Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Messages of Peace in Colombia

BOGOTÁ, Apr 3 2012 (IPS) - Analysts in Colombia have varied in their degree of optimism, but they generally agree that the release of the last 10 police and military hostages held by the FARC guerrillas, some since 1998, was a peace signal.

Monday’s release of the captives closed the chapter of the FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) attempt to swap hostages – who they considered prisoners of war – for imprisoned insurgents. The governments of France, Switzerland, Spain and Venezuela all played a role as brokers in this process at one point or another.

The release of the last military and police captives was first announced in a Feb. 26 statement by the FARC leadership. Although some observers immediately described the declaration as “historic,” others took a more cautious approach, saying they would wait to see what happened.

In their message, the rebels also said they would put an end to kidnappings for ransom, one of the group’s sources of financing. According to the non-governmental organisation País Libre, the FARC is still holding some 400 kidnapping victims for ransom.

According to analyst Ariel Ávila, head of the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Bogotá think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, the underlying point is that the FARC “have decided to seek peace.”

Ávila said the release of the hostages sent a concrete message Monday to the government of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos: “The ball is in your court. You asked us to end kidnapping, so here you go.”

But the FARC also said in the late February communiqué that, if the government continued expanding military spending and attacks, “there will be more prisoners of war on both sides” – in other words, members of the security forces will continue to be seized if the number of captured rebels continues to climb.

However, Ávila said in response to a question from IPS that members of the military and police captured in combat by the FARC in the future will not be held captive for lengthy periods of time, but will be handed over within a few days or weeks to humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross.

This kind of operation involving the humanitarian handing over of troops in the hands of the guerrillas has taken place periodically ever since the FARC and the smaller rebel group National Liberation Army (ELN) first emerged in 1964.

The long road to freedom

With mediation by facilitators from France, Switzerland, Spain and Venezuela, the FARC swapped more than 350 rank-and-file members of the military and police for 14 imprisoned insurgents in 2001.

Since then, the guerrillas have only held officers and non-commissioned officers, to pressure for new hostage-prisoner swaps. But they have also taken civilian hostages, mainly politicians, the best-known of whom was former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

At one point, the FARC had a list of more than 70 military, police and civilian captives held exclusively for the purpose of seeking an exchange with the government.

But the administration of right-wing former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) refused to negotiate, focusing instead on military rescue operations. Some were successful, such as the one mounted to release Betancourt and 14 other captives in 2008.

But others failed, prompting the FARC to make good on its standing threat to kill any hostages if an attempt was made to rescue them.

After the June 2007 death of 11 regional lawmakers in confusing circumstances in the jungles of the western province of Valle del Cauca, Liberal Party leader Piedad Córdoba, a congresswoman at the time, announced that she would dedicate all her efforts to achieving the release of every single hostage held by the FARC.

Then-president Uribe designated his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, and Córdoba as facilitators in hostage release negotiations with the FARC, a role they played between August and November 2007.

In 2008, Córdoba created the group “Colombians for Peace”, whose initial goal was to seek the release of the politicians held captive in the jungle, but which also brought about the unilateral release by the FARC of members of the military and police.

Their efforts ended up achieving the release of 10 civilian and 10 military and police hostages, prior to the last 10 hostages freed on Monday Apr. 2.

Her efforts ended up costing Córdoba her political career. In 2010, inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez removed her from the Senate and barred her from holding public office for 18 years, on charges that she collaborated with the FARC.

But Córdoba continued her humanitarian efforts until she even managed to convince the FARC to promise to stop kidnapping people for ransom.

Successful operation

For five months, the former senator helped prepare Operación Libertad (Operation Freedom), enlisting the active support of prominent international figures like Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who was in Colombia to attend the hostage release.

The operation began at 10:30 local time Monday morning, with a loaned Brazilian air force helicopter flying approximately one and a half hours from Villavicencio, capital of the central province of Meta, to a rendezvous point in the jungle, where it picked up the captives.

Seven hours later the helicopter was back in Villavicencio, where the airport was packed with the hostages’ families, peace activists and reporters. Fifty minutes later, the former captives and their family members were flown to the capital.

In a 10-minute televised speech, Santos celebrated the success of the operation, thanked the participants – without directly mentioning Córdoba or Colombians for Peace – and reiterated the need to secure the release of all civilian hostages.

The president emphatically stated that the search for peace was the business of Colombians – indicating that his strategy would not include involvement by foreign mediators.

Córdoba, meanwhile, said the FARC had confirmed that it would stop kidnapping civilians for ransom, and that it was interested in peace talks.

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