The government and the country's largest guerrilla group signed an agreement Saturday to swap prisoners in the first exchange of its kind in nearly 40 years of combat.
While the long-expected accord was hailed as the first major advance in nearly two years of talks, the frequent delays and tortured negotiations that preceded it signaled the difficult path ahead to reach a lasting peace.
"This is going to build confidence and generate trust on both sides," said Daniel Garcia Pena, a former top peace negotiator. "But it's still too early to call whether this will have a happy ending or not."
President Andres Pastrana, who made peace with the guerrillas a central issue in his 1998 campaign, promised that the exchange will spark other advances, possibly including a cease-fire.
"The peace process is going to change," Pastrana said. "This gives force for new accords--it will allow us to consolidate and advance the process."
The agreement was signed late Saturday afternoon in the Switzerland-size zone that the government ceded in 1998 to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The two sides spent most of the day in the jungle hammering out the final deals of the accord, which had been in the making since November.
In the end, the agreement does not technically call for a prisoner swap but instead envisions an exchange in which both sides will release their sickest prisoners in a ceremony to take place in coming weeks. One of the most ill, police Col. Alvaro Leon Acosta, is expected to be freed within the next few days.
The government will turn over 15 guerrillas to the FARC. In exchange, the FARC has agreed to hand over 42 soldiers and police officers. Later, FARC will deliver 100 more prisoners as a goodwill gesture. The guerrillas have about 500 soldiers and police in captivity.
"This is the first step, a step that is undoubtedly very important," Camilo Gomez, the government's high commissioner for peace, said after signing the accord. "The country should be sure that we are continuing to seek freedom for all the captured soldiers and police."
The push for the swap took on urgency last year after Colombian TV news showed scenes of some of the 500 captured soldiers and police officers being held in miserable conditions in open-air pens in the jungle.
Since then, agreement on the exchange has occurred at least twice previously, only to be frustrated by deep resentment among top Colombian military officials and conservative sectors of the political establishment.
For many in the military, the exchange represents a bald-faced strategy on the part of the FARC to return to its ranks some of its more experienced commanders. The ranks of the 15 rebels to be released was not clear Saturday.
In April, the head of the Colombian army, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, held an angry news conference at which he denounced the guerrillas as narco-traffickers and criticized the idea of the prisoner exchange. Military officials also released a lengthy document picking apart the legality of such an exchange.
The protests postponed the accord just as it seemed on the verge of being signed and resulted in a picayune debate within the government on the terms and conditions of the exchange.
That debate was reflected in the carefully nuanced language of Saturday's accord. The agreement was not for an exchange of "prisoners of war," a term reserved for international conflicts, but of combatants. Nor, the government pointed out, did the accord give the FARC guerrillas the status of "belligerents." Instead, the government continued to refer to them as criminals outside the margins of the law.
Alvaro Uribe Velez, a conservative presidential candidate, welcomed the planned return of the police and soldiers but said he did not believe that the exchange will necessarily further the peace negotiations.
"What will our government do in order to guarantee that the FARC won't go back to guerrilla activities?" Uribe asked of the rebels returned as a result of the accords.
"My second worry is, why didn't our government demand a cease of hostilities as a condition to carry out this exchange?"
The agreement came at a difficult time for Pastrana, whose popularity has plummeted with the lack of results in peace talks. A poll taken last week showed his approval rating at just 24%.
Pastrana has presided over a struggling economy amid a surge in violence on the part of both leftist rebels and increasingly powerful right-wing paramilitary groups.
Gomez said he hoped that Saturday's accord will help pave the way for further negotiations, including talks on a cease-fire.
"Arriving at accords is possible, constructing consensus is possible, and, of course, constructing a peace is possible," he said.
"As the FARC have said, this accord should open the door for others," he said.