THREE TIMES in the past 30 years Colombian governments have tried and failed to negotiate peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Government (FARC), a onetime Marxist guerrilla group that embraced kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism. The most dismal episode began in 1999, when the government declared a cease-fire and ceded the FARC a safe zone the size of Switzerland, only to watch as the group used the space to regroup, recruit and cultivate coca while refusing to bargain seriously.
That history made many Colombians appropriately wary when its current government, under President Juan Manuel Santos, announced plans for new negotiations it hopes will lead to the FARC’s demobilization. This time, however, there is more reason for optimism — thanks in significant part to the success of U.S.-Colombian collaboration over the past decade.
In the years since the last peace talks failed, the United States has supplied some $8 billion to Columbia, helping it to double the size of its army, train elite units, acquire helicopters and other advanced equipment, and take the fight to the FARC. The movement has suffered crippling blows, including the death of its founder, the killing of its top leader and other senior commanders, and the freeing of high-profile hostages including three Americans. Thought to command 20,000 fighters at the beginning of the century, the FARC now has less than half that many.
As defense minister under former president Álvaro Uribe, Mr. Santos played a critical role in that campaign. Now, breaking with Mr. Uribe, he is boldly betting that what remains of the FARC will follow the example of other Latin American armed movements that have transformed themselves into democratic political parties. He is right to try; a demobilization could greatly cut violence in rural areas and open the way to development, including of Colombia’s energy reserves.
There are, nevertheless, some big obstacles. Though the agenda for negotiations is limited to measures such as land reform and guarantees of political participation, the FARC, backed by Cuba and Venezuela, may still aim at undermining the liberal democratic political system that Mr. Santos represents. Some of its leaders are implicated in war crimes or international drug trafficking; they should be held accountable. FARC leaders have said that when talks begin in Oslo on Oct. 8, they will seek a cease-fire; that could allow them to repeat their previous dilatory strategy.
Mr. Santos, however, is clearly aware of those dangers. He has said that military operations will go on and that the term of the talks will be limited to a few months; “If there are not advances, we simply won’t continue,” he told the country. Perhaps the FARC will use the chance it has to give up violence and criminality. If not, the United States should support Colombia’s military in a renewed war against this menace.