Cocaine Godmothers and Colombian Guerrillas: Why the Peace Talks in Cuba Matter

Cuba is a fitting setting for the upcoming peace talks between the Colombian government and Marxist guerrillas – if only because it's a cautionary example for both the right and the left in Latin America.

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Fernando Vergara / AP

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos delivers a speech during a televised address to the nation at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 27, 2012.

There was more celebration than sorrow this week when the infamous “godmother” of Colombian cocaine kingpins, Griselda Blanco, was murdered with two bullets to the head outside – fittingly enough – a butcher shop in Medellín. Blanco, who was 69, had committed or ordered scores of similar hits on rivals, one that even killed a toddler, during a decades-long reign of narco-terror that included Miami’s “cocaine cowboy” violence of the 1970s and 80s. But for all her obvious evil, there’s something else you can’t ignore about Blanco, who was kidnapping people at age 11 and turning tricks at 14. She hailed from the squalid, brutal hillside slums – known as favelas in Brazil, ranchos in Venezuela, comunas in Colombia – that ring every Latin American metropolis and announce the criminal inequality that the region has only recently begun to address.

Because security has been in crisis in Latin America for as long as I’ve covered the continent, I’ve done prison interviews with murderous extortionists in Mexico, Mara gangbangers in El Salvador and Maoist rebels in Peru. And almost all of them describe backgrounds similar to Blanco’s. That doesn’t excuse their crimes. But it does make it a more useful coincidence that just a day after Blanco was killed, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, announced the start of peace talks next month to end the country’s bloody, 48-year-long conflict.

(MORE: Colombia’s Delicate Talks With the FARC: Will They Work This Time?)

The FARC, funded by ransom kidnappings and drug trafficking, is much more a mafia today than an insurgency. In that regard, the guerrillas, who have been knocked on their heels by Colombia’s military in recent years and have seen their numbers drop from almost 20,000 a decade ago to 8,000, need to realize that the world has little more sympathy for them than it had for Blanco. But, like Blanco, the FARC rebellion emerged amid poisonous conditions that can’t be dismissed – like Colombia’s crushing poverty and the inexcusable fact that just 1% of the nation’s population still owns half its total land – and which have to be confronted in the upcoming negotiations.

Toward that end, I think it’s appropriate – though probably not in the way leftists do – that the Colombian talks will be held in communist Cuba. Conservatives will grouse that the center-right Santos is handing Cuban President Raúl Castro diplomatic legitimacy he doesn’t deserve. (Santos most likely agreed earlier this year to let Castro host the Colombian parleys as part of their deal that Cuba stop insisting on an invitation to the April Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.) But Cuba in fact is the right cautionary backdrop for these talks.

Cuba gives the FARC a secure, demilitarized place to negotiate. The locale also helps the guerrillas’ case – though, again, not in the way its Marxist leadership would envision. Cuba is the one country in the western hemisphere where the kind of revolution the FARC claims to aspire to has actually been put in practice, and the results on balance have been dismal. You can argue that Cuba’s universal health and education systems are intact. But from a wrecked economy – Castro has had to turn to market-oriented reforms to save it, and now he’s undermining even those with astonishingly onerous taxes – to the suppression of human rights, the island is hardly an advertisement for the radical red beret set.

(MORE: Colombia’s President Talks With TIME About Castro, Capitalism and His Country’s Comeback)

Oddly enough, that bleak ambience aids the FARC at the negotiating table. It tells the world: If you want to keep stoking the kind of social resentment that led to the Cuban Revolution, or to Colombia’s endless violence, or to the kind of populist firebrand governments like Hugo Chávez’s next door in Venezuela, then by all means keep putting off meaningful remedies for Latin America’s gaping chasm between rich and poor. Keep disregarding land reform and education investment and anti-monopoly laws. Stay feudal, like many parts of rural Colombia, where campesino activists continue to be assassinated by land-baron henchmen and where others, like Gerardo Vega, a reform leader I recently interviewed in Medellín, face death threats serious enough to warrant federal bodyguards.

Santos insisted to TIME before the April summit that his sweeping new land reform and restitution measures show he’s focused on vanquishing not just the FARC but the retro circumstances that spawned the guerrilla army in the first place. Either way, the Cuba setting helps him leverage the FARC by reminding both the rebels and the world that the goal of socialist paradise in Latin America has been discredited at best. Even Chávez has publicly acknowledged in recent years that the age of Marxist guerrilla warfare – the very tool that brought the Cuban Revolution to power 50 years ago – is over, and no place is a more stinging reminder of that fact than Cuba itself.

But even if negotiations were held at the North Pole, the FARC would be at a disadvantage compared to the last time the two sides met, in the late 1990s. Then, the guerrillas still had the muscle to string the government along, keep up their attacks, expand their territory and ultimately make a mockery of the peace process. This time it’s the government that says it won’t call off military operations during the talks, and the FARC will probably have to accept it. This time it’s the FARC that needs a settlement – before it ends up, like Griselda Blanco, in history’s butcher shop.

VIDEO: Interview with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos