MEXICO & THE AMERICAS

Colombia peace negotiator warns FARC rebels

Colombia peace negotiator warns FARC rebels to get serious about talks

With peace talks between Colombian officials and leftist guerrillas stalled as the two-year mark nears, the government's lead negotiator warned this week that his side's patience was limited and demanded a halt to recent attacks on civilians and the military.

Humberto de la Calle's comments Wednesday at a political meeting in Bogota pointed up the wide differences between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, despite agreements reached on three main negotiating points. Since May, talks have been stuck on victims' rights and reparations, with no resolution in sight.

"I want to tell the FARC categorically that the time has come to make big decisions," De la Calle said of the talks, which began Nov. 15, 2012. "Colombian society needs concrete signs that the FARC's desire for peace is real."

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FOR THE RECORD:

Colombian rebels: In the Nov. 14 Section A, an article about negotiations between the Colombian government and leftist rebels said that civil society groups estimate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, killed, abducted or "disappeared" as many as 220,000 people since 1990. The organizations cite the number as an estimate of victims of all armed groups in Colombia, including FARC, right-wing paramilitary fighters, criminal gangs and the military, since during the last half-century. —
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FARC rebels were accused this week of killing two unarmed civilians in southwestern Cauca state, outraging many Colombians and putting wind in the sails of critics led by former President Alvaro Uribe, now an opposition member of the Senate. The victims' offense: pulling down a sign that rebels had put up on their reservation to commemorate the death of FARC leader Alfonso Cano.

"I am very pessimistic about the talks because the FARC continues these acts of terrorism and violence," said Sen. Alfredo Rangel, a close ally of Uribe. As conditions of an eventual deal, "FARC leaders have insisted they won't spend a day in jail and that they won't lay down their arms, demands that are unacceptable to most Colombians."

Rebels are also suspected of killing three soldiers and kidnapping two others in recent days. The FARC also has been accused of stepping up bomb attacks on oil pipelines and field workers, a factor in driving down the country's oil revenue.

The victims' rights issue is a complicated one because of the numbers. Civil society groups estimate the FARC has killed, abducted and "disappeared" as many as 220,000 people since 1990, and reparations are part of the negotiations. The rebels also are accused of land grabs totaling millions of acres in farms and ranches that the government insists must be returned.

The government has its own atrocities to answer for. Peace researcher John Lindsay-Poland said soldiers and police may have killed 5,700 civilians over two decades, claiming they were guerrillas to boost body counts.

The cost of compensating victims and their families and redistributing land to rightful owners will be high. So will the cost of demobilizing, educating and reintegrating rebels into society. The International Monetary Fund estimates the 10-year cost of a peace deal to be as much as $45 billion. The brunt of the price tag would be shouldered by the government, but the rebels — with resources drawn from the seized land and drug trafficking — might also be expected to chip in.

Colombia will need help from the U.S. and other nations in raising its share of the funds. In anticipation of a peace deal, President Juan Manuel Santos this month visited European capitals to request financial support in the post-conflict stage.

Despite the delays, the resurgence of violence, the projected costs and the "sticking point" of victims' rights, Colombia specialist Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor, is optimistic there will be peace.

"The FARC doesn't want to admit guilt because it could expose leaders to International Criminal Court prosecution," he said. "But the fact that these talks are taking place at all and that the two sides have reached some agreements in the face of Uribe's wrath and serious doubts among some Colombians is a major accomplishment. President Santos' instincts were right and so was his timing in making the attempt for peace."

Rodrigo Uprimny, a human rights researcher who heads the DeJusticia think tank in Bogota, said progress in the talks so far, although slow, had made him "moderately optimistic" for an eventual accord.

"What is left to negotiate is difficult and so are the political agreements that will have to be struck to put a peace deal in force," Uprimny said. "But what has already been done is much more important. I'm not one of those who believe the easy issues were settled first. Quite the opposite."

The two sides have reached broad agreement on agrarian reform, political participation and drug cultivation and trafficking. But Rangel notes that those steps still leave practical details to be worked out, including specifically what the FARC's role will be.

Eventually, any peace accord will go before voters for approval. And though Santos has said peace involves "swallowing toads," or accepting a deal's unpleasant details in the interests of attaining an overall peace, Rangel said Colombians' appetite for unpleasant conditions will have limits.

"The polls show the public doesn't want peace at any cost and won't accept that terrorists guilty of crimes against humanity will get free seats in Congress or be excused from disarming," Rangel said.

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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