Alfonso Cano has been named the new leader
of the Farc [AFP]

Al Jazeera's Mariana Sanchez speaks to Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian defence minister, about Colombia's next steps in its ongoing conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [Farc] rebel group and its new leadership.

The minister also told Al Jazeera about how his government was dealing with a scandal that has seen the president's cousin linked to paramilitary groups.

Mariana Sanchez: How can the government take advantage of this momentum when Farc is so weak and there is a change in the command structure?
 
Juan Manuel Santos: First of all to intensify our operations. This is a process of re-accommodation in the Farc, and in every process of re-accommodation there is a moment where there is disorder ... so we have to put more military pressure.

At the same time, we are saying we have always had the door for peace open. We hope the new commander understands that it's the opportunity for him to sit down and negotiate seriously. If they are willing to negotiate seriously the government is willing to sit down with them.

MS: So on what terms? On what terms would the government be open to talk to the Farc leadership?

In depth


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc)

JMS: We need for them to give us clear signals that they are not going to repeat what they did in the past, that is to sit down and not negotiate, to simply win time in order for them to reestablish, to strengthen, to get more oxygen and then continue their military operations.

If that is the case we are not interested, but [if] there is a real will to negotiate we are willing to do that.

MS: But, that means that to avoid happening, first you need to sit down with them, so what will it take for the government to open the door for talks with Farc?  
 
JMS: The door is open. They are the ones that have always said they will not negotiate with the Uribe administration. That they have repeated many times, so as long as they maintain that position we will simply continue with our military operations.

MS: Do you really believe the Farc can be defeated?  
 
JMS: Well, defeated if that means for them to disappear no, I don't think that they will disappear.
I won't commit the ingenuity of saying: We won, they are defeated. That is still far away.

MS: So if you say there is a possibility of reaching some sort of accord, what does it mean in time terms? 

JMS: Well, I use the Chilean strategy: Persevere and have patience, and I have been very careful  not to give any time frame because that will always haunt you, because you get to a point of [saying] - what happened? So I don't like to give time frames.

What I can tell you is that today it is a very, very different situation of the one we had two years ago and we need to persevere and have patience. 
 

The Farc is still estimated to have at
least 6,000 fighters [EPA]
MS: And it is a very different situation within the Farc. They have selected a man who is, let's say, politically oriented and not a militarist. Why do you think that Farc made this decision? 

JMS: The Farc has been a Stalinist type of organisation. They adhere to protocols and they respect what they call 'antiquity' ... and this new commander was the one who was next in line and they tend to respect that and you ask why is he [Cano] the commander and that is because he is the next in line.

MS: Do you think there is a need among the leadership to turn into a more political direction that will guide them to open talks with the government? 
 
JMS: I hope so. I hope this is the case. We have a sort of conflicting evidence of this new commander. He, with no doubt, is the most prepared intellectually. He went to university. He has a university degree. He is an anthropologist.

He has traditionally been the more politically oriented, however, we have many examples, that he has taken a very radical position so we have ambivalent information of where he really stands and in the near past he has been quite radical.

However we hope that what you say, that many people are saying, is true.

MS: So by knowing this, what would you offer them? 
 
JMS: Peace with dignity, peace for them to have a dignified way out, to sit down and negotiate seriously. We are willing to make a sacrifice, from state point of view, the reforms that they think are needed, if they still have an ideological vision of what Colombia should be, we are willing to sit down and negotiate.

MS: You are going to talk about political terms? 
 
JMS: Of course, of course.

MS: This is something the government has done before. What has changed?

JMS: We have said no to any negotiation because they have never, never in the near past said:  We are willing. On the contrary, what they have said is: We will not negotiate.

So as long as they have that position we will have the same position, we will not insist if they are closing the door, but our door has always been opened.

MS: Farc is demanding a demilitarised zone, temporarily, to swap prisoners, to liberate prisoners.  Why does the government will not accept this proposal? 
 

Ingrid Betancourt is the most high profile
of hostages held by the Farc [AFP]
JMS: Because we know and we confirm that with information we found in the computer of this commander, Raul Reyes [who died in a Colombian raid on March 1 in Ecuador] that they have been using the humanitarian exchange for their own political purposes.

They haven't been really interested in an exchange. If that was so, the exchange would have been done a long, long time ago.

To negotiate a list of people that we would liberate from our jails and the prisoners, or this kidnapped people that they have, it is very easy. You don't need a demilitarised zone to negotiate, not even to release them.

MS: So why are they are asking this?

JMS: Because for them it is a very strategic area, for them it is very, very important to recuperate that area for their military purposes.

MS: But it is only temporary, 45 days, they say?

JMS: But remember [former Colombian president Andres] Pastrana negotiated. What it was a demilitarised zone for three years, was initially only to be three months and they are magicians in prolonging this type of situations.

I am sure that if we give them this area they will start using international pressure for one more month, two more months, six more months, now we can negotiate the peace, and they know how to do this very well and we know that they know.

MS: And the Colombian government in the meantime continues to try to rescue hostages, militarily?  
 
JMS: Well, [are] not renounced to this alternative. But of course we have to be careful, we are not irresponsible. If we see there is an opportunity with a very low risk for the hostages, we will do it.

But we cannot simply say: Where there is a hostage we will not do any military operations because the next day, in every single camp, they will say there is a hostage and they will simply paralyse our operations, that's why we say, we cannot commit ourselves to rescuing them military.

MS:
On a different subject. Could you say that any issue that is Farc related is used by the government to overshadow a very worrying scandal, which is the one that links one-third of congress to paramilitary groups?
 
JMS: I think these are two different situations. The government has been very clear on saying whoever has been in deals with the paramilitaries, on illegal deals, should go to jail. We have supported the judicial system in going after these people, no matter who they are.

Even a cousin of the president has been jailed. The president himself has said, whoever is guilty should pay and the mere fact that 14 of these paramilitary leaders were extradited is proof that the government and President Uribe is not scared of what they will say.

Now that they are extradited they can say whatever they want, they have nothing to lose.

MS:
But is it different in the US?

Mario Uribe, the president's cousin, is among
those involved in the paramilitary scandal [AFP]
JMS: But they can say it. The impact here is the same and the US judicial system has offered, officially, that the process here can continue.

MS: What critics say is that the scandal was getting so close to the presidential palace that the  paramilitary leaders were conveniently extradited to the United States and that a laptop computer that belonged to one of them was conveniently lost or stolen?

JMS:
Well, first of all, this interpretation has a very weak logic. If they were getting very close to the presidential  palace, then to extradite them would be almost give them a free avenue to accuse the president and not here. In the US it would have been more devastating.

And second, the computer of one of the paramilitaries was a computer he was using in his deals with the justice system.

I am sure that he would not be so stupid as to have self–incriminating evidence on a computer that could have been verified by the judiciary process or by the government at any time. 
 
MS: Are you sure that there was no valuable information on it? 
 
JMS: No, I am not sure because we don't know, we didn't have access to [the computer].

But logic tells you, if I am a paramilitary leader with very sensitive information in my computer, I'm not going to have it in my computer, in my jail, because the probability of somebody taking that computer is very high, so the logic doesn’t seem to verify the interpretation of the opposition.

MS:
However, regarding the computer of Raul Reyes it is being taken as granted that all the information there in it is true.

JMS:  Well all the information there is information that we found on the computer of Raul Reyes and Interpol has verified that the Colombian government has not put new information [on the computer], has not changed the information and we have even verified many of the documents that have appeared.

We are not interested in manipulating the truth; we are interested that the truth comes out.