FARC’s Dramatic Release of 10 Hostages Raises Hopes for End to War

By Dialogo
April 10, 2012

BOGOTÁ — The dramatic release April 2 of the last 10 government troops held hostage by FARC rebels closed one of the most painful chapters in Colombia’s guerrilla war and has boosted hopes for a new round of peace talks to end the conflict.

When the four Colombian army NCOs and six policemen stepped off a Brazilian helicopter at Bogotá’s military airport aided by a team of doctors and psychologists, they seemed both joyful and in shock after spending up to 14 years in captivity in the jungle. They had been gone so long that some of them didn’t even recognize family members.

“I am your son,” Jonathan Salcedo, 18, told his father, Army Sgt. Robinson Salcedo, who was taken hostage during a 1998 rebel attack on the Miraflores military base in southern Guaviare department. Jonathan was only 4 at the time.

Another former hostage stepped off the helicopter draped in a Colombian flag. Others brought with them souvenirs from their time in the jungle, including wild birds and a peccary. All 10 men were pronounced relatively healthy except for weight loss and some digestive problems.

At a news conference Tuesday, the newly freed men described the brutal conditions imposed by the FARC.

For about eight years, pairs of hostages were chained together, like Siamese twins, to make it harder for them to escape or be rescued. Nevertheless, Police Sgt. Luis Arturo Arcia said the Colombian army came close to rescuing the hostages in a September 2010 operation. “They came within 500 meters of us. We could hear the shooting,” he said.

No more government troops in captivity

At one point, two policemen, Jorge Trujillo and José Forero, escaped and remained on the lam for about a month. They were finally recaptured by the FARC and Trujillo feared they would be executed.

“I was expecting a bullet,” Trujillo said. “I offered them my head to kill me. But thankfully, that never happened.”

The unilateral liberations means that the FARC no longer holds any government troops, although the rebel group has failed to account for the fate of several hundred civilian hostages. It was also widely interpreted as the first concrete step by the FARC towards convincing the Colombian government to open a new round of peace talks to end the war that began in 1964.

“I see it as a peace gesture,” said Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was held hostage for more than six years by the FARC. “The guerrillas are acknowledging that their strategy of kidnapping was a mistake. The FARC is trying to reshape its image because the whole world sees them as terrorists and drug traffickers.”

Monday’s liberations followed a declaration by the FARC last month that it would no longer kidnap civilians for ransom. Skeptics see this as a cynical ploy by the FARC to secure a dose of good publicity even as the rebel group continues to earn millions through drug trafficking and extorting businesses, particularly oil companies. But others are more optimistic.

“With the liberations and this declaration by the FARC, many of us hope that the government takes a step forward to look for a political solution to end the conflict,” said Ernesto Samper, a former Colombian president who is deeply involved in peace issues.

Despite optimism, government moves cautiously

Even though the FARC has been hit hard by a decade-long military offensive that has reduced its numbers by half to about 7,000, the war continues to extract a huge toll. The cost of the war, especially among civilians caught in the conflict, was made clear Wednesday when the government released figures showing that 3,500 people had been killed or maimed by landmines over the past five years.

Though elated by the prisoner release, President Juan Manuel Santos was cautious in his remarks. He called the hostage release “a step in the right direction” by the FARC but said it was “insufficient” to immediately begin a new round of negotiations.

That’s because Santos is demanding further demonstrations of good faith by the FARC. In particular, Santos wants to see an end to the recruiting of child soldiers by the rebels, collaboration on demining operations, and agreements to the halt the FARC’s use of inaccurate homemade bombs that often hit schools, clinics and other civilian installations.

Santos is also concerned about moving too fast and repeating the mistakes of previous Colombian presidents who tried, in vain, to negotiate with the FARC.

FARC strategy ultimately failed

The liberation of the 10 police and army soldiers brought to an end to a torturous odyssey that began in the mid-1990s as the FARC built up its troop strength and began overrunning military and police bases. Amid those attacks, the FARC captured hundreds of government troops.

The FARC’s strategy was to exchange its military prisoners for jailed guerrillas. At the time, the rebel ranks were growing so fast that the FARC needed experienced cadres to lead its rookie foot soldiers. But many of these mid-ranking rebels were sitting in Colombian jails. A prisoner swap would also make the FARC appear to be equals of the state and infer a certain political legitimacy on the guerrilla group.

For awhile, the plan worked. Amid peace talks between the two sides in 2001, the Colombian government agreed to free 14 FARC guerrillas in exchange for the release of 323 policemen and soldiers who had been held for three years or longer. But at the last minute, the FARC decided to hang onto more than two dozen police officers and army NCOs while letting the enlisted men go.

After talks broke off the following year, the government stiffened its stance and there were no more swaps. Some of the remaining police and army hostages were killed or died in captivity. Eleven were rescued in a 2008 sting operation that also freed Betancourt as well as three U.S. military contractors who had been held for five years.

The remaining military and police hostages have either been rescued or unilaterally released by the FARC in dribs and drabs until the last batch was turned over to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross last Monday afternoon.