But latest negotiations in long-running war must persuade guerrillas to abandon arms and cocaine trade.
EL HORNO, COLOMBIA - For the first time in a decade, rebels and the government of Colombia came together for formal peace talks on Wednesday. The goal is to end the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere -- nearly 50 years old and counting.
Despite three previous rounds of failed negotiations since the 1980s, many observers say there are reasons to hope that this time things could be different, including recent military successes that have the guerrillas on the defensive. But the negotiations must not only persuade members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the world's most tenacious armed groups, to finally lay down their weapons. They also aim to dismantle a major criminal enterprise that derives much of its income from drugs and is a prime source of cocaine to the United States.
For many in FARC, the drug profits may be too rich to leave behind. "The trick is to get the guy who is in charge of a front that's getting tens of millions of dollars a year, has a lot of local power and is doing business" with other traffickers "to actually give it up," said Adam Isacson, a senior associate of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.
A volatile mix
In the Cauca region, the dynamics of the war are inescapable. Sandbagged bunkers, roadblocks and tanks are regular sights along highways and roads. Fighting is so intense there, army officers and police officials say, because the region is important for producing and transporting the drugs the guerrillas rely on. In the mountains, coca, the plant used to make cocaine, is grown openly.
This volatile mix of drugs and war is evident in FARC's leadership. The group's top commander, who took over late last year and uses the alias Timochenko, has a $5 million bounty on his head in the United States. According to the State Department, he helped set the group's policies for "the production, manufacture and distribution of hundreds of tons of cocaine" -- and for the killing of hundreds of people who interfered.
Beyond that, three of FARC's peace negotiators were been named in a 2006 federal indictment, charged with helping make the organization a narcotics powerhouse responsible for more than "60 percent of the cocaine sent to the United States" and for "vast numbers" of murders.
Even if the guerrillas are willing to end the conflict, much depends on another factor that cannot be decided at the bargaining table: Are Colombians, aching from years of kidnappings, bombings and indiscriminate killing, ready to let FARC members re-enter society and politics?
"They say, 'What if Timochenko gets elected to Congress?'" said Andres Pastrana, a former president who led the last round of peace talks, from 1999 to 2002. "I hope he gets elected to Congress. If we are not willing to forgive, the peace process is going to be a failure."