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Colombia armed forces' crucial role in peace talks

Associated Press Modified: October 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm •  Published: October 12, 2012

That issue is certain to come up again, especially given how sullied the armed forces' human rights record was during a U.S-backed military buildup overseen by then-President Alvaro Uribe from 2002-2010 that transformed it into a more professional force.

The armed forces dealt FARC rebels unprecedented blows, reclaiming most of the country, radically reducing rebel kidnapping and extortion and inspiring waves of guerrilla desertions. But hundreds of soldiers, some ranking as high as colonel, committed extrajudicial killings. In some cases, civilian peasants were slain, dressed in fatigues and passed off by their killers as rebels. To date, 601 members of the military have been convicted in such killings, out of 1,948 accused, according to the chief prosecutor's office.

Any peace deal will have to address that sensitive issue, as well as what to do with any FARC leaders commanders accused of war crimes.

"While police and soldiers keep getting killed be these criminals, their former commanders are talking at the table," complained Uribe, who opposes the peace talks, favoring instead attempting to win militarily. Also named to the negotiating team by Santos was Gen. Oscar Naranjo, who stepped down as national police director in mid-year and now advises Mexico's president-elect.

Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre has suggested that combatants on both sides found guilty of abuses could face non-prison punishment, though anyone implicated in crimes against humanity such as kidnapping and massacres would have to be barred from electoral politics.

FARC leaders expect a political future, not a life behind bars, to be the outcome of any peace deal.

Few Colombians believe peace can be achieved without the military's buy-in. It has, after all been a key power broker in a nation with a traditionally weak central government. The armed forces controls $14.4 billion in annual budget, has 430,000 people in uniform including police and has the ear of Santos, who was defense minister from 2006-2009.

In that job and as president since mid-2010, Santos oversaw the unprecedented killings of three top FARC leaders, including the rebels' top commander. He was also able to exert greater control over the military.

Some Colombians don't believe that control is very firm. Or that a man such as Mora who vociferously opposed previous talks can be a good-faith negotiator.

They include Andres Pastrana, Colombia's president during the failed 1999-2002 parley. He called Mora "the Colombian that is the biggest enemy of peace."

Mora himself did not respond to repeated phone messages left by the Associated Press seeking comment.

But he did indicate to Caracol TV in a brief statement that he was entering the talks with an open mind.

"I believe that 99 percent of wars in the history of the world have ended at the negotiating table, and we are no exception," Mora said.

Isacson, the WOLA analyst, believes Santos' choice of Mora and Naranjo as negotiators "has weakened the position of critics like President Uribe, and it helps deliver the military."

Belisario Betancur, a conservative who was the first to negotiate with the FARC as president, from 1982 to 1986, agreed.

"Peace," he said, "is signed by the combatants."


Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.