BOGOTÁ — In an apparent breakthrough that could open the door to peace talks with the government, Colombia’s FARC rebels announced Feb. 26 that they would no longer kidnap civilians for ransom. They also vowed to release the last of 10 captured soldiers, some of whom have been held in the jungle for 13 years.
President Juan Manuel Santos has insisted that the FARC stop the practice of kidnapping and other acts of terrorism if the group wants to begin peace talks with his government. Thus, the FARC’s announcement was widely interpreted as a first step towards formal talks, which would be the first in a decade aimed at ending the 48-year-old war.
“A lot has been said about the retention of civilians by the FARC for financial gain,” the rebel organization said in a communiqué posted on its website. “We announce that from this date forward we are banning this practice.”
The FARC added that after decades of war, “we believe there should be no more excuses to put off holding conversations.” Since it first rose up against the government in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has abducted thousands of civilians. At one point, rebel commandos were kidnapping more than 1,000 people annually. Thus the declaration was greeted, in some quarters, with both optimism and relief.
An editorial in the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, the country’s most important newspaper, called the FARC statement “transcendental.” Former President Ernesto Samper called it “historic.”
Former hostage Betancourt says she’s ‘hopeful’
Meanwhile, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was held along with 14 other captives — including three U.S. military contractors — for six years by the FARC before they were rescued by the Colombian Army in 2008, said: “I am hopeful. The announcement signals a change in strategy for the FARC.” Rather than war, she said “it looks like politics is now at the top of their agenda.”
But for every expression of hope and optimism, there were skeptics who claimed that the FARC had taken a cynical half-step geared for public relations purposes rather than a fundamental change in behavior.
“The government must not let its guard down,” said Juan Lozano, president of the ruling U Party. “Any softening up of the government’s strategy to combat this terrorist organization would be a monumental error.”
Lozano and other politicians pointed out that the FARC still holds scores of civilian hostages and has made no mention of their fate. “The FARC announcement is incomplete,” said Luís Eladio Pérez, a former hostage who spent time in captivity with Betancourt and the three U.S. contractors. “The FARC has not said anything about hundreds of their victims.”
What’s more, the FARC apparently plans to continue abducting police and army troops in an effort to exchange them for imprisoned guerrillas. As a result, Camilo Gómez, who was the main government negotiator during the last round of talks, called on the FARC for more coherence.
“You can’t go half-way,” Gomez said. “Either you stop kidnapping people or you don’t.” Santos was also voiced caution on his Twitter account. “We value the announcement by the FARC to stop kidnapping as an important and necessary step,” Santos tweeted. “But it’s not enough.”
Economics behind FARC decision to suspend kidnappings
The FARC’s motives are a long way from altruistic. Analysts said the rebel group is likely moving away from kidnapping not because it’s considered by the international community to be a crime against humanity, but because abductions are becoming more trouble than they’re worth.
A Colombian Army offensive, launched in 2002, has wrested back much territory from the FARC, led to the killing or capture of dozens of high-ranking guerrilla commanders, disrupted communications and has reduced the rebel organization’s numbers from 16,000 foot soldiers to about 8,000. That’s made it far more difficult for FARC units to snatch and hold hostages.
By some estimates, the FARC must assign up to five guards for every prisoner. Moreover, the rebels must provide them with shelter, food and healthcare and, amid Army operations, quickly move them through difficult jungle and mountain terrain in order to keep them alive while ransom negotiations proceed.
If the weakened FARC wants to break out of its military and political isolation through peace talks, said Bogotá security analyst Alfredo Rangel, it must first cleanse its image by renouncing the practice of kidnapping civilians.
“Obviously, it’s urgent for the FARC to start formal peace talks to obtain political benefits,” Rangel said. “Just the fact of sitting down to negotiate is an advance for the FARC given their current isolation and the condemnation of the national and international communities.”
FARC steps up extortion, drug trafficking activities
As a result, the FARC may be finding it easier these days to earn money from other sources.
The guerrillas have long been active in the illegal drug trade. They’re also stepping up their extortion schemes by blackmailing businesses for monthly payments, known as vacunas, or vaccinations, because they prevent the victim from suffering the even worse fate of being kidnapped.
Amid Colombia’s oil and mining bonanza, the FARC has found many new targets. Oil companies, in particular, are being targeted in southern Caqueta department. Police officials believe that a recent spate of rebel bombings targeting oil tankers and infrastructure in southern Colombia — as well as last year’s kidnapping of three Chinese oil workers and their translator came in retaliation for the refusal of petroleum companies to continue handing over extortion payments.
Eduardo Pizarro, who has written several books about the FARC, said the organization also earns huge sums from the gold-mining industry by forcing small-time prospectors in areas where the guerrillas operate into handing over a share of their earnings.
Even so, the FARC’s new policy on kidnapping could open some doors with the Santos government.
The FARC appears to have adjusted to the Army offensive and, over the past three years, the rebels have stepped up their attacks. On Feb. 27, FARC rebels attacked the town of Caloto in southern Cauca department on the same day Santos was holding a national security council meeting in the nearby city of Popayan.
The president has pursued a dual strategy — prosecuting the war while holding out the possibility of peace talks. And as the fighting in Caloto suggests, a final battlefield victory for either side seems remote, making it more likely the two sides may eventually find themselves in negotiations.
Yet Colombians by and large appear to have little enthusiasm for another round of talks.
The 1999-2002 negotiations ended in failure after the rebels refused to make any concessions and continued to kidnap civilians en masse. Those talks were cancelled 10 years ago this month after FARC commandos skyjacked a commuter plane, forced it to land on a rural highway and kidnapped a Colombian senator onboard.
Critics also ask why the country should negotiate with a group that has been blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and enjoys a public approval rating of less than 1 percent in opinion polls. The FARC represents no one, according to these critics.