Rebels Renew Colombia Fight : Betancur Blamed as Pacification Plan Fails
The pacification program sponsored by President Belisario Betancur to end guerrilla violence in Colombia has broken down.
Armed political violence and banditry continue throughout the country a year after the signing of the cease-fire agreement with the guerrillas that was announced as the start of the peace process.
That agreement, negotiated directly by Betancur, called for the insurgents to lay down their arms and offered them an amnesty under the supervision of a national peace commission. Betancur also promised major political and social reforms.
However, the cease-fire has not held. The military has blamed guerrillas who continue armed operations. The guerrillas have blamed the military, right-wing vigilantes, the traditional political parties in Congress, and Jaime Castro, Betancur’s minister of government, a post equivalent to that of interior minister in other Latin governments.
And, Betancur, who made political peace the great cause of his administration when he was elected in 1982, is blamed by everybody. His popularity has plunged in recent polls that also reflect discontent over rising inflation and a record unemployment rate of 14%.
As a peacemaker, Betancur is now the butt of sarcastic jokes.
One of these has Betancur being questioned by a visiting delegation of potential foreign investors about Colombia’s mineral resources. “We have gold in the north, oil in the east, gold in the west and lead flying all over the country,” replies Betancur.
Day of Protest
To mark their displeasure with the current situation, the guerrilla groups that signed peace agreements with the government have scheduled a national day of protest for Thursday.
Work stoppages and protest marches are being called in major cities. The protests will be guarded by guerrilla militants and are being stimulated by leaflets scattered in city slums calling for “power to the armed people.”
The armed forces and national police have been placed on full alert. Gen. Miguel Vega Uribe, Colombia’s defense minister, has called the protest the work of a “terrorist movement.” Some protest organizers have been arrested, and security forces have announced that they have seized explosives and plans to sabotage transportation, communications and electric services.
The organizers include the Communist Party’s labor union confederation, one of three in Colombia, which is demanding a 20% wage increase and suspension of foreign debt payments. The unions and political groups that called the day of protest say they are exercising their right of peaceful opposition to the government.
“We want to generate a national dialogue on reforms, because if we don’t have dialogue we can only have war,” said Alvaro Fayad, the principal leader of the M-19, one of the guerrilla groups sponsoring the day of protests.
Betancur Meets Unionists
Betancur met Friday night for three hours with union leaders in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to head off the day of protest. Union officials said the president did not meet their demands and that Thursday’s protests will go forward as planned. Many persons here fear that the protests will become violent.
The poor in the cities have seen food prices soar 17% since January, including a 5% increase last month. Unemployment is growing as the government, under pressure from foreign bank creditors, cuts down on budget deficits to slow inflation.
Colombia’s endemic violence has not been slowed by the pacification plan. Right-wing death squads linked to local police are killing union leaders and political activists of the left, while leftist guerrillas and criminals extort money from businessmen, kidnap wealthy land- owners for ransom and kill suspected informers.
“The violence that had been confined to remote areas by the military before the so-called peace plan is now being brought into the cities,” said Enrique Santos Castillo, editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper.
Fierce Guerrilla Clashes
Last week three Army brigades with helicopter gunships and field artillery battled columns of up to 250 heavily armed guerrillas in the Cauca River Valley. More than 50 soldiers, guerrillas and peasants have died in recent clashes near towns such as Buga and Yumbo.
“The peace process has divided the Colombian people,” said Msgr. Romulo Trujillo, acting bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Neiva, capital of Huila department, a center of recent violence.
Right-wing paramilitary groups have threatened to kill two priests in Neiva for denouncing violence against peasant union leaders.
“No public figure is going to say that he is against peace, but very few believe in what Betancur calls peace, as if he owned the word,” said a former Cabinet minister of the Liberal Party, now in the opposition, who wished to remain anonymous.
When the government announced on May 21, 1984, that a cease-fire agreement had been reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party, there was hope that the road to peace had been opened. The Revolutionary Armed Forces was the largest of the four active guerrilla forces in Colombia, with 9,000 armed men.
20 Years of Insurgency
The Revolutionary Armed Forces have been engaged in rural insurgency against the military for 20 years. The group maintains 20 “fronts” scattered over Colombia’s rugged mountain region. Their leader, Manuel Marulasda Velez, known as “Tirofijo” or “Sureshot,” a peasant rebel who became a Marxist, is a nationally known figure.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces have not abandoned their strong points, such as El Uribe, a mountain hideout where Tirofijo keeps his headquarters. But they have come down from the hills and are opening offices in the name of a political party they call the Patriotic Union.
The leaders say they plan to run candidates for town and congressional offices in elections next March, if Congress approves electoral reforms promised by Betancur.
The guerrilla group has avoided conflicts with the military, although its leaders say that 25 members who accepted the amnesty and returned to normal life have been killed by police or vigilante groups.
Close Ties to Cuba
Prospects for peace seemed to strengthen in August when the second-largest guerrilla group, the April 19 Movement--generally known as M-19--which has close ties to Cuba, joined the peace agreement. As a result, some of its most important leaders were released from jail.
But many of the released M-19 leaders left jail straight for armed groups in the hills, among them Leon Gomez, who is leading a column now fighting in the Cauca Valley. Another M-19 leader, Carlos Toledo Plaza, who tried to work politically in the open after leaving jail, was assassinated by right-wing gunmen.
Fayad, the main surviving M-19 leader, stays underground. He is a 42-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian who later studied psychology at the National University, joined the Communist Party and became an armed guerrilla before joining M-19. He wears a black handlebar moustache and uses the title of Gen. Commandant.
With some security precautions, he gives interviews, in which he says that continued M-19 military operations are not inconsistent with simultaneous political organizations under the peace pact.
“Peace has not begun yet because peace is the social reforms promised by Betancur which have not yet come,” said Fayad in an interview.
But Betancur never consulted with congressional leaders on his peace promises to the guerrillas. Such moves as expropriations of land for agrarian reform or urban reforms, which were promised, are highly controversial here.
Betancur’s initiative appears to be generating more enemies now than supporters. Political opinion has polarized.
A proposal by Betancur that the traditional political parties form a “national pact” to approve a package of reforms, such as land distribution to peasants and direct popular election of mayors, was rejected by the Liberal Party, the moderate opposition force in Congress.
Betancur, a maverick Conservative Party member, tries to govern on the basis of personal popularity over the heads of the major parties. But with his popularity declining, he has little support in Congress now. He is barred by the Constitution from running for reelection when Colombia votes for a new president next May.
On the right, fury over the lack of security is directed at Betancur. His peace plan is criticized for legalizing guerrillas as a political force without requiring them to give up their arms.
Linked to KGB
The right-wing anger is expressed in big red letters sprayed on a brick wall in a wealthy residential section of Bogota. “Belisario, trigger, agent of the KGB.”
Sen. Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, who is expected to be the presidential candidate of the Conservative Party next year, has not attacked the peace policy directly. But he has ruled out a rebel role in the elections.
“There must not be elections with the participation of armed subversive groups. If this were tolerated, we would all be accomplices in the destruction of Colombian democracy,” Gomez said at a recent political rally.
On the left, Betancur is no longer viewed as reliable. The guerrillas whom he used to court at meetings at the presidential palace now say he betrayed them.
An M-19 leaflet circulating in urban slums describes Betancur as a “wavering president, without a party, without unions, without the Congress, without control of the armed forces and with a growing unpopularity.”