Millions of Colombians marched today in anti-war protests as long-awaited peace talks began between the Colombian government and the country's largest rebel group.
The event involved at least 10 million protesters across Colombia, according to Francisco Santos, news editor of the Bogota daily El Tiempo. Thousands more were involved in parallel demonstrations around the world in an astonishing display of unified anger in a country battered by nearly four decades of armed conflict that has killed at least 30,000 people. Marchers are hoping that the protests will spur negotiators to reach a quick resolution to the violence.
Marches took place in more than 600 Colombian cities, towns and villages, said Santos, who is also a key organizer of the peace campaign, known as "No Mas!"--No More. Police said more than 2 million marched in Bogota, the capital. None of the crowd estimates could be independently confirmed.
Demonstrators, many of whom wore white shirts and carried white banners and white flags emblazoned with the words "No Mas!", transformed asphalt avenues into long, white ribbons of humanity.
"The entire country wants peace," said David Molina, 29, a former leftist guerrilla who disarmed in 1991. Now unemployed and using a wheelchair as a result of an assassination attempt several years ago, Molina participated in the Bogota march with other former guerrillas who were wedged between a phalanx of police and soldiers and representatives of the secret police.
"Today we don't have any resentment," he said. "We all just want peace."
Meanwhile, government and guerrilla negotiators met in the farming town of Uribe to restart the tenuous peace process after a three-month hiatus. Both sides began discussing a 12-point negotiating agenda that includes human rights, agricultural policy, political and judicial reform, and the fight against corruption and drug trafficking.
The peace process has stumbled along since the Colombian government temporarily pulled its security troops out of an area the size of Switzerland as a concession to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After settling on the sweeping negotiating agenda in May, the talks deadlocked over President Andres Pastrana's demand that an international verification committee be allowed to enter the zone to monitor rebel activity. Faced with resolute FARC opposition, Pastrana dropped his demand and proceeded with talks.
During the opening ceremony, government peace commissioner Victor G. Ricardo referred to the demonstrations. "Whoever thinks that the mass marches of today and tomorrow are exclusively against the guerrillas is wrong," he declared. "No, ladies and gentlemen. What those multitudes want, what they ask for, what they will have is social, political and economic justice that creates conditions [for] peace."
Borrowing from the marchers' rallying cry, the FARC's lead negotiator, Raul Reyes, said, "No more gringo military aid. No more displaced people. No more exiles. No more meddling of the North American state in the internal affairs of Colombia. No more privatizations . . . No more Colombians without housing. No more criminalization of social protest. No more discrimination against women and ethnic communities."
Today's demonstrations were the most recent in a series of marches that began in May.
CAPTION: More than 2 million in Bogota demanded an end to decades of killing.