Nearly three years ago, a hard-line conservative politician named Alvaro Gomez Hurtado was seized while leaving Sunday Mass and held for 53 days until the liberal Colombian government arranged peace talks with his leftist guerrilla captors.
The attack, which left Gomez's bodyguard dead, was a relatively obscure act in the drama of chronic bloodletting in one of Latin America's most violent countries. Yet it stands today as a benchmark in the swift advance by the drama's leading actors toward a more civil Colombia.
Along a carpeted corridor of Bogota's modern convention center, patrolled inside and out by bomb-sniffing police dogs, Gomez now shares a suite of glass-walled offices with Antonio Navarro Wolf, leader of the M-19 rebel band that kidnaped him and later embraced civilian politics, and with Horacio Serpa Uribe, the liberal negotiator who gained his freedom.
The three men are co-presidents of the National Constituent Assembly, a 73-member body elected last December. Running as mavericks, all three capitalized on an anti-Establishment vote that produced the sharpest realignment of Colombian politics in this century. Many Colombians view the Assembly's goal--to write a new constitution by July 4--as a historic opportunity to overcome decades of guerrilla insurgency, narco-terrorism and bloody official repression.
"A year ago, the very existence of a body like this was unthinkable," Serpa said of the array of traditional politicians, disarmed guerrillas, Indian chiefs, evangelical religious leaders, a renowned poet and a national soccer coach. "But the crisis has pushed us all together," he added in an interview after the Assembly convened in February. "It's time now to set aside our hatreds and design a more open political system."
The sweeping mandate to scrap Latin America's oldest constitution, written in 1886, is a symptom of disillusionment with traditional politics in much of the region. It has shaken the governing classes much as Alberto Fujimori, a little-known academic, did in capturing the presidency of Peru last June.
At the root of Colombia's crisis, most political scientists agree, is a corrupt two-party spoils system that has maintained the dominance of a wealthy elite. After a decade of civil war, the liberals and conservatives agreed in 1957 to alternate the presidency while sharing control of Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and city halls.
In 1968, the president took away most of Congress' budget powers in exchange for a system of auxilios , funds managed by each congressman and meant for civic improvements in his district. Instead, most of the money went to finance reelection campaigns in which each candidate printed and distributed his own ballots--a system that bred wholesale vote buying and discouraged poorer third parties from competing.
Guerrilla groups flourished in the 1960s as a near-continuous state of siege, maintained with military force, frustrated peaceful protest by labor unions, peasant groups and students. The prevailing Wild West lawlessness suited the cocaine traffickers who later set up laboratories, amassed fortunes and bought influence.
"The political class put Colombia in a straitjacket. Citizen protest was criminalized. Despite its extraordinary stability, the civil regime became embedded in violence," said Eduardo Pizzaro, a political scientist at National University.
"The important thing today is not so much the text of a new constitution as the consensus around that text," he said. "It has to be a law respected by everyone."
The idea of reform through a Constituent Assembly arose in peace talks with six guerrilla groups in the 1980s, but proposals to have one elected were repeatedly blocked by Congress and the Supreme Court. "The establishment put a lock on the constitution and threw away the key," said Clara Lopez, an aide to Serpa.
A turning point came amid national outrage over the August, 1989, assassination of Luis Carlos Galan, the reform-minded liberal and leading presidential candidate, by the drug mafia. In the March, 1990, congressional election, university students distributed unofficial ballots calling for a Constituent Assembly, and nearly 2 million votes were cast.
The issue went on the ballot formally in the presidential election last May, with support from Cesar Gaviria, Galan's heir in the liberal reform movement. Colombians gave the Assembly an overwhelming "yes" vote and elected Gaviria president.
Disgust with traditional politics was even more evident in the sudden electoral success of the M-19. Two months after laying down its weapons a year ago and a month after its first presidential candidate was assassinated, the former guerrillas got 13% of the vote.
Then on Dec. 9, with vote buying discouraged by a single secret ballot for all Assembly candidates, the M-19 won 19 seats and gained rough parity with the liberals, who won 24, and the conservatives, who divided 20 seats between two factions. Each bloc received about 1 million of the 3.6 million votes cast.
"People wanted peace. They rewarded us for taking the first step," said Rosemberg Pabon Pabon, the infamous M-19 commander who held 20 assorted diplomats hostage, including the U.S. ambassador, in a two-month takeover of the Dominican Republic's embassy in 1980.
On the 11th anniversary of that assault, Pabon rose as a delegate in the Assembly and declared that violent insurgency had been "a remedy worse than the disease."
The Assembly vote proved unsettling to the Roman Catholic Church, a pillar of the Establishment since Spanish colonial rule. Evangelical Protestant churches, a tiny minority in Colombia, formed a slate that won 115,000 votes and two Assembly seats, shutting out Catholic rivals put up by the right-wing Opus Dei movement.
"On Dec. 9, we came out of the basement. We stopped being third-class citizens," said Jaime Ortiz Hurtado, a Presbyterian pastor and law professor who led the Evangelicals. As president of the Assembly commission drafting a new bill of rights, he is seeking--and is expected to win--language aimed at ending discrimination that closes some jobs, schools and public cemeteries to non-Catholics.
Another novelty in the Assembly is Lorenzo Muelas, a Guambiano tribal elder and one of two Indian delegates. He said he feels awkward being "surrounded by carpets and telephones" and being mocked by suited delegates for wearing a traditional poncho and bowler hat. But he claims wide support for his lone fiposal-- the right of Colombia's 400,000 or more Indians to administer their tribal lands.
Even the 71-year-old Gomez, a two-time conservative presidential candidate with a striking resemblance to New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, entered the Assembly posing as an outsider. After his abduction by the M-19, he shed his hard line against peace talks and his narrow political base, founding a movement called National Salvation that attracted some liberals. It won 11 seats in the Assembly, two more than the traditional conservatives.
Today Gomez maintains what he calls "formal relations" with the M-19's Navarro but refuses to pose for photographs with him. He avoids speaking at all to Otty Patino Hormaza, the guerrilla who managed M-19 propaganda during Gomez's captivity and now sits in the Assembly.
But Gomez and Navarro have formed what Colombians call "an alliance of the kidnaper and the kidnaped" behind one of the Assembly's most controversial proposals--to abolish the Senate and House elected a year ago and to create a unicameral National Assembly.
Another controversy splits the unusual alliance: How to strengthen Colombia's ineffectual justice system, the weakest link in the drug war. Gomez, allied with the government, wants to switch to an "accusatory" system, led by a government prosecutor. The M-19, arguing that such a change would threaten human rights, wants to keep the "inquisitorial" system, in which judges initiate charges, but strengthen it with court-appointed prosecutors who would gather evidence.
On most issues, the former guerrillas have abandoned their revolutionary rhetoric and sound not so different from their old enemies. Their proposed constitution would "promote" worker participation in the management of industry and other reforms to "democratize" wealth and property, without making them obligatory. Analysts say the 43-year-old Navarro, with a popularity rivaling Gaviria's, has presidential ambitions that are better suited by compromise with the traditional parties.
"The M-19 has become more establishment than the establishment," Gomez said. "They're just trying to accommodate themselves into the power structure."
M-19 leaders disagree. "We're more than just new faces in the same official cars," said Patino. "We want to change the system.... But it would have been counterproductive for us to have won a majority. That would have led us into a triumphalist attitude when what the country is looking for is a consensus."
More than two months into the debate, that consensus is shaping up. Almost every delegate wants a more open and decentralized political system, with diminished presidential powers, elected governors and mayors, an end to the state of siege and equal rights for all political parties. The most corrupt features of the system--the auxilios and the individual ballots for each candidate--would be eliminated, and citizens would gain power to initiate referendums or recall elections against dishonest officials. Some seats in Congress would be set aside for candidates of special interest groups such as Indian tribes, consumer groups and trade associations. In a challenge to Catholic authority, divorce would be legalized.
Critics of the Assembly say the constitution was never an obstacle to such reforms and that recent governments have been gradually opening up the system on their own.
The Assembly has offered a forum for guerrillas who might otherwise still be fighting and hope for a truce with those who have yet to give up. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, with 11,000 guerrillas still under arms, have demanded 20 Assembly seats. The government is willing to negotiate that point but the Assembly's time is limited, Semana has reported.
The Assembly's hope for calming the drug war is even less certain. Despite the government's objections, the delegates are likely to adopt a constitutional ban on extradition of cocaine traffickers wanted in the United States--a threat Gaviria has used to try to persuade them to surrender and face trial on lenient terms in Colombia.
No delegate has proposed a narco-amnesty, which would be politically unpopular, but there's some sentiment for a negotiated solution or even a legalization of the cocaine trade. Navarro, the M-19 leader, has said he would not rule out "reconciliation with the Devil."
Pushed Together by Constitutional Crisis
Several years ago, Alvaro Gomez Hurtado was kidnaped by leftist rebels of the M-19 group, led by Antonio Navarro Wolf. Now the two men are serving as co-presidents of Colombia's National Constituent Assembly, along with Horacio Serpa Uribe, the man who negotiated Gomez Hurtado's eventual release.