Obituary: Jess Antonio Bejarano

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The Independent Culture
JESUS ANTONIO Bejarano, who was murdered in Bogot on Wednesday, was a man of peace. He had been the principal government negotiator in talks with Colombia's guerrilla armies in the early Nineties, and was then ambassador in El Salvador on the eve of the 1992 agreements that put an end to that country's long civil war.

In June this year he resigned as president of the main landowners' association, and had been concentrating since then on the course on rural history he was teaching at the national university in Bogot. He was shot dead, with a single bullet in the forehead, as he was on his way to deliver a lecture in the economics faculty.

The two young assassins may have been gunmen hired by the right-wing paramilitary organisations that have sprung up in Colombia in recent years to take on the two big left-wing guerrilla movements that are still active there. The paramilitaries tend to regard anybody involved in talking peace to the guerrillas as little better than collaborators, and deal with them accordingly. But the paramilitaries have denied any involvement in Bejarano's death, and lay the blame on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla army.

Bejarano was born in Ibague, capital of the coffee-growing Tolima region of central Colombia, in 1946. He studied economics at the national university, specialising in rural affairs, and gained a reputation in academic circles for his penetrating intellect and forthright manner. He was a career academic, but was called in to act as peace adviser and negotiator by two successive presidents. He helped to persuade several of the smaller organisations to give up the armed struggle, but his talks with the main guerrilla organisations, which took place in Venezuela in 1991, were not so successful. He resigned, and was sent to El Salvador as Colombian envoy in the following year, helping to broker the peace accords there.

Since then he had remained aloof from active politics, but he had become an outspoken and independent-minded critic of the peace initative launched by the present Colombian leader, Andres Pastrana, in another attempt to put an end to Colombia's apparently interminable political violence. Bejarano argued forcefully that President Pastrana had made too many concessions to the guerrillas and not demanded enough evidence of goodwill on their part. That adds some plausibility to the paramilitaries' contention that the guerrillas were responsible for Bejarano's murder - but not much.

A few days before his death, Bejarano said he had been confronted by masked men in the university car park, but he had managed to get away. He had no idea who they were. His death has left Colombians fearing that a "dirty war" that claims thousands of lives every year may be spiralling out of control.

Jess Antonio Bejarano, economist: born Ibague, Colombia 1946; twice married (two children); died Bogot 15 September 1999.