Colombia armed forces' crucial role in peace talks
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Colombia armed forces' crucial role in peace talks

Bogotá : Colombia | Oct 12, 2012 at 9:47 AM PDT
Source: Associated Press
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Jorge Enrique Mora spent a professional lifetime battling Colombia's rebels, whose assaults on troops under his command have compelled him to attend more funerals than most could bear. On Monday, though, he sits down with them to talk peace, and the former armed forces chief may be the key to whether the negotiations that open in the Norwegian capital of Oslo succeed or fail...During the talks from 1999 to 2002, the government allowed the rebels a Switzerland-sized safe haven and decreed a cease-fire, outraging Mora and his cohort. For him they were simply "bandits, drug traffickers and terrorists." The army commander at the time, he dragged his feet in removing troops from the safe haven, and the military repeatedly defied civilian leaders by ordering overflights that rattled the rebels. This time, as a renewed effort to obtain peace with those same rebels opens formally in Oslo before moving to Cuba in late October, President Juan Manuel Santos opted not to exclude the soldiers. Santos knows he needs the military's blessing to sell to the public, and the barracks, on any deal that might be struck. So he put Mora on the five-man team. "One of many reasons why the last peace process failed was that they didn't have buy-in from the armed forces," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "Getting them involved early was smart, so they couldn't play the role of spoilers." Mora represents a constituency that has done a good deal of the dying a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Hundreds of troops are killed annually, hundreds more maimed by mines. Soldiers and police have also been captured and held, in some cases, for more than a decade in jungle prisons. April as a condition for the launch of secret talks in Havana. The president of Colombia's Association of Retired Military Officers, former army Gen. Jaime Ruiz, calls the military's role in negotiations crucial. "While we have no trust (in the guerrillas), we can't oppose this process," said, "because the country wants peace." An opinion poll published last month by Semana magazine found 77 percent of Colombians support the peace talks. It polled 1,012 people in 13 cities and had an error margin of 3 percentage points...This time around, there will be neither a cease-fire nor a safe haven for the rebels...The military brass was also incensed when the chief government peace negotiator, Victor G...That issue is certain to come up again, especially given how sullied the armed forces' human rights record was during a U.S-backed military buildup overseen by then-President Alvaro Uribe from 2002-2010 that transformed it into a more professional force...But hundreds of soldiers, some ranking as high as colonel, committed extrajudicial killings. In some cases, civilian peasants were slain, dressed in fatigues and passed off by their killers as rebels. To date, 601 members of the military have been convicted in such killings, out of 1,948 accused, according to the chief prosecutor's office. While police and soldiers keep getting killed be these criminals, their former commanders are talking at the table," complained Uribe, who opposes the peace talks, favoring instead attempting to win militarily...Oscar Naranjo, who stepped down as national police director in mid-year and now advises Mexico's president-elect. Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre has suggested that combatants on both sides found guilty of abuses could face non-prison punishment, though anyone implicated in crimes against humanity such as kidnapping and massacres would have to be barred from electoral politics...Few Colombians believe peace can be achieved without the military's buy-in. It has, after all been a key power broker in a nation with a traditionally weak central government. The armed forces controls $14.4 billion in annual budget, has 430,000 people in uniform including police and has the ear of Santos, who was defense minister from 2006-2009...Or that a man such as Mora who vociferously opposed previous talks can be a good-faith negotiator. They include Andres Pastrana, Colombia's president during the failed 1999-2002 parley. He called Mora "the Colombian that is the biggest enemy of peace." Mora himself did not respond to repeated phone messages left by the Associated Press seeking comment. But he did indicate to Caracol TV in a brief statement that he was entering the talks with an open mind. "I believe that 99 percent of wars in the history of the world have ended at the negotiating table, and we are no exception," Mora said. Santos' choice of Mora and Naranjo as negotiators "has weakened the position of critics like President Uribe, and it helps deliver the military." Peace," he said, "is signed by the combatants." --- Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

 
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