War in Colombia to intensify as support for military solution grows.
Two weeks before US Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to travel to Colombia in a show of support for President Andres Pastrana and the government's anti-drug efforts, US officials have mounted a public campaign against Colombia's largest guerrilla organization, the FARC. In on- and off-the-record comments, US officials have accused the FARC of mistreating prisoners, using its Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone in southeastern Colombia as a base for drug trafficking and a lack of sincerity in the peace process.
Government forces and FARC troops have been engaged in heavy combat in southern Colombia. It appears that although the guerrillas have retreated and suffered some losses - including at least one senior commander - the battles have not been decisive. Most of the 2,400 guerrillas being pursued by 6,000 government troops supported by aircraft and helicopters appear to have escaped.
At the same time, US officials have said that they have largely abandoned hope of a deal between the government and the smaller ELN guerilla group. US and Colombian officials had hoped the ELN would be more likely to cut a peace deal because of its relatively weak military position in central Colombia and apparent interest in peace talks. However, the capture of a proposed ELN demilitarized zone in central Colombia by right-wing militia's allied with the military has radicalized the group, which has launched a wave of car bombs in recent weeks and now says it prefers to fight.
Elite take harder line
The collapse of peace efforts appears to be accompanied by a growing sense of impatience among Colombia's ruling elite and a surge of support for a more aggressive government approach to the problem. In part, this shift is dictated by timing. The guerrillas see little sense in negotiating with the lame-duck government of Pastrana, who will step down next year. Pastrana already has been weakened by charges that he has given the rebels too much without receiving much in return. This has sapped public support for the peace process and emboldened a number of military officers to speak out against government policies publicly.
While Pastrana has rejected the criticisms in public, privately, he has been forced to step back from the peace process and give the military a freer hand. He recently approved legal changes that give the armed forces greater powers in combat zones and limit judicial investigations of human rights violations by the military. He also has authorized a number of significant military operations that have used US-supplied equipment and US-trained counterinsurgency brigades.
At the same time, civilian leaders who once supported the peace process have also begun to take a harder line. Many private sector leaders once supported peace talks with the FARC and ELN on the grounds that the war was bad for business. However, a growing number of business leaders now say that approach only made the guerrillas bolder and has prompted the rebels to demand ever greater amounts of money from businesses in exchange for protection. In addition, the war has deterred foreign investors and hindered the recovery of the economy from last year's recession.