- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

Patience has its limits. On Feb. 20, after Colombia's largest rebel group had hijacked an airliner and kidnapped the chairman of the Senate peace commission, President Andres Pastrana finally called it quits on his generous land-for-peace gambit with the guerrillas. It's a decision he should have made long ago.

Mr. Pastrana launched Colombia's so-called peace process in November 1998, when he allowed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, to occupy a New Jersey-sized sanctuary in the heart of the country. The idea was to provide an unpressured, unstructured environment that would encourage the guerrillas to agree to a cease-fire, which would then facilitate peace negotiations.

Instead, the rebels used the haven to train more combatants (doubling their number from about 10,000 to 17,000), make gas cylinder bombs, cultivate their own drug crops, attack villages, kidnap civilians, and supply more than 60 rebel fronts throughout Colombia.

Meanwhile, their continuing brutality and the deferential way they were treated by the government, spawned a backlash from paramilitary self-defense groups who oppose them. Since the peace dialogue began, their numbers have doubled as well.

Last month, after three years of on-again-off-again talks that led nowhere, President Pastrana signaled his intentions to pull the plug on negotiations and order the rebels out of the sanctuary. On Jan. 14, European diplomats and U.N. emissary James LeMoyne coaxed them back to the bargaining table.

Hailed by some as a breakthrough, their return merely delayed the day of reckoning. Hours after the talks resumed, FARC cadres showed their good faith by bombing a police station, engineering a jailbreak, and felling power lines south of Bogota.

Mr. Pastrana seems to understand now that the FARC never meant to make peace to begin with; his Feb. 20 decision to end the dialogue was immediate and unequivocal. As Colombian security forces act to retake the haven, the problem becomes how to proceed from here.

First, what not to do: No one should try to revive the president's unguided dialogue. Peace talks with no clear goals, sticks or carrots can never work.

If future negotiations are contemplated, they should be conducted once the rebels are at the point of defeat and then conducted for the purpose of demobilizing them and reintegrating less dangerous cadres back into society, perhaps under some sort of international supervision.

Narrowly focused U.S. counternarcotics assistance might have made sense back in the early 1990s when the guerrillas were less involved in drug trafficking and had smaller numbers. But today, Washington's Colombia policy misses the root ill: that the country's expanse of poorly governed territory has become home to a fusion of criminal, insurgent and terrorist activities.

To eventually end the bloodshed and help establish conditions in which drug trafficking can be effectively prosecuted, the Colombian government must commit itself to dismantling the guerrillas. This means cutting their supply lines, drug-trafficking routes and tactical communications, as well as grounding their air force and rounding up their various fronts. As this occurs, paramilitary groups that have filled the vacuum of public security may be encouraged to disarm on their own (although they may need to be forced to do so).

For its part, the U.S. government must do more than simply continue its policy of supplying aid to curb the drug trade. A more comprehensive approach, one that includes training and equipment for countering terrorism, is needed.

The Bush administration took a good first step with its proposal to fund a Colombian military effort dedicated to protecting oil pipelines, highways, and power transmission lines. But more needs to be done. Congress should ease restrictions on the use of U.S. equipment already donated, so it can by employed against all lawbreakers, not just drug traffickers. And European allies who once helped revive the moribund peace dialogue should cooperate by seizing rebel assets in their own countries.

The FARC, with some 17,000 troops, represents a tiny fraction of Colombia's 40 million people. Yet it is a potent force that has helped displace 1.5 million citizens internally and threatens Colombia's close neighbors. The only way to give peace a chance is to end its rein of terror over the majority of Colombia's law-abiding citizens.


Stephen Johnson is a policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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