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9 July 1998 Edition

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Colombian talks seek National Convention

By Dara Mac Neil

On Sunday 12 July, delegations representing Colombian civil society and the country's insurgents will meet in the German town of Mainz. The meeting is considered vitally important in the process of securing peace and a negotiated solution to Colombia's long-running conflict.

Included in the 40-strong delegation scheduled to meet the guerrillas are a number of powerful figures in Colombia's political and business life. They include the Attorney General and a representative of Colombia's business sector. A number of those involved in the talks belong to the non-governmental National Council for Peace.

Stressing the meeting's significance, Pablo Beltran of the National Liberation Army (ELN) said it was important to realise that peace could not be achieved solely through dialogue between the Colombian government and the insurgents. Civil society had an equally crucial role to play.

The influence of civil society in Colombia has grown significantly in recent years. This stems in large part from the corresponding loss of power experienced by the country's central government. Thus, central authority has ceded as much as 50% of Colombia's territory to the control of the insurgency movement while, even within the remaining half, its power is both weak and contested.

In recent years, disclosures concerning the army's control of right-wing death squads, coupled with evidence of government connections with the country's drug cartels, have served to further undermine central authority.

Consequently, as Bogota's power diminishes, so does its ability to either prosecute the war against the guerrillas, or influence the outcome of any peace negotiations.

Although the agenda for the Mainz talks remains open, they will have as their focus the creation of a National Convention. It is envisaged that this will involve the participation of all sectors in Colombian society in the search for a negotiated solution.

This would include those sectors targeted by right-wing paramilitatries: trade unions, human rights and indigenous activists. The National Convention could therefore act as vehicle for the inclusion of those selfsame sectors in Colombia's political and economic life. This would reverse the process of `exclusion' that was the chief aim of the Colombian death squads and their paymasters.

By murdering trade unionists and civil and human rights activists, the Colombian establishment was crudely signalling the politics they practiced - of equality, justice and change - were beyond the bounds of what was deemed permissible.

Indeed, Amnesty International - in a report published earlier this month - has effectively substantiated charges that the right-wing death squads operate with the support of Colombia's security forces.

Significantly, Amnesty notes that while human rights violations (often a euphemism for outright murder) committed by the country's security forces have diminished, those perpetrated by the death squads have risen dramatically.

This trend was first noted by Colombian human rights' groups. Further investigation produced evidence that it was not a coincidence. Rather, it was central to the counter-insurgency strategy developed by the Colombian authorities in the early 1990s.

Thus, the death-squads assumed responsibility for the murder and harassment of dissidents, while the security forces availed of the opportunity to improve their tarnished image.

However, the attempt to eliminate Colombia's radical opposition has failed. If anything, the murder-by-proxy strategy merely strengthened the country's insurgency.

Thus, the proposed National Convention has the potential to become the means towards a genuine transformation of Colombian society.

At the very least a successful Convention, in which the hitherto excluded sectors of Colombian society participate, offers far more than a simple government-guerrilla agreement ever could.

And that such a Convention can even be discussed is a reflection of Bogota's inability to impose a `peace settlement', or curtail the parameters of such a settlement within a framework of its own creation.

Meanwhile the ELN, while signalling its enthusiasm for the forthcoming talks, has made it clear there will be no laying down of arms in advance of a negotiated settlement. It is also understood that the ELN have met with the larger FARC guerrilla group, in advance of the Mains meeting.


Mexican dirty war escalates



The Mexican government is to step up its' Dirty War against rebel groupings located in the southern states of the country. According to Mexican human rights' groups, the government is preparing to suspend individual civil liberties and constitutional guarantees in the southern state of Chiapas.

The state is home to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). This would effectively cede control of the entire state to the Mexican military, providing the legal cover necessary for a determined offensive against the rebel communities.

It follows the expulsion from Chiapas of a number of overseas observers and civil organisations, many of whom worked with the indigenous population of Chiapas. Since the EZLN revolt of 1994, the indigenous of Chiapas have set about organising a network of alternative communities, wherein the government writ does not run. The presence of overeas observers - including Irish people - served as a deterrent to the Mexican military, whilst also providing the Zapatistas with a support structure for the construction of their autonomous communities.

Consequently, their expulsion from Mexico was seen as an attempt to undermine and eradicate that support structure. Thus, the latest move would indicate that the government is preparing the way for a violent supression of the EZLN.

Mexican authorities frequently justified the earlier expulsions on the grounds that the overseas observers were interfering in Mexico's internal affairs and thereby breaching the country's national sovereignty.

However, the concern with national sovereignty does not appear to extend to US military and intelligence personnel, whose presence in Chiapas has been documented.

The Mexican constitution allows for the suspension of liberties where there exists a grave threat to ``public peace.''

The decree currently awaits the signature of the Mexican president. There is fear that the government is also preparing for an offensive against other rebel groups - such as the EPR - in the neighbouring states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Puebla, Nayarit y Sonora.

Although currently preoccupied with their plans for war, the Mexican authorities might pause to consider a World Bank report issued at the end of June. It characterises the southern states of Mexico as being trapped between ``misery and terror.'' The region of the country it describes is that earmarked by the Mexican authorities for violent surpression.

The Bank confirms that poverty and inequality are increasing at an alarming rate, in the southern part of the country. Mexico's southern states, it contends, are not included in economic progress that occurs elsewhere in the country.

Hardly surprising that the states worst affected - Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero - are also home to large indigenous populations and, latterly, armed rebel groupings such as the EZLN and the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army).

The Bank also notes that the indigenous communities in these states are engaged in a long-running campaign to reclaim their rights. However, the Bank points out, the Mexican state has responded with violence.

This includes arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances, executions and massacres. In the state of Guerrero alone, there have been 63 extrajudicial executions, over the past three years. The Bank also cites the existence of hundreds of political prisoners.

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