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VIOT_, a small town in a broad tropical valley two hours_ drive from Bogot__, was once known as a place where Communist peasants and Conservative landowners coexisted unusually peacefully, dividing up coffee haciendas into smaller plots. All changed in the 1990s, when the FARC guerrillas turned up. They killed the mayor and ten councillors, extorted payments from local businesses and used the surrounding villages to hold kidnap victims seized in the capital. Then the army arrived and, in its wake, right-wing paramilitaries imposed a counter-terror in which villagers were murdered or disappeared.

To outward appearances, Viot__ has regained its past tranquillity. On a Sunday morning, about 150 people pack the town_s imposing white and ochre church, summoned to mass by the tolling of a tuneless bell. Across the square stands a modern police station, free of the sandbagged emplacements that were once standard. _scar Hern__n Quiroga, the Liberal mayor, points out that he won office in a competitive election in 2011, with a high turnout and without armed intimidation. But turning the page on Viot___s recent violence is hard. _We need to start again, rebuild the social fabric and stop hating each other,_ says Mr Quiroga. The town also needs to rebuild its plundered finances and improve its road links to attract investors, in agriculture and tourism, for example.

What goes for Viot__ applies to much of rural Colombia. Thanks to a military build-up under _lvaro Uribe, the president in 2002-10, and his successor (and former defence minister), Juan Manuel Santos, the guerrillas of the FARC, and the right-wing paramilitary militias who opposed them, have been much reduced. In 2000 more than half of Colombia_s 1,100 municipalities suffered terrorist actions and/or the presence of illegal armed groups, according to Juan Carlos Pinz__n, the defence minister. In 2012 only 11% of municipalities were affected.

According to intelligence estimates, the FARC_s total strength, including lightly armed support militias, has fallen from some 40,000 in 2000 to fewer than 18,000 today. The ELN, a second guerrilla group, has about 4,400 members, all told. About 6,000 former paramilitaries, most of whom demobilised under Mr Uribe, have joined criminal bands (known as Bacrim), which control small patches of Colombia_s vast territory but which mainly engage in drug-trafficking and extortion.

What this means is that _the majority of Colombians are living in a post-conflict situation_, Mr Pinz__n says. But more than 5m are still under the sway of the FARC or the Bacrim. Millions more have been forced to leave their homes, refugees in their own country. And in many rural areas, such as Viot__, cementing a return to normality requires a lasting peace.

The FARC are far from defeated: there were more than two _terrorist acts_ a day last year, including 266 attacks on infrastructure. But they have been gravely weakened: under Mr Santos, 32 of their commanders have been killed and seven captured. That explains why their surviving leaders are at last prepared to negotiate an end to their 50-year armed campaign.

After initially secret talks in Havana lasting seven months, the government and the FARC agreed on a five-point agenda. But formal negotiations begun in October have gone slowly. According to those who have dealt with them, the FARC are introverted, Stalinist and dogmatic, with little knowledge of the outside world (beyond Hugo Ch__vez_s Venezuela, where several of their leaders took refuge). The government has refused a ceasefire because it wants the FARC to demobilise, rather than to use the talks as a breathing space, as in the past. And it will agree to nothing until there is an accord on all five points.

Once in a generation
The talks are marked by _discretion, realism and seriousness_, says President Santos. But continuing violence, delays and lack of information have prompted much criticism of the peace process, especially from Mr Uribe. _I have to swallow toads,_ says Mr Santos, using a Spanish expression. _It_s much easier and more popular to make war than to make peace._

But the potential reward from a peace deal is enormous. Apart from the lives saved, economists reckon that peace could add up to 1.5 percentage points to annual economic growth. And it would allow the huge welfare gap between urban and rural Colombia to be bridged. The talks offer the country a _once-in-a-generation_ opportunity, according to Sergio Jaramillo, one of the government negotiators.

So the announcement on May 26th that the two sides had reached an agreement on rural development, the first of the agenda points, was a relief for the government. The joint communiqu__ added that work has begun on the other points_which include the FARC_s participation in politics, its demobilisation and judicial treatment, and reparation for the victims_and that _we hope that going forward we will advance with greater speed._

Mr Santos says he wants an agreement this year, ahead of elections in 2014. But the FARC _have their own rhythm, they_re not worried about elections_, says Carlos Lozano of Patriotic March, a small new left-wing party that includes FARC sympathisers. Part of the negotiators_ job is thus to persuade the FARC that it is in their own interests to reach a deal this year, so that what is agreed will form a big part of the next government_s agenda. Mr Uribe and his allies are preparing to campaign for Congress on a platform of opposition to the talks. _If they haven_t reached an agreement by the election, there is a risk that they would lose everything,_ says Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former minister who was once a leader of another guerrilla group.

Officials say that consolidating peace in the countryside will involve not just loans and technical help for small farmers, as the communiqu__ suggests, but a ten-year effort to bring government, roads and development to the countryside. _We will need an across-the-board state presence in the former FARC areas, otherwise another armed group comes in,_ says Mr Navarro. _That_s been the story of the past 25 years._

Crucial to the deal will be restoring up to 6.6m hectares (17m acres) of land to its original owners, who were intimidated or tricked into ceding it to armed groups (including the FARC themselves). In 2011 Congress approved a sweeping law to restore land and repair the damage suffered by victims of the conflict. Some 170,000 victims have already received financial compensation or their land back. Despite government efforts to protect them, at least three leaders of the land-restitution movement have been killed.

Hard though reaching a deal will be, implementing it will be harder still. Mr Santos is rolling out an ambitious plan to modernise Colombia, with reforms of everything from the tax system to social programmes. But his government is less good at getting things done on the ground. A plan to attract $20 billion in private investment into desperately needed new roads is only likely to begin next year, though Mr Santos talked of it since the start of his presidency. In the end, pacifying Colombia will depend as much on good administration as firm negotiation.

The Economist

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