WHEN President Juan Manuel Santos began peace talks with Colombia_s FARC guerrillas last November, he promised ...
WHEN President Juan Manuel Santos began peace talks with Colombia_s FARC guerrillas last November, he promised that the negotiations would take _months, not years_. As well as seeking to reassure voters that the rebels would not be allowed to spin out the process as cover for their own regrouping, Mr Santos had the country_s political calendar in mind. Congressional and presidential elections are due in March and May of next year. He had hoped to do a deal to end the country_s half-century of conflict in time for the launch of his re-election bid, which has a deadline of November 25th.
The schedule has turned out to be too tight. On November 6th negotiators reached a draft agreement on only the second of six items that are up for discussion. The resolution would establish new measures to favour small political parties, including any born of an eventual demobilisation of the FARC. It would create temporary special congressional districts for the areas hardest hit by the conflict_in other words, those where the FARC are strongest_as a way of ensuring that the rebels have a shot at winning representation. The deal followed an agreement in May on how to cope with the deep poverty in the countryside.
The two accords are tribute to the seriousness of these negotiations, in contrast to previous talks. Nonetheless, the discussions remain vulnerable to derailment. This was underlined on November 12th by the discovery of an apparent plot by the FARC to murder _lvaro Uribe, a former president who opposes the talks, along with the attorney-general and several other leading politicians. The plans_whose date is unclear_were attributed to the FARC_s Te__filo Forero Column, responsible for several attacks around Bogot__, including the 2003 bombing of a private club. If current, the plot would suggest that some factions within the rebel ranks do not want to make peace. Though the FARC maintain a vertical command, people involved in the talks estimate that up to 20% of the rebels may defect if a deal is reached.
The plot gave ammunition to conservatives, led by Mr Uribe, who say Colombia should not negotiate with the FARC. _These are the little saints that they are going to turn into a political party,_ Mr Uribe said. After serving two terms in office, he is constitutionally barred from running again for president. But he is backing a former finance minister, _scar Iv__n Zuluaga, in next year_s election. Polls show that Mr Santos has the edge.
Mr Santos had floated the idea of suspending talks during the election campaign but, after the latest agreement, said that the negotiations would continue. He still hopes to ratify an accord through a referendum at the same time as next year_s congressional or presidential votes. Even more important to his plans, however, is to sign a final accord before the new Congress is inaugurated in July. Mr Uribe, who is running for the Senate, hopes that his party will win as many as 20 of the chamber_s 102 seats. That would form an obstacle to passing the legislation necessary to implement an eventual peace accord.
The negotiators will plough on. The next subject on the agenda, drug trafficking, should be relatively straightforward. Cocaine has been a big source of income for the FARC, but many of the guerrillas consider it a necessary evil. On November 12th Timole__n Jim__nez, the FARC_s top commander, said that the rebels_ _satisfaction with a Colombia without coca [the raw ingredient for cocaine] will be enormous_. Mr Santos has led calls internationally for an overhaul of drug policy, including alternatives to prohibition. The two sides will probably not be too far apart.
Justice in the jungle
Eventually they will have to tackle the knottiest issue of all: the FARC commanders_ legal future and a process of post-conflict justice. Most Colombians want to see FARC leaders behind bars. Under the constitution, anyone convicted of a crime against humanity is barred from holding public office. So far none of the FARC leaders has been convicted of such crimes, though some stand accused of them. Whether they will serve prison time for the thousands of kidnappings and killings committed under their leadership will be dealt with as part of the transitional-justice chapter of the negotiations. Also up for discussion are reparations to victims, which the FARC say should include the victims of state forces, as well as their own.
_A 50-year war is hard to finish in 52 weeks,_ Mr Santos has said. If a deal is not signed in the coming months, the war may continue for a while yet.