(Fellowship of Reconciliation / flickr)
Update (April 4, 2012): This week, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released ten police and military hostages that it had been holding for more than thirteen years. This was an important step toward fulfilling President Juan Manuel Santos' preconditions for dialogue with the guerrillas. It is unclear whether those negotiations will start soon, but even relative progress on this front could reduce the suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire of the insurgency -- an objective worthy of pursuing even if a full peace agreement cannot reached.
Ten years ago, in February 2002, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana broke off negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group of Marxist guerrillas that had been fighting the government since 1964, and ordered security forces back on the attack. That May, Bogotá then suspended dialogue with the country's other major Marxist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The public, military command, and business community had lost faith in the deliberations; atrocities at the hands of paramilitary forces with links to politicians and the armed forces had poisoned the process. For their parts, the insurgents had proven unreliable negotiators, with skirmishes and kidnappings continuing throughout the talks.
As negotiations broke down, Bogotá and Washington decided to focus instead on the U.S. assistance package to Colombia known as Plan Colombia. Originally conceived in 1998, it was designed as a kind of "Marshall Plan" for addressing the social and economic inequities that fuel the insurgency. The original $1.3 billion package also contained a sizeable military training component, which was intended to modernize the Colombian security forces.
Ten years, $8 billion of U.S. assistance, and a renewed focus on the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics aspects of the program later, Plan Colombia has made some progress on the tactical front. The Colombian armed forces -- which have grown to over 400,000 -- are no longer perceived, as they were in the final days of the talks, to be losing the war. The Colombian military has