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World Perspective | COLOMBIA

Peace Talks With Rebels Top the President-Elect's Agenda

June 27, 1998|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — In a country convulsed by violence, corrupted by drug trafficking and battered by a weak currency and government overspending, it might be hard to decide where to begin fixing things.

But when he was elected president Sunday, Andres Pastrana had already decided what comes first on his to-do list: He's starting with peace.

"I am ready now to begin peace talks with the insurgents," Pastrana said in his victory speech. "I am ready to meet with them now."

Even before taking office Aug. 7, Pastrana has set out to end Colombia's prolonged civil war, an issue that analysts had considered his weak spot as a candidate.

Because of his background as a member of the entrenched political class and Conservative Party, his close ties to the United States and his clear support for free-market economics, Pastrana had been considered a poor choice for negotiating peace with Marxist guerrillas.

A week before Sunday's runoff, however, Pastrana offered an opening to leaders of Colombia's oldest and largest rebel group--and they took it.

Pastrana sent a trusted aide, Victor G. Ricardo, out to the eastern jungles to meet with two legendary members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Shortly afterward, the rebels released a communique criticizing Pastrana's opponent, Horacio Serpa, for having served in the current government, which they consider illegitimate. Until then, Colombians had believed that the rebels would prefer to negotiate with Serpa, a Liberal Party member with impressive leftist credentials.

Pastrana's campaign team played up its political coup, releasing to the media photos of Ricardo with FARC officials Manuel Marulanda and Jorge Briceno.

Now Pastrana has to make good on the implied promise of that jungle meeting.

After more than three decades of fighting, both FARC and the country's second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have shown interest in laying down arms--but remain distrustful of politicians.

This spring, the ELN broke off initial negotiations because rebel leaders said the government was using the peace initiative to promote Serpa's campaign. On Thursday, an ELN spokesman said his group is willing to talk.

FARC representatives walked away from peace talks years ago after members of a political party identified with the rebels were assassinated.

In addition to that built-up distrust, rebels must also consider that they are now in an extremely strong position. They control roughly half the country and can charge "taxes"--ranging from a percentage of cocaine and heroin production to extortion of ranchers, merchants and oil companies--to pay for their arms.

They have also shown their military superiority over the army in confrontations.

Nevertheless, illegal private armies called self-defense forces have forced the guerrillas out of strongholds in northern and eastern Colombia with a campaign of terror against civilians suspected of supporting the rebels. The rebels may want to make peace before their territory deteriorates further.

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