Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 62, is an economist and journalist. Prior to taking office, he worked at his family's daily El Tiempo newspaper in Bogota and held several government cabinet post, including that of defense minister under conservative former President Alvaro Uribe. The two had a falling out after Santos' 2010 election, when he announced that he would conduct peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the left-wing guerrilla group. Since the end of 2012, the government in Bogota has been negotiating with FARC in Cuba to end the civil war that has been raging in the country since 1964, claiming close to a quarter-million lives and displacing around 6 million people.
The upcoming presidential elections, set to take place on May 25, will also be a vote on the future of the peace process. Santos is currently leading in polls, but his opponent from Uribe's party, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who categorically rejects negotiations with the guerillas, is gaining ground. Shortly after conducting an interview with SPIEGEL, FARC and Colombia's other main rebel group, the smaller National Liberation army (ELN), announced on Friday they would begin a unilateral cease-fire until after the election. The government and FARC negotiators also announced a deal to jointly combat illicit drugs, one of the country's most contentious issues.
SPIEGEL: President Santos, you may be on the brink of ending the world's longest conflict. Is a peace deal with FARC imminent?
Santos: Today I'm more optimistic than I was a year ago -- and a year ago I was more confident than the year before. We've made unprecedented advances. But for a conflict that is this complex it is not easy to find a solution. We'll finish this process hopefully within this year.
SPIEGEL: You previously stated that a deal could be possible by the end of last year. Why is it taking longer?
Santos: I've been very careful not to give definite deadlines. I had hoped to finish negotiations before the beginning of the election period, but I was too optimistic. You can't settle a 50-year conflict in 52 weeks.
SPIEGEL: You are negotiating without a lasting cease-fire agreement. Do you worry that a small incident could disrupt the process?
Santos: I made the decision not to accept a cease-fire before signing a peace contract. If we agreed to a cease-fire there would be a reason for FARC to prolong negotiations eternally. And if by any chance those talks fail, I don't want to be seen by history as another president who was naive and stupid and gave the guerrillas all the opportunity to gain strength and keep fighting. I know that a lot of people don't understand how we can be talking in Havana while simultaneously fighting in Colombia. But in that respect, I follow the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: I fight terrorism as if there was no peace process, and I negotiate the peace process as if there was no terrorism.
SPIEGEL: Is Rabin one of your role models?
Santos: We have been preparing this peace process very carefully for more than 20 years. I have been relying on international counselors since the very first day, people who have been very closely involved in the IRA negotiations in Northern Ireland, Israeli-Palestinian talks, the process to end the civil wars in Central America.
SPIEGEL: As a defense minister under your predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, you inflicted serious losses on the guerillas ....
Santos: ... and even more during the last four years as president. But there are times for making war and times for making peace.
SPIEGEL: Has it not been possible to bring down FARC and ELN by military means alone?
Santos: No, it's not possible to exterminate them. If this process fails, we'll have another 20, 30 or 40 years of war.
SPIEGEL: What would happen in that the case?
Santos: I've been careful not to weaken the military. We would continue fighting as we have so far. But I must say that this time I've got the impression that the guerilla leaders are really willing to reach an agreement. If that wasn't clear, I would not continue negotiations.
SPIEGEL: Months ago, you announced an agreement on two of six sections of the negotiations, the question of land and political participation by FARC. Will there be soon a new breakthrough?
Santos: I don't like to generate too many expectations. The logical order dictates that we should finish an agreement on the third point soon. How soon, I cannot tell. It is a very difficult issue that I personally introduced to the agenda: drug-trafficking. If we reach an agreement on this point, for Colombia, for the region and for the whole world, this would be extraordinary. For decades, Colombia has been accused of being the world's principal provider of cocaine. If this comes to an end, it would be a dramatic change for our country -- which has been suffering more than any other from the consequences of drug-trafficking.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that FARC will give up this lucrative business?
Santos: They will have to. We have ways of monitoring their crops and their transport lines. Yes, I believe they could commit themselves to cutting off all connections to drug-trafficking.
SPIEGEL: What happens if some forces within FARC don't demobilize and continue as drug-traffickers and extortionists?
Santos: Of course, some of their people might continue the business on their own, because as long as we have people in New York, Berlin and Madrid sniffing coke, drug-trafficking will remain attractive. We have studied the effectiveness of their commando control, and found that it has been maintained to a very high degree. If their leaders commit to abandoning the narco business, then most of them will go along with it.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that 100 percent of the guerillas might go along?
Santos: I don't like to make predictions about that. In every process like this, some people stay behind. But then they would just be criminals, not politically motivated insurgents.
SPIEGEL: Many guerilleras don't have any formal education and have been living in the jungle since childhood. How can they integrate into civil society and find jobs?
Santos: When there is peace, we'll, of course, need a lot of international help. The post-conflict period will be as complicated as the negotiations themselves. But we have been learning how to deal with demobilized organizations. Furthermore, the Colombian economy is very strong. We have one of the highest rates of growth in Latin America. There will be jobs.
SPIEGEL: Another difficult issue is how to address the crimes committed by FARC. The victims are pushing for the perpetrators to be tried in court, but that could take decades and would deter the rebels from laying down their weapons. How do you intend to bring justice to Colombia?
Santos: Colombia is probably the first country to begin repairing the damage to victims before the end of a conflict. We restitute land to peasants who have been displaced by violence or pay them reparations. At this moment we have restituted damages to more than 360,000 people. Moreover, international law has the term "transitional justice" ...
SPIEGEL: ... which means that reconciliation and investigations take place while the justice system concentrates on the most severe crimes.
Santos: Yes. It is necessary, because we can't bring all perpetrators to trial. The key question is: Where do you draw the line between peace and justice? If you ask the victims, they want more justice; if you ask the potential victims, they want more peace.