The response of the girl on Passport Control at Heathrow was typical. ‘Where have you just come from, sir?’ she asked as she took my passport ‘Bogota,’ I replied. ‘Oh, Christ!’ she said, and handed it straight back, as if it might still be charged with danger.

I have spent much of my time in Colombia over the last five years. Only once have I experienced anything like danger. It was during the Drug War, when a bomb went off in the next street. I had called at a friend’s flat to collect something, and was browsing along the book-lined walls when the noise of the blast came through them as if they were rice-paper. For a moment the world went into negative. Everything that had seemed substantial, so securely there, myself included, felt transparent. The only solid thing was that sound. A little closer, it said, and you and your friend and all her books would be shredded on the wind.

One evening I happened to see the Justice Minister coming home from work. Two police outriders came zipping up the street on their Yamahas, followed by the Minister’s limousine, closely followed by a white Toyota Landcruiser. As the Minister’s car slowed to turn into the block of flats where she lived, a whistle shrieked and the doors of the Toyota flew open. Bodyguards leapt out, their submachine-guns held up in the air, and ran with the limousine down into the underground car-park. Thirty seconds of drama on the other side of the street. Another thirty seconds and the traffic was flowing normally. The lights changed to red and the old cigarette-seller on the corner waved her pack of contraband Marlboros at the waiting cars.

Living in Colombia is like that. Danger is not ubiquitous. Nor, unless the drug barons mount a bombing campaign, is it indiscriminate. It has particular targets whom it keeps in its sights, shadowing them wherever they go. The rest of us just glimpse it occasionally, on the other side of the street.

What is inescapable is the emotional toll of living in a country where one violent episode seems to trigger another. Colombians are resilient, they have a gallows humour. But I can see the darkening tones in my friends’ work, can hear the dismay under their late-night conversations. They pick at the tangled knot of the last forty years, trying to discern, in the words of the title of a recent book, En que momento se jodio Colombia – ‘Just where Colombia screwed up’.

Huge crowds follow the coffins to the graveside, wistfully waving white handkerchiefs, which have become a symbol of peace. Every so often there is a political initiative that amounts to no more than that. At the moment a Constituent Assembly, elected on a very low poll, is drawing up a new constitution. The awkward truth, frequently underlined by Alvaro Gomez in the days before he became one of the Assembly’s three presidents, is that what Colombia needs is not new laws but the will to apply them.

There are signs that the will may be developing. Extensive frauds have been uncovered in the social security system, and in the public services of Colombia’s main port, Barranquilla. The newspapers are exposing corruption with more determination than they have shown for a long time. Even the Congress and the Senate have caught the spirit of reform, offering to surrender privileges that led to a trade in favours and politically secured jobs.

But Colombia’s Oresteia will not end that simply. Just as the country senses a possible future, ghosts rise up from its violent past. Guerrillas marked the Assembly’s opening by launching fifty attacks in two days. Oil pipelines and electricity pylons were blown up. Mines and cement works were attacked. Crop-spraying aircraft and fishing boats were incinerated. Traffic was stopped and people ordered out of their vehicles. Petrol was siphoned from the cars and splashed on the lorries and buses, which were burnt at the roadside. Transport was paralysed, and with the peasants unable to get their produce to market, prices rose sharply in Bogota, creating serious problems for the large section of the population which has to live on the minimum wage of £50 a month.

By the end of February the guerrillas had done £200 million pounds’ worth of damage. For a developing country, this is damage on a massive scale, and it has two extraordinary features. The first is that it is directed against the very people the guerrillas are supposed to be championing – the workers and the peasants. The second is that the guerrillas have always supported the Assembly, and ex-guerrillas, from the four groups which have so far disarmed and formed political parties, are strongly represented in it.

That guerrillas should end up attacking the process of reform is a historical irony that goes right back to 9 April 1948, the day Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a Liberal leader with a reforming passion and a tremendous popular following, was gunned down in the street. This is where Colombia screwed up. The poor of Bogota rioted for days, burning down entire streets. The unrest culminated in la Violencia, the Civil War that racked Colombia in the Fifties. Ostensibly a war between reaction and reform – the Church pronounced all Liberals atheists and sent the Conservatives against them in a holy war – it became a conflict between landowners, who used flying columns of horsemen, the dreaded flocks of birds or pajaros, to extend their domains. The peasants fled to the cities, creating the shanty towns which, especially in Medellin, have bred their own violence. The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the largest of the groups still fighting, began as a self-defence force, the peasants’ answer to los pajaros.

In the Sixties they came under the influence of the Communist Party, which takes its line from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Other movements developed, including the other main group still fighting, the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional). Early recruits to the ELN included two priests, Camilo Torres and Manuel Perez, a Spanish priest who is now its leader. Camilo Torres was a sociologist at a time when the discipline was new and his lectures in the Universidad Nacional attracted a wide following. So wide that the Army became alarmed and put pressure on the authorities to sack him. He worked in a poor parish in Bogota and then took to the hills, where he was killed in his first combat.

Official resistance to change continued throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Those were the years of the tortures and disappearances of which Colombia is still accused. When Belisario Betancur became president in 1982, he tried to break the vicious circle, proposing peace talks with the guerrillas and opening the political debate. It became possible to discuss Colombia’s glaring social inequalities and the shortcomings of its two-party system without being branded as an agitator. The initiative might have worked had it been proposed fifteen years earlier. Now it met with one insuperable obstacle: the guerrillas had changed out of all recognition.

It is difficult, writing for English readers who may well have grown up with a poster of Che Guevara on the wall, to convey what has happened to the FARC: they have become gangsters. They used to be respected by the peasants because they always paid in labour for the food they took. Now they no longer bother with such delicacies. They thrive on kidnapping and extortion, demanding protection money from the farmers and a tithe from the peasants. They became involved in the drug trade to the point where they were known as the Third Cartel.

The change in the ELN is subtler: they have become fanatical to the point of lunacy. A good example is their policy with regard to the international oil companies that drill in Colombia. They began by demanding protection money, which the companies were foolish enough to pay. Then they started to blow up pipelines, claiming that the companies were exploiting Colombia and demanding a conference on the subject. Ecopetrol held the conference. Now they simply blow up pipelines with no logical end in view, causing immense economic and ecological damage.

Still more disturbing, for the peasants who have to co-exist with them, is the ELN’s reputation for brutality. Last year El Tiempo reported the case of a family who were asked by an army patrol for the loan of a cooking-pot. The soldiers were young conscripts who had been out in the hills for three days. They lent them the pot and gave them two plantains to put in the soup. Next morning the ELN appeared. They took the father of the family, tied him to a tree, and tortured him in front of his wife and children. They cut out his tongue. They cut off his genitals and stuffed them into his mouth. Finally, almost as an afterthought, they shot him through the head.

15 February was the 25th anniversary of Camilo Torres’s death. He was remembered as a national hero, El Espectador devoting its literary supplement to him. Manuel Perez, meanwhile, is probably the most hated man in Colombia. The difference between them is some measure of what has happened to the group that still bears Camilo’s name, the Union Camilista-ELN.

If the FARC and the ELN have consistently shown bad faith in the peace negotiations, the Government has shown good faith to the point of foolishness. The Peace Treaty of 1984 gave the guerrillas a considerable measure of protection, establishing no-go areas for the Army, and Monitoring Commissions staffed by left-wing lawyers sympathetic to the guerillas. But it was already obvious, from the FARC’s own statements at a conference held in 1983, that they were only using the peace talks as a tactic to enable them to re-arm and regroup. They have doubled in strength since they signed the Treaty.

The FARC were attacking police stations and robbing banks while their political wing, the Union Patriotica, was contesting elections. One of their Congressmen was actually seen leading an attack. If we are to believe the evidence which the British mercenary David Tomkins gave to the United States Senate, Colombia’s dirty war sprang from the Army’s frustration that the Government had allowed itself to be duped. Tomkins stated that he was recruited in 1988 by a Colombian army officer to train a paramilitary force to attack Casa Verde, the FARC’s headquarters, and bring the negotiations to an end. The drug barons, who had fallen out with the FARC over various deals, provided the training ground. Tomkins’s paramilitaries never did attack Casa Verde: but they appear to have been responsible for the series of massacres of left-wing sympathisers that shook Colombia in 1988. The Union Patriotica finally dissociated themselves from the FARC. But by then it was too late: over a thousand of them died in the dirty war, which has flared up again, significantly enough, since the latest attacks.

All of which prompts the reflection that in recent years Colombia’s human rights abuses have come, not from strong government, but from weak government: from the Government allowing other forces to get out of control. Reporting on a situation as complex as Coloumbia, where guerrillas, drug barons and paramilitaries are all disputing power, and rapidly forming and breaking alliances between themselves, Amnesty International’s policy of only recording those violations attributable to government, seems, at the very least, poor methodology. Colombian governments are made to appear repressive military regimes whereas in fact Betancur and his successor, Virglio Barco, were liberals muddled by their own wishful thinking. If they had not allowed the FARC to make a mockery of the peace process, the Union Patriotica might not be peopling Colombia’s cemeteries. They might be sitting where the ex-guerrillas of the M19 are sitting now, occupying a quarter of the seats in the Constituent Assembly.

The M19’s electoral success is another historical irony. They dealt the peace initiative its cruellest blow, occupying the Palace of Justice in 1985 to put Betancur on trial for alleged breaches of the Treaty. It was a spectacular publicity coup of the kind they were good at. But the M19 were essentially urban terrorists, never able to control whole areas of the country as the FARC and ELN do. They needed the peace initiative more than it needed them and made a violent return to the negotiating table in 1989 by kidnapping Alvaro Gomez, one of Colombia’s best-known politicians, and forcing a new set of talks, thus turning defeat into victory for both sides. The peace initiative suddenly looked successful – and the M19 enjoyed an influence they had never known before. From being one of Colombia’s most extreme groups they have moved under their new leader, Antonio Navarro Wolf, to presenting themselves as the soul of moderation. Navarro Wolf and Alvaro Gomez have given the irony its final twist by working harmoniously together as joint presidents of the Assembly.

But the M19’s history will not lie down either. Hardly had the new President of the Republic, Cesar Gaviria, brought them into the government than the Procurator, a kind of Ombudsman with wide powers, announced that he would be asking for the dismissal of the general who had led the Army’s attempt to recover the Palace of Justice. It was a disastrous operation, which possibly should never have been attempted. The building caught fire and over a hundred people died. But it would not have been necessary if the M19 had not occupied the building in the first place. The prospect of a general stripped of his rank while a guerrilla leader sat in the Health Ministry was too much for the Army to take and they moved against the outer defences of Casa Verde. Gaviria announced the end of the no-go areas and Casa Verde itself was occupied on the day the elections for the Assembly took place.

The attacks in February were the guerrillas’ response and they show the depth of the problem Gaviria, who was Barco’s Chief Minister, helped to make for himself. The guerrillas’ military capacity has been allowed to grow out of all proportion to their popular support. Influence is an apt word for the M19, who were weak in military terms but have enjoyed electoral success since they disarmed. The FARC and the ELN have little or no popular support but considerable destructive power. They are smaller in numbers than the Army: 10,000 against 200,000. But most of these 200,000 are teenage conscripts. The guerrillas are better trained and – thanks to arms shipments from Cuba and profits from the drug trade – better armed. Now they cast a shadow over the Assembly on which Gaviria’s whole presidential strategy is based. Whatever reforms are proposed Will be irrelevant if they are not given time to work. No developing country can sustain the kind of damage Colombia has been taking in recent months.

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