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Rebel's Escape Stymies Colombia Talks

Latin America: The impasse reflects how weak public support for the peace process has become.

September 26, 2000|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — A guerrilla's daring escape, including an airplane hijacking, has brought Colombia's fragile peace talks to an impasse that government and rebel negotiators will attempt to overcome today.

They will be trying to resolve a situation that has left the government looking foolish and undermined already crumbling public faith in elected leaders' ability to make either war or peace. The fact that a single incident could put a two-year peace process at risk is indicative of just how weak support for the talks has become.

A Colombian Senate commission recently warned that the current course of negotiations is losing backing among citizens. As if to illustrate that point, early this month only a few thousand Colombians marched in a national peace demonstration, in stark contrast to a similar protest just under a year ago that drew millions of participants.

Rebel spokesman Carlos Antonio Lozada has described the peace negotiations as in agony.

Moreover, prominent citizens seem less and less willing to stake their own reputations on peace. Industrialist Luis Carlos Villegas, a representative to initial talks aimed at opening parallel negotiations with the smaller of the two main rebel groups, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said he will withdraw until the rebels free everyone they abducted during a mass kidnapping earlier this month.

The will for peace appears to be fading just as Colombia is beginning to receive a multimillion-dollar injection of U.S. anti-narcotics aid targeted mainly at areas under rebel control. Insurgents obtain a substantial portion of their income from "taxes" on production of coca and opium poppies in this country, which is a major supplier of illegal drugs.

Given the bloody background of a civil war where massacres have become weekly occurrences, the event that has provoked such consternation seems almost comical.

The crisis began Sept. 8, when Arnubio Ramos, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC--the largest rebel faction--escaped from the guards who were transporting him from La Picota prison here in the capital to a court hearing in Florencia. Florencia is less than a two-hour drive from a Switzerland-size tract of land in southern Colombia that the government ceded to the FARC nearly two years ago in order to get talks started.

Ramos escaped on a regular commercial flight and hijacked it, ordering that he be taken to rebel territory. After landing, he disembarked and released the plane and all the passengers.

During talks 10 days later, government negotiators demanded that the rebels hand Ramos over. Their arguments in a statement released that day reflect the growing pressure on the administration from a public that accuses the government of ceding too much in return for too little from the guerrillas.

"The government has clearly and unequivocally demonstrated its will to continue advancing in search of reconciliation," the statement said. "It is time that the FARC demonstrates [its commitment with] deeds favorable to the peace process, the nation and the international community."

However, FARC leaders flatly refused to meet the demand.

"Our position is categorical," said spokesman Lozada. "We are not going to turn over the comrade, because it is the right and duty of all revolutionary prisoners to attempt to escape from jail."

Ramos' case is particularly sensitive because he was convicted in April 1998 of killing a police officer as well as of terrorism and rebellion. Attacks on rural police stations are among the more controversial insurgent tactics and leave scores of police dead every year. In the first seven months of this year alone, 140 police officers were killed.

To further complicate matters, Ramos, according to local press reports, was a member of an elite unit that often provided security for insurgent icon Manuel Marulanda, or "Sure Shot," and is thought to be close to the veteran rebel.

However, the government desperately needs to show that it can make gains by talking.

In the words of peace commissioner Camilo Gonzalez Pozo, "The ball is in the FARC's court."

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