Bogotá NGO: Colombian Kidnappings Fall to Lowest Level in 10 Years

By Dialogo
June 03, 2013

BOGOTÁ — The incidence of kidnapping in Colombia has dropped to the lowest level in a decade, according to figures released by the nonprofit group Fundación País Libre.
The NGO said 58 people were kidnapped during the first three months of this year, down from 97 over the same period in 2012. This translates into an average 4.5 kidnappings per week, compared to eight per week in 2000. In Bogotá, the drop in kidnappings is even more dramatic: only three so far this year, down from 21 in January, February and March of 2012.
But the foundation’s director, Clara Rojas, said “this figure is just a sample and it does not yet fully reveal the whole picture, since unfortunately around 75 percent of those affected do not report these crimes.”
Rojas, herself a high-profile former hostage for six years, was held alongside presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt by guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC] from 2002 to 2008.
While Colombia’s kidnapping tally is down 40 percent from last year and Bogotá’s has fallen by 86 percent, the situation remains very different elsewhere in Colombia. The departments of Cauca, Santander and Norte de Santander continue to be flashpoints for the kidnapping and extortion industry, accounting for 53 percent of all cases, said the foundation.
Latest kidnapping is reported in La Guajira
Kidnapping remains a key source of income for guerrilla groups and is used as political leverage; in the last 10 years, 6,880 people have been abducted throughout Colombia.
The latest incident took place May 17, when two Spanish tourists were abducted in the northeastern department of La Guajira, near Colombia’s border with Venezuela. Missing are Angel Sánchez Fernández, 49, and María Concepción Marlaska Sedano, 43 — both from Spain’s Asturias region.
The Colombian National Police is said to be coordinating efforts with its Spanish counterpart and has deployed officers from a special anti-kidnapping unit to La Guajira, Reuters reported.
Spanish news reports said the kidnappers identified themselves as members of the FARC when they contacted the victims’ families to demand a ransom, though senior FARC leader Andrés Paris told Reuters on May 22 that “we categorically reject this new absurdity of accusing the FARC of actions of common crime.”
Paris, who’s in Cuba attending the peace talks between his Marxist-supported guerrilla group and the Colombian government, added that an order by his organization’s top leaders to take no more hostages was being followed “in all of the national territory.”
Common criminals now responsible for most kidnappings
Yet the country has clearly made progress, said Rojas. Only a decade ago, Colombia reported 566 such cases in the first trimester of 2003 alone. Rojas attributed recent improvements to the actions of the police and the elite Colombian anti-kidnapping units (known by their Spanish acronym GAULA) as well as to an increased military presence throughout the country.
The most famous rescue operation was Operation Checkmate, in which Betancourt and three American contractors were released from six years of hellish conditions in the jungles after their capture by FARC terrorists.
So, who is behind the kidnappings now? Fundacion Pais Libre’s report shows that 69 percent of all cases so far this year — or 40 incidents — were related to common delinquency and extortion, while the FARC was responsible for 11 kidnappings and the rival ELN [Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional] guerrilla group for six. One kidnapping was blamed on the Bacrim, as newly formed armed groups are labelled.
The FARC claims to have stopped its policy of kidnapping in May while participating in peace talks in Havana. The fact that abductions — such as those of the two Spanish tourists seized in La Guajira — continue suggests splinter factions within the group, said analysts.
ELN still holds Canadian hostage
The ELN, with an estimated 2,500 fighters, is clearly the smaller of the two guerrilla groups. Earlier this year, the group seized two retired German tourists, believing them to be spies or employees of a multinational mining conglomerate. Those two men are now free, but Jernoc Wobert — a Canadian employed by Geo Explorer who was taken hostage in January — remains in captivity.
“This subversive group applies varied forms of struggle,” said Gen. Alejandro Navas, commander in charge of the Colombian Armed Forces, speaking about ELN rebels. “They have economic and political aims, and are calling for the government to pay them attention to start a peace dialogue.”
Rojas warns against premature celebrations as long as the scourge of kidnapping continues.
“We cannot yet claim victory, as the figure of 58 people is still high,” Rojas said. “Looking beyond the numbers, the phenomenon still remains, and is now a preferred method of extortion for criminal gangs who are primarily responsible for this crime.”