Wednesday, February 22, 2012

El Caguan: Ten Years On

Jan. 1999, Pres. Andrés Pastrana waits in vain for FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to occupy his seat.

Ten years ago, Colombia's most ambitious experiment in peacemaking ended in failure.

The FARC's territory:
larger than Switzerland.
In early 1999, Pres. Andres Pastrana had demilitarized a region in Southern Colombia larger than Switzerland in which to negotiate a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas.

But even during the supposed peace process, the guerrillas continued kidnapping and killing and used the region to cache weapons and drugs and hold hostages. In late 2002, Pastrana declared the negotiations over and sent the military in to occupy the demilitarized zone.

Pastrana and Marulanda finally meet. 
A few years ago I interviewed a young woman who had been kidnapped while a teenager when the FARC invaded her family's apartment building. The guerrillas took her and her father to the demilitarized zone, where they held them for years while the government talked peace with the guerrillas and the guerrillas extorted a ransom from the girl's relatives. After about three years of jungle monotony, the father and daughter were freed - but by then the family business and family's relations had been irrepairably damaged.

When the government declared Caguan a failure and sent in the military, the FARC just melted back into the jungle. For the FARC's hostages, life became more difficult, because the guerrillas now marched them constantly thru the jungle to evade army pursuit.

Hopes for a negotiated peace have never recovered from the demilitarized zone experiment. Each time a new peace initiative is suggested, critics cry out 'Not another Caguan!' The name has become shorthand for weakness, failure and useless concessions.

Colombia continues living the consequences of El Caguan in the succeeding governments' aggressive militaristic strategies against the guerillas.

Guerrilla and government leaders pose together,
when peace appeared possible. 
El Caguan was also a huge missed opportunity for the FARC, who could have scored P.R. points by turning their quasi republic into some sort of socialist laboratory. Instead, today they are weakened and on the run, several of their most important leaders killed by the military.

The image of the 'silla vacia', or 'empty chair', when FARC founder Manuel Marulanda no-showed for a negotiation session, leaving Pres. Pastrana seated alone, became the most enduring symbol of the negotiations' futility and the guerrillas' lack of sincerity.

It's hard to conceive today of Colombia's severe crisis at that time, when some observers were calling it a failed state and even talking about it fragmenting into three separate regions, controlled by the guerrillas, central government and right-wing paramilitaries.

Today, Colombia is much better off, violence and drug production slashed - but still suffering from guerrillas' and other groups' drug-fueled violence. Despite billions of dollars in military and other assisstance from Washington and a beefed-up military, the guerrillas struggle on in the jungles and mountains, as well as in the old El Caguan region.

Even a weakened guerrilla force is difficult to defeat - especially when it receives a huge income from the drug trade. That's why decriminalizing drugs, as Pres. Santos and other Latin American leaders have recently suggested, is the best hope for finally ending Colombia's long conflict.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

Decriminalizing drugs, is the only way to end the conflict, the struggle, and the misery that drug trafficking has created, not only in my country, but now in Mexico and elsewhere. Also Mike, we have to remember that in the Colombias's conflict and struggle there is more than one player, is not just the FARC but we have to mention the PARAMILITARES... the scary and very feared arm of the extreme right.

Miguel said...

Personally, I'm not 100% certain that decriminalization would solve the whole problem, but am certain that it's worth a try.

Yes, the paramilitaries are an important and horrific factor in Colombia's armed conflict.