October 5, 2001
By JUAN "sell out" FORERO
With Colombians outraged over the rebel killing of a beloved musical figure, President Andrés Pastrana is facing what may be his most difficult decision since he embarked on a peace effort, whether to continue negotiations with a guerrilla group reviled by most Colombians.
Mr. Pastrana has given himself until Tuesday to decide whether to let the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia remain in control of a swath of land that his government ceded as an inducement to begin talks three years ago. Although he has extended the rebels' hold on the land before, his government is facing mounting opposition since the killing last weekend of Consuelo Araujo, 62, an energetic promoter of Colombian music and a former culture minister whom the rebels had kidnapped.
A poll published on Tuesday in El Tiempo, the largest newspaper in the country, said 61 percent of respondents agreed that the peace effort should end in light of the killing. Just 23 percent said they believed that the talks should continue. The execution- style killing touched an emotional chord among Colombians, who have grown accustomed to brutal acts after decades of civil conflict.
An emotional candlelight vigil in Ms. Araujo's hometown, Valledupar, drew thousands of people who mourned the death of a woman who was a close friend of Gabriel García- Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, and the wife of the inspector general of Colombia. In Bogotá, Congress suspended regular sessions.
"There is no respect for life, for the law, for free movement," said Lina Beltrán, 37, a teacher in the capital who said talks should be called off. "Pastrana is a weak president, and the only thing he looks for is to maintain a demilitarized zone, so he can say, `I tried.' "
Experts and politicians are calling for the antiterrorism effort being waged by Washington to include the rebel force, known as FARC, as a target. Although many experts said they did not believe that the Bush administration would move directly against the rebels, military officials, conservative members of Congress and many people from the upper classes are apparently hoping that Washington, already bankrolling a .1 billion antidrug program in Colombia, will become even more heavily involved.
"I think many of the people in the Colombian society who are tired of the peace process see an advantage in America's war on terrorism," said Michael Gold-Biss, a Colombia expert at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
After the terrorist attacks on the United States, the army placed an ad in El Tiempo that showed towns leveled in rebel offensives and issued a report about the high number of foreigners kidnapped by the rebels. Army officials, who usually refer to the rebel force as "narcoguerrillas" or bandits, have made sure to refer to the rebels as terrorists.
For Mr. Pastrana, the situation is dire. A poll released on Monday showed that 87 percent of Colombians believed that he had failed to accomplish what he had promised. Some Colombians said they were displeased with Mr. Pastrana's response since Ms. Araujo's death. In brief remarks after her body was found, he denounced the killing and said he would evaluate the peace talks.
"How can it occur to him to only say that he will evaluate the process?" Jaime Barretto, 34, a lawyer in Bogotá, asked. "Does he think that will do some sort of harm to the FARC? The country is tired because the guerrillas and the paramilitaries do what they want, and no one says anything."