- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

Colombia’s peace process is losing pace at a critical juncture. A defector from the FARC guerrilla group, who met last week with editors of The Washington Times, believes the acute illness of the group’s leader presents Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with a timely opportunity. This assessment is generally backed by experts on Colombia.

The FARC is Colombia’s most brutal, implacable and powerful guerrilla group. It is on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. It has massacred civilians (as recently as June 15) and is involved in the drug trade. Its leader, known as Manuel Marulanda, is very sick, the defector said.

FARC’s 35 top commanders will have to elect a new leader relatively soon, the defector said, and the government should create the right conditions for a less bellicose leader to emerge. In order to do this, the government should ratchet up the pressure on the FARC, while increasing basic services.

Mark Schneider, director of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group, said that potential for change at the FARC probably won’t emerge until the FARC’s ailing leader dies. At that point, contention within the top ranks of the group could emerge and lead to a weakening of the group, or it could lead to the emergence of a leader more receptive to negotiations with the government.

The Uribe government has had some success in pressuring the FARC. It recently captured one of its senior commanders, Ricardo Palmera, and has been able to reduce significantly coca cultivation, an important source of revenue for the FARC and paramilitary groups. Also, the FARC defector noted that the government’s efforts to decommission guerrilla fighters have been better publicized than past initiatives.

On rural development, the government’s record is not as strong, although the FARC does make this task as difficult as possible. The FARC defector said he himself successfully participated in “convincing” more than 20 mayors to retire. This kind of tactic limits the state’s range of action, yet there are areas where the effort is lacking. The defector mentioned, for example, the government’s failure to distribute expropriated coca farms to the rural poor. Basic services, such as potable water, health care and education, are nonexistent in some areas.

The Uribe government and its supporters, including the U.S. government, should approach the distribution of services as an integral part of the counter-insurgency effort. The Uribe administration also should prevent any further delays in its attempts to decommission the 14,000-strong AUC paramilitary group and try to get some momentum behind its promising talks with the ELN guerrilla group.

Those and other moves will help strengthen the government’s ideological battle against the FARC. The illness of FARC’s leader, meanwhile, could be Colombia’s opportunity. Colombia and its supporters must exploit that opportunity.

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