Civil wars follow strange patterns. When the battle begins, both the government and the guerrillas seek support for their causes. They spend time gathering followers and winning over those on the margins of the war through fighting, propaganda, and civic programs. As the battles become more intense, these people on the margins have less room to maneuver. They are frequently given a choice by those who seek their support: join or die. Eventually, when one or the other side has a clear advantage and wins or when there is a stalemate, the two start to talk. Dialogue frequently coincides with some of the heaviest fighting as both sides jockey for position at the negotiating table. The months leading up to any peace talks are often the bloodiest of all.
This describes Colombia's civil war in the early 1980s. The army was giving the people of the Middle Magdalena Valley the choice of joining its efforts to "clean up" the region or die. But even as the repression of the Communist Party in the Middle Magdalena hit its peak, preliminary peace talks between the government and the FARC continued apace. While dozens of Communist Party militants and suspected FARC guerrillas were being assassinated, Alberto Rojas Puyo, the Communist stalwart and peace envoy, and the other government delegates were meeting with the guerrillas in the rebels' secret hideouts just a few hundred miles to the south. The violence didn't seem to stall the talks at all. It was as if by the 1980s this was an accepted Colombian tradition: peace talks on one side, bloody war on the other.
Just about the only distraction to the talks was Colombia's Desert Fox, Defense Minister General Fernando Landazábal. In 1983, fifty-nine of his soldiers came under government investigation for their involvement with the death squads ripping through the countryside, including several officers in the Middle Magdalena Valley. But the general remained steadfast. He