BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has claimed to have "the key to peace" in his pocket since assuming the presidency two years ago in a nation afflicted by an internal conflict for nearly a half century.
Now he's pulled it out. Santos announced in a brief televised address on Monday that "exploratory talks to seek an end to the conflict" are under way with Latin America's oldest and most potent rebel band, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Confirming the long-rumored talks after a crescendo of media reports, Santos gave no details about what would be the fourth serious attempt since the early 1980s to negotiate an end to the government's conflict with an insurgency founded when he was 13 years old.
It is a conflict whose roots are as complicated as the prospects for its resolution.
The last peace effort ended in disaster in 2002, after three years of talks in a Switzerland-sized safe haven ceded by then-President Andres Pastrana. The rebels, known by their Spanish-language initials FARC, never agreed to a cease-fire. Nor did they stop kidnappings for ransom or trafficking in cocaine.
Much has changed since.
A U.S.-backed military buildup called Plan Colombia launched in 2000 morphed from counternarcotics to largely counterinsurgency, helping Pastrana's successor, Alvaro Uribe, badly weaken the FARC. More than $8 billion in aid has flowed from Washington to Bogota since.
The FARC's ranks were roughly halved to about 9,000 today as the Colombian army's newly created mobile brigades backed by Black Hawk helicopters and, later, U.S.-made unmanned aerial vehicles, made hiding more difficult.
The rebels were largely pushed into Colombia's least populated provinces, forced into classic guerrilla hit-and-run tactics. Since 2008, three senior FARC leaders have been slain in military raids, including top commander Alfonso Cano last year, and the rebels have freed all "political prisoners" while other captives have been rescued.
Kidnappings and murders have dropped progressively. Homicides, for instance, have fallen from 67 murders for every 100,000 Colombians in 1996, when the FARC controlled nearly half the countryside, to 36 per 100,000 people last year.
The FARC, a peasant-based movement rooted in internecine 1950s political bloodletting known as "La Violencia," also lost support abroad, with the European Union joining the United States in deeming it an international terror group.
The murderous far-right militias created in the 1980s by ranchers and drug barons to counter FARC kidnapping and extortion have also been weakened. Blamed for more than 50,000 killings, they are now largely gone, having demobilized under Uribe. He extradited most of their top leaders to the United States, where they were wanted for drug trafficking.
Peace gestures have been made by both sides.
In February, the FARC said it was halting ransom kidnappings. In June, Colombia's congress passed a "peace framework" law setting parameters for amnesty and pardons for rebel commanders. And Santos has vowed to return land stolen mainly by far-right militias to Colombia's internally displaced, who number in the hundreds of thousands.
But hostilities have not ceased, and Santos said Monday that "operations and the military's presence on every centimeter of national territory will continue."
No Colombian officials have confirmed whether, as the Venezuelan-based Telesur TV network reported, a pre-agreement was signed in Havana on Monday to begin talks in Norway in October.
The FARC has not specified what it would seek in talks. Even its ideology is unclear. It has called for a more equal distribution of wealth but has shied away from the Marxist rhetoric it used in Cold War days.
Santos' announcement has Colombians buzzing with high hopes for peace.
"The time is now, now or never. Dialogue is the only path that's left," Omar Rodriguez, a 40-year-old produce wholesaler in Bogota, said Tuesday. "In war there are no winners. Everyone loses."
Yet there are skeptics.
Alfredo Rangel, who was national security adviser to then President Ernesto Samper in the mid-1990s when the FARC were at their military height, is among them.
"It would have been preferable if these dialogues were initiated with an indefinite cease-fire, unilateral and definitive on the FARC rebels' part," he said. "The idea of dialogue in the midst of confrontation is an idea whose weaknesses have been evident, its limitations bringing increases in violence."
One factor surely on the minds of FARC leaders is Hugo Chavez.
The U.S.-bashing president of neighboring Venezuela has long quietly provided top rebel leaders with refuge, Colombian officials have said. Chavez is up for re-election Oct. 7 and faces his stiffest challenge since first winning office in 1998. He also underwent treatment for an unspecified cancer in Havana and his long-term prognosis is unknown.
How much the FARC's fate is entwined with Chavez's remains unclear, however.
The movement has, after all, outlasted the end of the Cold War by more than two decades.
Vivian Sequera is Associated Press news editor in Bogota, Colombia and has reported on Colombia's conflict since 1991. Frank Bajak, AP's chief of Andean news based in Lima, Peru, has covered Colombian affairs since the late 1990s.
Vivian Sequera on Twitter: http://twitter.com/viviansequera
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak