As soon as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sat down for an interview with TIME on Monday, April 2, at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá, he checked his watch. During that hour he knew a large helicopter would touch down about 50 miles (80 km) to the south, delivering the last of the military and police hostages yet to be released by Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as the FARC. Some of the 10 men liberated on Monday had been held in the country’s mountainous jungle for as many as 14 years, and their release – many into the arms of their grown children – sparked a flag-waving celebration across Colombia.
Back in the palace, however, where TIME International Editor Jim Frederick, TIME Colombia reporter John Otis and I were meeting with Santos under an enormous painting of Simón Bolívar and Colombia’s other founding fathers, the mood was more subdued. Santos was of course thrilled by the news of the hostage release, but he was also aware of the unrealistic expectations it might raise regarding a peace settlement to the bloody, 48-year-long armed conflict in Colombia, the U.S.’s closest ally in South America. “I am always open to a political solution provided the FARC demonstrate they can sit down and negotiate in good faith,” Santos told us. Despite Monday’s gesture, he said, “That hasn’t happened yet.”
But it might be getting closer. In February, the FARC, which the Colombian military has greatly weakened over the past decade thanks to new government resolve and $5 billion in U.S. counterinsurgency aid, announced it would give up its long and internationally condemned practice of ransom kidnapping. At the time, the FARC insisted, “We believe there should be no more excuses for putting off holding [peace talks].” Santos, who was Defense Minister before winning the presidency in 2010, welcomed their decision but said flatly, “It’s not enough.”
And few Colombians disagreed with him, especially given the notorious reputation of the FARC, which today is as much a drug-trafficking organization as it is a guerrilla army, for reneging on promises. As John Otis reminds me, there are a number of additional commitments Santos and most Colombians are waiting for. Among them: that the FARC stop the recruitment of child soldiers (FARC commanders, or what’s left of them after just about every top leader has been killed or captured in the past five years, apparently haven’t checked out Kony 2012); that they de-mine the countryside (thousands of Colombian civilians are still being maimed each year); and that they halt the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and schools when they’re aiming for local police stations and other government installations.
Santos, whose robust ambitions to be a regional leader will be on display next week when he hosts the 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, told TIME on Monday that he “certainly” wants to be the President who persuades Colombia’s guerrillas to lay down their AK-47s. “But the worst I thing I could do,” he stressed to us, “is be in a hurry. I have to wait for the correct circumstances to be present, and for that I have to be patient.”
There are other, more political reasons Santos might want to be patient. In the past few years, the FARC has begun to regroup and step up its attacks on military and civilian targets, especially oil pipelines. Although they’re a shadow of the insurgent threat they were in the 1990s – their ranks number no more than 8,000 today compared to almost 20,000 then – the guerrillas are still a security boil on Bogotá’s neck, and it will be hard for Santos to call them to peace talks if there’s a risk of the government looking like the one feeling harassed. “I’ll be the first to recognize that we are winning but we have not won yet,” Santos told us. The FARC “are now focused on terrorist acts to show the country and the world that they are still alive, which is a demonstration of their weakness.”
Sitting down with the FARC at this moment, however, could potentially make Santos look weak to his critics, including his iron-fisted conservative predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Those “Uribista” opponents are angrily resisting Santos’ widely applauded social projects, like land reform, that are meant to address the conflict’s root causes, and might try to turn the screws harder if they feel they can argue that Santos is being soft on narco-guerrillas.
Still, it could also end up being costly for Colombia to simply wait out the FARC’s protracted demise. Although the government still has the upper hand – after 11 soldiers died in a rebel ambush in the eastern Arauca department last month, the army’s response killed more than six times as many guerrillas – the war, as John Otis notes, “continues to cost huge amounts in military spending that could be better used to build roads, bridges, schools and hospitals.” What’s more, the longer it takes to get the FARC’s remaining members assimilated back into society via a peace process, the more likely they may fall in with bandas criminales, the spinoffs of the violent, drug-trafficking right-wing paramilitary armies that once fought the FARC.
Which is all the more reason Santos is hoping that Monday’s hostage release, another of the guerrillas’ recent promises, is a sign that the FARC is becoming more trustworthy. If anything, it adds gloss to Colombia’s image on the eve of the Cartagena summit – another indication that a country plagued for so long with South America’s darkest aura of violent social turmoil is emerging into the continent’s 21st-century light. Later Monday, Santos called the release “a step in the right direction, a very important step.” He added: “When the government considers that sufficient conditions and guarantees exist to begin a process that brings an end to the conflict, the country will know.” That hasn’t happened yet.