The abrupt suspension of the latest round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has dealt a serious blow to efforts to reach a peaceful settlement to Latin America’s long-running civil war and casts doubt on the viability of Colombian President Andres Pastrana’s strategy of pursuing peace with a pen rather than a gun.

Mr. Pastrana made achieving a negotiated settlement to the 35-year-old civil war — which has cost more than 10,000 lives in the past decade alone — the centerpiece of his election campaign. Upon taking office in August 1998, he lost little time in attempting to make good on his pledge. By agreeing last November to establish for FARC a “demilitarized zone” free of government forces in an area the size of Switzerland, Mr. Pastrana managed to bring the nation’s oldest and largest guerrilla group to the peace table. So far, however, he has little to show in return for his concessions, while the creation of a safe haven — within which FARC has been acting with impunity — has considerably strengthened the position of the rebel group.

Negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC were ostensibly postponed from July 7 to July 19 to give rebel leaders time to get to the meeting place. It now appears, however, that FARC was simply buying time to launch its biggest military operation to date — a July 10 offensive that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people. There is little doubt that the rebel offensive was an attempt to shore up the guerrilla group’s position before talks resumed, and thus it demonstrates in a twisted way FARC’s intention to return to the bargaining table. Unfortunately, however, no evidence exists that the latest offensive will be the guerrillas’ last, or that the group has the slightest intention of negotiating in good faith. In fact, hardline rebel sources freely admit that FARC simply views political talks as a means to supplement their armed struggle for power.

While Mr. Pastrana has appeared determined to stick to his policy of negotiation, insisting that “it is better to talk than to shoot,” his stance may soon change. A recent poll showed that three out of four citizens believe the Colombian president is mishandling peace efforts, and say that it has never been the intention of the rebels to come to a settlement at the peace table. With guerrilla attacks intensifying, kidnappings on the increase and the country in the throes of its worst recession in 70 years, one can hardly blame the nation’s citizens for being pessimistic.

Concerns that violence in Colombia could spill over its borders and threaten regional stability put additional pressure on Mr. Pastrana to adopt a more effective policy to resolve the Marxist insurgency. Most of the countries bordering Colombia have been affected by the civil war. Ecuador’s government blames the February assassination of a former presidential candidate on Colombian paramilitary soldiers. Colombian refugees in Venezuela have been brutally slaughtered and thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. FARC guerrillas have used Panamanian border towns to rest and resupply.

Signs are beginning to appear that Mr. Pastrana’s considerable reserve of patience may be reaching a limit. In a marked departure from the conciliatory tone that the Colombian president has traditionally employed toward FARC, last week he threatened to build up the nation’s armed forces and launch a crackdown on the Marxist group if it fails to demonstrate a real commitment to the peace process. In a bid to beef up Colombia’s armed forces, Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez and army chief Fernando Tapias recently visited Washington to seek $500 million in military assistance.

Although Mr. Pastrana’s bid to seek a peaceful solution to Colombia’s long-running civil war is admirable, both sides must demonstrate a genuine commitment to peace if there is to be any hope of reaching a negotiated settlement. But as events since the peace process that formally began last January demonstrate, FARC falls woefully short in this respect. In addition to attacks by the rebel group, the “demilitarized zone” Mr. Pastrana established in the name of peace has instead been cynically used by FARC as a training ground for new recruits and a base from which to raise money through drug trafficking and kidnappings.

If Mr. Pastrana’s efforts to reach a peaceful settlement continue to prove fruitless, then perhaps it is time he reconsider his strategy for bringing FARC’s destructive insurgency to a close.

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