BOGOTA, Colombia — Nearly three years ago, a hard-line conservative politician named Alvaro Gomez Hurtado was seized while leaving Sunday Mass and held for 53 days until the liberal Colombian government arranged peace talks with his leftist guerrilla captors.
The attack, which left Gomez's bodyguard dead, was a relatively obscure act in the drama of chronic bloodletting in one of Latin America's most violent countries. Yet it stands today as a benchmark in the swift advance by the drama's leading actors toward a more civil Colombia.
Along a carpeted corridor of Bogota's modern convention center, patrolled inside and out by bomb-sniffing police dogs, Gomez now shares a suite of glass-walled offices with Antonio Navarro Wolf, leader of the M-19 rebel band that kidnaped him and later embraced civilian politics, and with Horacio Serpa Uribe, the liberal negotiator who gained his freedom.
The three men are co-presidents of the National Constituent Assembly, a 73-member body elected last December. Running as mavericks, all three capitalized on an anti-Establishment vote that produced the sharpest realignment of Colombian politics in this century. Many Colombians view the Assembly's goal--to write a new constitution by July 4--as a historic opportunity to overcome decades of guerrilla insurgency, narco-terrorism and bloody official repression.
"A year ago, the very existence of a body like this was unthinkable," Serpa said of the array of traditional politicians, disarmed guerrillas, Indian chiefs, evangelical religious leaders, a renowned poet and a national soccer coach. "But the crisis has pushed us all together," he added in an interview after the Assembly convened in February. "It's time now to set aside our hatreds and design a more open political system."
The sweeping mandate to scrap Latin America's oldest constitution, written in 1886, is a symptom of disillusionment with traditional politics in much of the region. It has shaken the governing classes much as Alberto Fujimori, a little-known academic, did in capturing the presidency of Peru last June.
At the root of Colombia's crisis, most political scientists agree, is a corrupt two-party spoils system that has maintained the dominance of a wealthy elite. After a decade of civil war, the liberals and conservatives agreed in 1957 to alternate the presidency while sharing control of Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and city halls.
In 1968, the president took away most of Congress' budget powers in exchange for a system of auxilios , funds managed by each congressman and meant for civic improvements in his district. Instead, most of the money went to finance reelection campaigns in which each candidate printed and distributed his own ballots--a system that bred wholesale vote buying and discouraged poorer third parties from competing.
Guerrilla groups flourished in the 1960s as a near-continuous state of siege, maintained with military force, frustrated peaceful protest by labor unions, peasant groups and students. The prevailing Wild West lawlessness suited the cocaine traffickers who later set up laboratories, amassed fortunes and bought influence.
"The political class put Colombia in a straitjacket. Citizen protest was criminalized. Despite its extraordinary stability, the civil regime became embedded in violence," said Eduardo Pizzaro, a political scientist at National University.
"The important thing today is not so much the text of a new constitution as the consensus around that text," he said. "It has to be a law respected by everyone."
The idea of reform through a Constituent Assembly arose in peace talks with six guerrilla groups in the 1980s, but proposals to have one elected were repeatedly blocked by Congress and the Supreme Court. "The establishment put a lock on the constitution and threw away the key," said Clara Lopez, an aide to Serpa.
A turning point came amid national outrage over the August, 1989, assassination of Luis Carlos Galan, the reform-minded liberal and leading presidential candidate, by the drug mafia. In the March, 1990, congressional election, university students distributed unofficial ballots calling for a Constituent Assembly, and nearly 2 million votes were cast.
The issue went on the ballot formally in the presidential election last May, with support from Cesar Gaviria, Galan's heir in the liberal reform movement. Colombians gave the Assembly an overwhelming "yes" vote and elected Gaviria president.
Disgust with traditional politics was even more evident in the sudden electoral success of the M-19. Two months after laying down its weapons a year ago and a month after its first presidential candidate was assassinated, the former guerrillas got 13% of the vote.