LONDON — “In the next days, we’ll know if Colombia is choosing peace or war,” said United Nations envoy James LeMoyne as time ran out on last weekend’s government ultimatum to the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, with whom President Andres Pastrana has been holding peace talks for over three years. At two hours to midnight on Monday, FARC’s leaders backed down, but that doesn’t mean that Colombia is going to get peace.
What was at risk over the past two weeks was “Farclandia,” the Switzerland-size enclave in southeastern Colombia that Pastrana turned over to the country’s biggest guerrilla group soon after taking office in 1998 as a token of his good intentions. But in three years of talks the government side never even persuaded FARC to start serious discussions on a ceasefire, and outside its safe zone FARC went on waging its war of kidnaps and murders with undiminished enthusiasm.
So did its smaller rival, the National Liberation Army, while the rightwing paramilitaries retaliated with the usual massacres of suspected rebel sympathizers. The death toll last year was around 3,500, just below the 10-year average. The crisis in the peace talks has passed, at least for the moment, but the death toll for this year will probably be the same.
It might have been a bit higher this year if the peace talks had broken down entirely, for the army has recently been re-equipped with over $1 billion of U.S. arms, including Black Hawk gunships. But in a nation of 40 million, deaths caused by the war still amount to less than 0.01 percent of the population per year, or one in 10,000 Colombians.
That is the dirty little secret about Colombia: The death toll from the war is lower than the annual number of road deaths, and it has gone on so long that it has become a national institution. It kills and maims lots of people, but it provides a great many more with an income, or a purpose for their lives, or even both. Certainly most Colombians would like to see it end, but their motivation is not as high as those who have a strong ideological commitment to the struggle or — more commonly these days — a big financial interest in the drug trade and kidnap industry that pay for the war.
At the beginning of the peace process three years ago, Pastrana hoped to lure FARC into disarming and joining conventional politics by discussions on land reform and the like, and no doubt old-time Marxist ideologues like nominal FARC leader Manuel Marulanda still retain some interest in these subjects. However, they run an army whose mid-level commanders have become part and parcel of the drug business. So long as drug prohibition in the United States provides an easy and lucrative market for their wares, they neither need nor want peace.
FARC was quite happy to accept Pastrana’s offer of a large autonomous zone, since it gave them a safe area to launch operations from (and to grow, store and process their cash crops). But the guerrilla group has no real interest in a settlement that would restore the rule of law all over the country, and its excuses for avoiding substantive talks grew more and more threadbare as the years passed.
The last straw came when Pastrana, alarmed by the capture earlier this year of three Irish Republican Army members who had spent several months in Farclandia instructing FARC in urban guerrilla techniques, imposed controls on foreigners visiting the safe area and stepped up airborne patrols along its borders. FARC declared that all talks were off until those measures were rescinded, whereupon the government dug its heels in — and in the end it was the guerrillas who blinked.
Why not? Neither the safe zone nor the peace talks hinder FARC’s campaign in the rest of the country in any way, and it’s quite nice to have an area where you are safe. Besides, giving Pastrana this little victory might help to stem the drift of Colombian public opinion toward hardline options like an all-out military attack on the guerrillas, especially with a presidential election coming up in May.
FARC threw Pastrana another fish as well: Its leaders say that they really will now begin talks on a ceasefire. They might even agree to stop shooting throughout the rest of Colombia before May, as it is a high priority for FARC to ensure the defeat of hardline candidate Uribe Velez. Besides, waging a classic Marxist war of subversion isn’t really an essential part of the narcotics business.
There are lots of FARC leaders who have found the past three years to be the best of all possible worlds, combining high profits and low risks. They will keep the talks going as long as they possibly can, but they have absolutely no reason to want a full peace settlement. Something may have been achieved by the last-minute saving of the peace rescue on Monday night, but it is far from clear just what it is.