BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict has reached a paradoxical climax.
Both the government and the rebels are calling for peace. To prove that they are serious, the rebels are proceeding with a historic release of abducted soldiers and police; some have been held for 14 years.
Yet the violence has worsened in March, with both sides inflicting deadly blows.
That’s how things work here: the greater the desire for peace, the more blood is spilled.
Earlier this month, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — or FARC, the country’s largest guerrilla group — launched one of the worst attacks on the military in recent years. They struck a military camp, killing 10 soldiers and a non-commissioned officer. The attack occurred in the violent, oil-rich province of Arauca that borders Venezuela. Authorities opened an investigation into the assault.
The FARC’s victory was short-lived. Four days later, five airplanes bombarded the its 10th Front camp in Arauca, killing 33 guerrillas. Ground troops captured five more rebels, including the Front’s second in command. Guerrillas who had fled the FARC’s ranks provided the air force with the camp’s location, authorities said.
On Monday, President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed another massive operation in eastern Colombia. This time the military killed 36 guerrillas in the FARC stronghold of Vista Hermosa.
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Against this backdrop of intensifying conflict, the 9,000-strong FARC has been preparing to release the remaining police and soldiers it holds in captivity.
Ten soldiers and policemen are expected to be freed on April 2 and April 4, according to a former senator who works as mediator in the conflict.
The FARC had initially abducted them in an effort to pressure the government to release imprisoned guerrillas. The FARC also used kidnapping, along with extortion and drug trafficking, to raise money. Rebels helped make Colombia the world kidnap capital a decade ago. Middle-class and wealthy Colombians lived in terror of being abducted.
The abductions proved disastrous for the FARC, especially when the world learned of the inhuman conditions in which the captives are kept. Trapped in the jungle, abductees commonly catch diseases. Many are bound to fellow hostages by thick metal chains around their necks.
Formed in 1964, the FARC says it’s fighting to take power in order to create a fairer society, redistribute land and nationalize key industries. The US and European Union label the group a "terrorist organization."
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Even European and Latin American leftist groups who support the FARC’s aims have distanced themselves from the group, for years demanding an end to the abductions.
Responding to the criticism, in February the FARC announced that it would comply. In doing so, the FARC criticized the government’s military build-up, saying, “it’s time that this regime seriously thought about a different exit” from this conflict.
The government welcomed the move — which it has long demanded as a precondition for peace talks — but continues to insist that the rebels cease all attacks before any talks can begin.
“I have the key to peace in my pocket” has become a catchphrase of President Juan Manuel Santos.
In private, defense ministry officials have said that while the government wants talks, it wants to weaken the FARC even more before any negotiations.
Since late last year, FARC has a new leader, “Timochenko,” the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Londono Echeverri. Timochenko has repeatedly urged negotiations.
While the government says the FARC has lost its ideology, interviews with various guerrillas reveal many of its fighters remain dedicated to a complete reform of Colombian society, one of the most unequal countries in the world.
In the statements asking for talks, the FARC has made it clear that it is not interested in negotiating a complete surrender. Rather, it wants a comprehensive peace accord. One statement listed issues to be discussed in any negotiations: land for farmers, popular sovereignty, respect for indigenous rights, free health and education, defense of the environment among others.
Yet, just as the FARC’s leadership must bring over its rank and file for talks, President Juan Manuel Santos must convince his own voters of the value of negotiations.
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History has made many here weary of talks with the rebels. The last major negotiations handed the rebels a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, which they used to strengthen their ranks and hold hostages. The talks collapsed in 2002, but are still regarded by many as a national embarrassment.
This time, the government is under pressure from the right and from supporters of former President Alvaro Uribe to cede nothing to the rebels. Uribe’s allies have been very critical of Santos, accusing him of letting the security situation get out of control since taking office in 2010.
“If the country is to move forward, security has to be improved and to correct missteps to get back what our government achieved,’’ Uribe said in an interview with El Colombiano newspaper.
Following the latest assaults, Uribe on Tuesday tweeted, "While the army attacks terrorism, others in the government seek publicity to convince Colombians for new negotiations."
Peace with the guerrillas would be historic, ending one of the planet’s longest-running conflicts. But it would also allow Colombia to focus on other threats, such as growing narco-militias and a brewing drug war in the country’s second-largest city.
Both the rebels and the government want peace talks. It remains to be seen if they’ll let the chance slip away again.