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Last Updated:12/5/00
Open Letter to President Pastrana on Future of Peace Talks with the FARC, December 4, 2000

(Versión en Español)

December 4, 2000
Doctor Andrés Pastrana Arango
President of Colombia
Palacio de Nariño
Carrera 8 No. 7-26
Santa Fe de Bogotá, Colombia

Dear President Pastrana:

We write to you out of concern for the future of the peace process in Colombia. More than two years ago you took bold steps to activate a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), your country’s largest guerrilla group. One of those steps was the removal of security forces from five municipalities in southern Colombia (an area known as the “clearance zone,” or despeje), to serve as neutral ground for peace talks. The despeje must be renewed every six months; the next deadline is December 7.

We recognize that this will be a difficult choice. The talks are in a particularly difficult moment, given the FARC’s unilateral November 14 decision to “freeze” the process. You are facing pressures not to renew the zone – a step that would effectively end the talks. It is our hope that, despite these pressures, you will give the peace process a chance to continue by extending the despeje for another six months. We echo the November 29 declaration of the National Peace Council, an official forum incorporating representatives of the Colombian government and all sectors of Colombian society: “We consider necessary the extension of the zone as an ideal mechanism for the continuation of the dialogues and peace negotiations.”

We understand that Colombians’ calls to end the despeje are more forceful now than they were during previous renewal deadlines. Pressures to close the despeje have also come from U.S. government representatives’ recent public statements. While in Colombia on November 20, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gen. Barry McCaffrey called the zone’s creation “a naive mistake on the part of the government.” A few days later Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering declared, “It is not possible to defend the existence of the despeje when there are no negotiations.”

We realize that further pressures arise from the FARC’s behavior in the zone and its failure to demonstrate a willingness to move the process forward. We share your disappointment with the lack of a monitoring presence in the zone, and with recurring reports of abuses. We also share your disappointment with the guerrillas’ unilateral decision to freeze the talks, and we call on the FARC to reverse its decision without delay. We join you in urging the FARC to call off its 70-day-old blockade of the southern department of Putumayo, which is causing a severe humanitarian crisis in that region, and to respect standards of international humanitarian law throughout the country. At the same time, we urge you to take further concrete actions to end the reported continuing pattern of lower-ranking military officers’ aiding and abetting of paramilitary groups.

The possibility remains that the talks will still be frozen on December 7. Even if that happens, renewing the zone – while not a satisfying option – is far better than the alternative, which would end the peace process altogether. It would particularly be a shame to call off the talks while, as you pointed out on November 29, “the issue of a cease fire remains on the table.”

Though formal negotiations have been at a standstill since mid-November, the zone is still the site of meetings between government officials and FARC leaders. On November 26 and December 1, despite the “freeze,” High Commissioner for Peace Camilo Gómez and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda met in the zone for several hours. At this stage, such unofficial meetings – which allow for discussions of issues ranging from cease-fires to prisoner exchanges – are at least as important as the talks themselves. They would be impossible, however, if the despeje did not exist. Failing to renew the zone would take Colombia back to where it was three years ago, when such meetings were highly infrequent and very difficult to arrange.

Resolving conflicts – especially those as long and bitterly fought as Colombia’s – is never easy. The talks are certain to take several more years. Like all peace processes, the one you began two years ago will be disorderly and punctuated by many difficult moments. But it is vastly better than plunging back into a full-scale war that virtually all observers agree cannot be won.

When you first agreed to establish the despeje, you said, “For peace I will risk everything.” It is our hope that you are still guided by this principle. Be assured that you will have our support if you continue to take the risks that peace demands by renewing the despeje zone for another six months.

Sincerely,

Professor William M. LeoGrande
American University
Washington, D.C.

Sally Lilienthal
President
Ploughshares Fund
San Francisco, California

Professor Cynthia McClintock
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

Professor Kenneth E. Sharpe
Swarthmore College
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

George Vickers
Director
Washington Office on Latin America
Washington, D.C.

Robert E. White
President
Center for International Policy
Washington, D.C.

William D. Delahunt
Member of Congress
State of Massachusetts

Sam Farr
Member of Congress
State of California

Cynthia A. McKinney
Member of Congress
State of Georgia

John Joseph Moakley
Member of Congress
State of Massachusetts

Janice D. Schakowsky
Member of Congress
State of Illinois

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