Colombia armed forces' crucial role in peace talks

Associated Press Modified: October 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm •  Published: October 12, 2012
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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora spent a professional lifetime battling Colombia's rebels, whose assaults on troops under his command have compelled him to attend more funerals than most could bear.

On Monday, though, he sits down with them to talk peace, and the former armed forces chief may be the key to whether the negotiations that open in the Norwegian capital of Oslo succeed or fail.

Mora and other military men were accused of trying to sabotage negotiations the last time the government held talks to try to end its half-century-old conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's main leftist insurgency.

During the talks from 1999 to 2002, the government allowed the rebels a Switzerland-sized safe haven and decreed a cease-fire, outraging Mora and his cohort.

For him they were simply "bandits, drug traffickers and terrorists." The army commander at the time, he dragged his feet in removing troops from the safe haven, and the military repeatedly defied civilian leaders by ordering overflights that rattled the rebels.

This time, as a renewed effort to obtain peace with those same rebels opens formally in Oslo before moving to Cuba in late October, President Juan Manuel Santos opted not to exclude the soldiers.

Santos knows he needs the military's blessing to sell to the public, and the barracks, on any deal that might be struck. So he put Mora on the five-man team.

"One of many reasons why the last peace process failed was that they didn't have buy-in from the armed forces," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "Getting them involved early was smart, so they couldn't play the role of spoilers."

Mora represents a constituency that has done a good deal of the dying a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Hundreds of troops are killed annually, hundreds more maimed by mines.

Soldiers and police have also been captured and held, in some cases, for more than a decade in jungle prisons. The FARC released the last of those prisoners in April as a condition for the launch of secret talks in Havana.

The president of Colombia's Association of Retired Military Officers, former army Gen. Jaime Ruiz, calls the military's role in negotiations crucial.

"While we have no trust (in the guerrillas), we can't oppose this process," said, "because the country wants peace." An opinion poll published last month by Semana magazine found 77 percent of Colombians support the peace talks. It polled 1,012 people in 13 cities and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Like other military men, Ruiz was heartened when Santos made it clear military operations will continue until a peace deal can be reached in which the FARC will be obliged to disarm. This time around, there will be neither a cease-fire nor a safe haven for the rebels.

As the 1999-2002 talks dragged on, the rebels continued to attack Mora's troops outside the safe haven and he publicly complained that the FARC continued to kidnap while expanding its cocaine trafficking.

The military brass was also incensed when the chief government peace negotiator, Victor G. Ricardo, gave FARC leaders copies of legal documents held by the public prosecutor's office detailing accusations of abuses by armed forces members. The FARC had demanded that all soldiers accused of human rights violations be tried by civilians courts.

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