagmire of an intractable Latin American civil war.

The president, if he is to survive politically, badly needs some concessions from Marulanda on issues such as prisoner exchanges, and a tangible effort to restart a peace process. But for Marulanda, there's no great hurry. Business has probably never been better for peasant-turned-Maoist-turned-tycoon.