By Rachel Van Dongen | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA - The El Nogal social club, the site of last Friday's deadly bomb blast, may have been specifically targeted because of its suspected role in Colombia's fledgling peace process.
Since December, left-wing rebels claim, the government has been conducting peace talks at the tony club with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group. The paramilitaries, headed by Carlos Castaño, wanted in the United States on charges of drug trafficking and terrorism, had implemented a unilateral cease-fire.
But on a website friendly to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which President Alvaro Uribe Vélez blamed for Friday's car bomb, a message read: "The luxurious club was the frequent site of meetings between political and business sectors with spokesmen for paramilitaries," the Resistance Network site said. "The current process of legalizing paramilitaries is the product of meetings held in different luxury locales in exclusive northern Bogota."
Now, in addition to the 32 people killed and 160 wounded in explosion - the biggest terrorist incident here in more than a decade - the most significant casualty may be the peace process itself. The AUC is hinting that it will once again take up arms against the FARC.
In a letter posted on its website, the AUC said: "If the guerrillas [do not abandon] their practices against the civilian population in their crazy war against the legitimate state, the declaration of peace by the AUC should be revised in letter, if not in spirit." The group added that the leftist guerrillas have taken advantage of the cease-fire to advance their military agenda instead of seeking a negotiated end to the conflict.
The FARC has not taken explicit responsibility for the blast.
Independent Colombian defense analyst Alfredo Rangel says that if the AUC does indeed resume its battle against left-wing rebels, the peace process is in jeopardy, as the government has refused to negotiate without a cease-fire.
"I don't see [the process] broken, but I see it in a situation of very high risk," Mr. Rangel says.
The paramilitaries began as a loose coalition of ranchers protecting themselves against drug traffickers in the 1980s. But in the absence of strong government forces, it soon evolved into a right-wing army to battle the FARC.
Last week, El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper, published a schedule of peace talks that was to conclude at the end of this year with the signing of a peace accord witnessed by former US President Jimmy Carter.
During the first "negotiation" phase, lasting from January to June 11, meetings would take place between government peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, Mr. Castaño, and Salvatore Mancuso, another paramilitary chief wanted by the US. Topics under consideration are freezing arrest warrants for AUC members involved in negotiations and the return of people displaced by the four-decade conflict to paramilitary-controlled land.
In a surprise move last week, Castaño requested to a local radio program that the government create a "concentration zone" where peace talks could be held in Urabá, in the state of Antioquia. The idea brought to mind the failed demilitarized zone granted to the FARC in 1998 by former President Andres Pastrana as a haven for peace talks. The large zone was revoked a year ago this week after the FARC continued its violent behavior and used the zone to stash kidnapping victims and grow coca.
But Castaño insisted that "it is not the same concept," because the police and the Army would be allowed in the area along with international observers. Furthermore, such a zone would only be two to five miles square, compared with the demilitarized zone that was the size of Switzerland.
Rangel points out that such a zone had worked to help demobilize five illegal armed groups in the past, but says "state control" was the key.
The final phase of "demobilization and reinsertion," to begin on June 11 and end Dec. 31, would call on the 20,000 AUC members to lay down their arms in the presence of Mr. Carter or some other international observer.
But there are many obstacles to real peace, including the abstention of several large chunks of the AUC - including the 1,500 Metro Bloc and the "Bloque Elmer Cardenas," with 2,000 men.
Rodrigo, who did not give his last name, the head of the "Bloque Metro," which holds sway in Medellín, said that the peace process was doomed to failure if all the parties don't participate. "We conceive of the peace process as a stage of national reconciliation and reconstruction, which, if there is not represented all of the actors in the conflict and civil society, won't have validity," he told El Tiempo.
Looking for US help
President Uribe warned that rebels were planning more attacks on Colombia's cities. "Authorities and citizens must be permanently alert," Uribe said Sunday night in nationally televised remarks.
Colombia's defense minister, Martha Lucia Ramirez, flew to Miami on Monday to meet with US military leaders. US officials have vowed to continue to help Colombia fight its illegal armed groups.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.