Peace talks that were scheduled this week between the Colombian government and FARC narco-guerrillas have been postponed indefinitely. As critics feared, the peace initiative crafted by President Andres Pastrana and encouraged by the Clinton administration is a disaster.
FARC's response has been blood and iron: military assaults based in its new demilitarized zone (DMZ) and murder of Colombian National Peace (CNP) officers. Amid the carnage, the State Department said last week that shipment of U.S. military helicopters desperately needed by the CNP, first promised in October 1996, might possibly be completed in September.
Colombia is the first Western Hemisphere state falling under control of guerrillas financed by international drug cartels, but it remains a State Department backwater. While the United States is committed to Balkan ethnic wars, Colombia's priority always has been low. When a newly elected Pastrana brought peace plans to Washington nearly a year ago, the State Department saw an easy way out. But it has not been easy back in Colombia.
On July 6, The Post's correspondent Karen DeYoung reported from Bogota that under Pastrana, the guerrilla war and drug trafficking "only have gotten worse." After that was written, FARC launched a brutal offensive. On July 7, according to Colombian intelligence, a FARC force of nearly 1,000 men attacked a forward army post and killed at least 10 troops from the 13th Brigade.
Unofficial field reports indicate that two Colombian army counterinsurgency forces were shredded in the fighting, with 48 confirmed dead and 30 wounded (and the death toll is expected to rise because of insufficient medical attention). Over three days recently, FARC killed eight children, 10 adult civilians and 27 CNP officers (nine of them in off-duty assassinations).
It got worse on July 11. In mountainous terrain just five miles outside Bogota, an outpost of the 13th Brigade was attacked with more disastrous results. According to Colombian sources, at least 45 soldiers were killed and many more were missing.
In trying to stave off the July 7 guerrilla attack, the mobility of government forces was limited to the use of only seven helicopters (two were damaged in the fighting).
On July 12, Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Larkin hinted that help might be on the way. Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, had written on May 12 asking about the fate of Huey helicopters that Larkin had promised the CNP nearly three years ago in an Oct. 10, 1996, letter.
Larkin's two-month delay in answering Burton is the norm, as is her lack of urgency. "At this time," she wrote, four Huey helicopters will be ready "by late July" and will be sent "as soon as possible," but only after the U.S. government approves and there is "available military air transport." The rest of 10 promised helicopters will be shipped in September -- "or as soon as possible thereafter." That's not exactly the urgency shown in assaulting Serbia.
Last Thursday morning, two senior Colombian officials -- Luis Ramirez, minister of defense, and Gen. Fernando Tapias, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- met with House International Relations Committee Chairman Ben Gilman and other Republicans on the committee. The Colombians claimed victory against the FARC in the July 11 fighting outside Bogota. Gilman is a kindly gentleman but did not believe a word of it.
After the meeting, Gilman issued a statement that the new DMZ has become a "drug export zone" also used by the FARC. A week earlier, Gen. Jose Serrano, the heroic CNP commander, was in Washington saying much the same about the DMZ, while loyally supporting the need to attempt Pastrana's peace offensive.
Pastrana complains that Gilman, Burton and other House Republicans are undercutting peace. He has arranged for prominent Americans -- Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and New York Stock Exchange President Richard Grasso -- to meet with FARC leaders. But the guerrilla army now is estimated at 15,000 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and may be larger than that -- well-fed, well-armed and financed by narcotics money. Thus, Gilman last Thursday called on the Pastrana regime to "confront" this inconvenient fact: "It is losing the war, and the Clinton administration has not been helping."