BOGOTA, Colombia Thousands of peasants in the highlands of central Colombia fear the government will turn their villages over to a cocaine-financed army of Marxist guerrillas in an attempt to make peace with the nation’s second largest rebel group.
For more than a year, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has used mass kidnappings, attacks on power lines and roadblocks to press for peace negotiations modeled on those with the larger and better known Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
FARC, with its 17,000-member army, has virtually supplanted the Colombian government in a Switzerland sized zone in southern Colombia since federal troops pulled out in 1998 to make way for peace talks.
Now, residents in central Colombia fear a similar fate should the government cut a similar deal with 8,000 fighters in the ELN.
Peasants expressed their outrage last week in a protest that blocked the highway connecting central Colombia to the Caribbean coast.
“Let Pastrana demilitarize the [presidential] palace,” read one banner, referring to President Andres Pastrana.
The end of the Cold War has long since discredited Marxism as a failed ideology and the flowering of democracy has driven a generation of right-wing dictators from office throughout Latin America.
But the blood from Marxist insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries continues to soak the mountains and jungles of this long-tortured land as the central government in Bogota gropes for outside help in reasserting control.
Just this week, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey arrived in Colombia to detail the U.S. administration’s proposed $1.6 billion aid package to help Colombia fight drugs a source of ready cash that keeps the left and right alive as if the 21st century had never arrived.
Seeking similar treatment to the FARC, the ELN has demanded the demilitarization of four municipalities in central Colombia where they want to hold a national convention that would set their agenda for peace talks.
The government of Mr. Pastrana had previously refused to talk to the ELN while it continued attacking military and civilian targets.
But a series of ELN roadblocks set up and then dismantled this month on the highway between Bogota and Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, apparently prompted the government to reconsider.
“We are designing a package so that we can … begin talks [and] reach a negotiation process,” Mr. Pastrana said after the ELN unilaterally lifted the barricades as a goodwill gesture.
Both the ELN and FARC took up arms against the state in the mid-1960s but often disagree on revolutionary tactics in the war that claimed 35,000 lives in the past decade.
The ELN appeared to take advantage of the fact that FARC and government negotiators were off on a three-week European tour to study economic models such as democratic socialism to recapture national attention.
Newspapers assailed the government for treating the ELN, which operates mostly in the northern half of the country, as second-class rebels.
The Bogota daily El Espectador said in a recent editorial that Mr. Pastrana could not continue with his double game and double morals.
“We consider it a mistake to institutionalize parallel and dissimilar systems with the two subversive groups,” the paper said.
ELN leaders themselves complained that they were being left out of the push for peace.
“For the moment, there is a peace process under way with the FARC but a process with the ELN has been put to one side,” said ELN commander Nicolas Rodriguez in a radio press conference last week.
But giving the ELN what it wants is no small order for the government.
The FARC demilitarized area is a sparsely populated ranch land in southern Colombia where the rebel army had already wielded a considerable amount of power.
In contrast, the ELN has its eye on a far more populated area in southern Bolivar province where the rebels were driven out by right-wing paramilitary groups three years ago.
Not coincidentally, the area is thick with plantations of coca, the raw material used in making cocaine, which helps fund both guerrilla groups and the paramilitaries.
The bulk of the proposed U.S. aid package would go toward training and equipping the military to target drug production under rebel control.
But creating a safe haven for the ELN, as the rebel group is seeking, would essentially place it off limits to counter-narcotics battalions, a prospect that terrifies many who live in the proposed zone.