September 25, 2007

IN 1982, THE NEWLY-ELECTED GOVERNMENT of Belisario Betancur set Colombian politics on an un- charted course. Although Colombian elites had always re- ferred to their political system as a democracy, the new president called for a democratic opening--borrowing the language then current in the Southern Cone-to incorporate the nation's armed opposition into the political process. The first step was an unconditional amnesty, approved in Novem- ber 1982. Two years later, cease-fire agreements were signed with three of the principal insurgent groups: the April 19th Move- ment (M-19), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). Peace gave the guerrillas a voice, but it exposed their leaders and sup- porters to paramilitary violence. M-19, the first to call for a
peace process, suffered the worst. Even before the cease-fire
accord was signed, one of their most prominent public
figures, former Congressman Carlos Toledo Plata-who had
accepted the amnesty and returned to his life as a physician
after decades underground-was assassinated outside his
home in Bucaramanga. Over the next few years, M- 19 was to
lose over a dozen senior leaders. Many of them were found-
ers of the movement, such as Alvaro Fayad and Ivdn Marino
Ospina, who fell victim to police bullets in luxury, residential
neighborhoods in Bogotd and Cali.
M-19 was never a strong military force. It had gained
political sympathy and strength through spectacular actions
like the takeover of the Dominican Embassy in 1980, where
15 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador, were held
hostage. That action focused world attention on the govem-
ment's human rights abuses and torture of political prisoners.
More importantly, it set the stage for the first negotiations
between government and guerrillas in two decades of war.
M-19's demands were minimal by most standards, but sig-
nificant in the context of Colombia: an end to the state of
siege, a cease-fire, and national dialogue.
In June 1985, M-19 claimed government betrayal and
broke off talks only ten months after the first cease-fire was
signed. It had been a stormy period of negotiations, am-
bushes, assassinations and, despite the formal cease-fire,
open combat. In November of that year, M-19 guerrillas
stormed the Palace of Justice, taking hostage the entire
Supreme Court. Their declarations at the time made clear
At the1985 guerrilla summit, six groups joined forces
their intent: to tell the nation and the world that the govem-
ment had violated the peace accords and broken the cease-
fire. M-19 expected the action, like the 1980 embassy take-
over, would evoke sympathy. They miscalculated. The mili-
tary responded with brutal force, retaking the building after
twenty-eight hours of uninterrupted combat with mortars,
rockets and tanks. In the end, eleven Supreme Court justices,
thirty-four guerrillas and scores of others were dead or
missing. Civilian authority was trampled; some called it a
twenty-eight hour coup d'etat.
If the legitimacy of Colombia's regime had hit rock
bottom, M-19, left with negligible strength and minimal
support, had lost any pretense of presenting a viable alterna-
tive. When Betancur handed over power to Virgilio Barco in
August of 1986, EPL had also pulled out of the cease-fire,
leaving only FARC within it. Unlike M-19, FARC did not
expose its leadership to the death squads. Instead, it created
a new movement, the Uni6n Patri6tica, using the already
existing political machinery of the Communist Party of
Colombia. Rarely has a political party been so brutally and
barbarously repressed as the UP. In 1986, fourteen UP
congressmen were elected; within a year, four had been
assassinated. In all, over 1,000 UP members have been
murdered. But FARC did benefit from the peace process. For
the first time, its voice was heard directly in Colombian
politics and not filtered through the roar of machine-gun fire.
Many in the political class felt that the original truce
agreements Barco inherited, which allowed the guerrillas to
form a political party without disarming, gave FARC an
unfair advantage. Although the UP received only 4.5% of the
vote in 1986, traditional party politicians complained that
even that small percentage was won through intimidation
and force, what they called "armed proselytizing." Barco
concurred. From the outset he declared that all future discus-
sions with the FARC would be limited to establishing an
agenda for disarmament. Political reforms and other issues
would no longer be considered.
Moreover, the government openly supported a new
counterinsurgency campaign, and remained disturbingly
passive as paramilitary groups escalated the dirty war against
FARC supporters. Not surprisingly, the cease-fire agree-
ments were abandoned amid mutual recriminations. For the
next two years, peace remained off the political agenda.
19 kidnapped one of the leaders of the Conservative
Party, Alvaro G6mez. He was not released until months later,
when the Catholic Church agreed to host a new round of
peace talks. The Barco administration was hesitant and
refused to attend, but the pressure was on for a new peace
strategy. On September 1, 1988 Barco announced that any
group which demonstrated good faith in negotiations, fol-
lowing a period of unilateral cease-fire, could enter into
discussions with presidential advisers over their future incor-
poration into political life. Such negotiations could not be
indefinite, and the outcome had to be the surrender of the
guerrillas' arms.
This did not appear to be much of a departure from earlier
declarations. But to the surprise of many, M-19 took up the
president's offer. It announced a unilateral cease-fire, and by
January of 1989 was engaged in full-scale talks with the
government. M-19's philosophy has always been more so-
cial democratic than Marxist-Leninist. It had been pushed
out of the cities and was never able to reconstitute itself in the
countryside. M- 19's acceptance of Barco's proposals legiti-
mized the government's contention that the other armed
groups had no reason to continue fighting-a contention
made with a straight face, even as the dirty war raged and
Congress obstructed practically every reform proposed.
FARC leaders also declared a unilateral cease-fire and
offered their own peace plan, but the military and govern-
ment did not seem prepared to talk to them. The other large
insurgent group, the National Liberation Army, ELN, an-
nounced that it would only discuss "humanizing the war."
Both FARC and ELN had grown in the 1980s: ELN spectacu-
If economic integration had advanced relatively
smoothly, and much of the new wealth had been incorpo-
rated into the relatively strong Colombian economy, the
political integration of a new and powerful group of
economic actors was another story. The Colombian elites
have been unwilling to cede authority on the political
terrain; much of the drug war is over this issue. MORENA,
for example, was opposed by most traditional politicians.
The Right is learning what the Left has known for dec-
ades: There is virtually no political space for alternative
parties in Colombia outside of the two traditional parties.
What we are witnessing in Colombia is a conflict
larly in the areas of Arauca and Santander; FARC steadily in
all areas of the country except the Magdalena Medio, where
paramilitary violence was worst.
Throughout 1989, M-19 tried to link disarmament to
permanent political reforms. By August, the government had
agreed to create a one-time special nationwide electoral
district exclusively for M- 19, lowering the number of votes
needed for electing a congressman.
Following the terms of Barco's proposal, M-19's leaders
had gathered their men and arms in a camp in the north of
Cauca, a mountainous zone just south of Cali. They only had
about 500 fighters at the time, many of them young men
recruited in the last year. In December they were to hand over
their arms in Cali to an international delegation established
under the auspices of the Socialist International. But all this
depended on congressional approval; as could be expected,
Congress failed to act. The president's advisers called this an
unforeseen mishap; the arms transfer was postponed.
M-19 was left with very little to negotiate. It was not
prepared to return to war, and the government was unable to
offer any real concessions toward peace. In January, the
leaders decided to go forward anyway. They would surrender
their arms and transform their movement into a political
party in exchange for a mere legal pardon. Barco decreed that
pardon, and the two top comandantes, Carlos Pizarro Le6n-
G6mez and Antonio Navarro Wolf, left Cauca for Bogoti.
Dressed more like bankers than guerrillas, they were re-
ceived by the minister of government and the presidential
advisers. After consulting with the leaders and ex-presidents
of the Liberal and Conservative parties, Pizarro and Navarro
launched their campaigns for mayor of Bogoti and Cali
respectively. Neither stood a chance, but they hoped the
campaigns would become the foundation of a new move-
ment. It was not clear whether M-19's fate would be any
different than that of the UP, which five years earlier was
massacred for pursuing a similar objective.
M-19, once the self-proclaimed defender of Colombian
nationalism and still in possession of Sim6n Bolivar's sword,
which they stole from the national museum almost two
decades ago, has come in from the cold. The day before the
March 11 municipal and legislative elections, the group
handed over its arms. Despite this dramatic act, the political
system shows no sign of a real democratic opening. Mean-
while, the more powerful guerrilla movements are more
active than ever. The government refuses to negotiate seri-
ously. And Colombian politics continues as usual.

Tags: Colombia, Violence, guerrillas, peace process, UP

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