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Colombia Moves a Step Closer to Peace : Guerrillas: Indigenous rebel leaders agree to disarm and form a political party. It is another sign that decades of violence may be ending.

May 28, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Indigenous guerrilla leaders agreed Monday to disarm and turn their organization into a political party, ending seven years of warfare against the army and Hispanic settlers in southern Colombia.

The accord between the national government and the Quintin Lame Armed Movement was one of two hopeful signs in recent days that Colombia, battling powerful narcotics traffickers on another front, might soon overcome more than three decades of guerrilla violence. Quintin Lame, with 130 fighters, is the fourth group to abandon armed struggle in the past 14 months.

Of half a dozen insurgent groups that allied with one another against the army during the 1980s, the two largest are still in rebellion. But on May 16, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by the acronym FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, agreed to open peace talks with Colombian officials next month in Caracas, Venezuela.

Jesus Antonio Bejarano, the government negotiator who signed Monday's peace treaty at an Indian guerrilla camp near the southern town of Caldono, said he will return to the camp Friday to disarm the Indian guerrillas, then head immediately to Caracas for talks that could start as early as Saturday.

Despite a near-continuous state of siege, leftist guerrillas have flourished in Colombia since the mainstream Liberal and Conservative parties ended their decade-old civil war in 1957 with a power-sharing pact that largely excluded other groups from politics.

That equation was upset last December when the notorious April 19 Movement, or M-19, which had disarmed its 500 fighters the previous March, won 19 seats in a 73-member Constituent Assembly that is rewriting Colombia's constitution.

Inspired by M-19's political success, two Marxist groups with 2,200 fighters between them, the Revolutionary Workers Party and the People's Revolutionary Army, signed peace accords with President Cesar Gaviria's Liberal government early this year, gaining three assembly seats in return.

Quintin Lame, fighting more in defense of indigenous lands than for a share of national power, won a promise of government investment to develop their communities. The movement, made up largely of Paez Indians, was given one vote in the Assembly and a grant to pay each of its fighters $128 a month during a six-month period of adjustment to civilian life.

The rebels took their name from Manuel Quintin Lame, the cigar-smoking leader of an Indian rights rebellion in the 1910s and 1920s. Like their role models, they kidnaped farmers encroaching on their land and ambushed army patrols that came to the farmers' defense.

With the peace accord, the Indians abandoned a rebel alliance now carried on by about 11,000 fighters of the FARC and ELN. Those Marxist-led groups have stepped up their attacks, causing more than 750 deaths and $800 million in damages this year alone.

To coax them to the peace table, the government abandoned its insistence on a cease-fire as a condition for talks. The guerrillas have responded with mixed signals. Last week, they freed three captive policemen and a soldier near the northwestern city of Medellin but attacked a truckload of policemen in the northeast, killing seven.

According to Colombian newspapers, the government is prepared to make a concession not offered to the smaller rebel groups who have already disarmed--allowing FARC and ELN guerrillas to remain armed as guardians of peace in the rural areas they control.

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