Ever since Colombian police officer, John Frank Pinchao escaped from the narco-terrorist insurgency inside Colombia, known as the FARC on April 28, 2007, there has been growing pressure on President Uribe to work for the release of the remaining 60 hostages. The most famous among them is Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who has been held since 2002 when she entered FARC territory against government advice. At the time of her capture she was running for president against Uribe. After his escape, Mr. Pinchao gave a chilling account of the inhumane treatment suffered by the hostages and specifically said that Betancourt was being forced to sleep chained by her neck as punishment for having tried to escape five times.

In understanding this story, it is important to grasp the nature of the FARC and what President Uribe is up against in trying to broker a deal with them. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was established in 1964 as a Marxist group that follows a Maoist strategy of protracted peoples’ war with the long term aim of overthrowing the Colombian government and establishing a Marxist state.1 It has a fighting force of approximately 12,000-15,000 and since its inception forty years ago has been led by septuagenarian, Manuel Marulanda a.k.a “Tirofijo.”2 The FARC has financed itself through extortions from kidnapping as well as revenues generated from extensive drug trafficking. Since becoming president in 2002, Alvaro Uribe has been successful in containing the FARC and bringing a sense of security to the Colombian population that did not exist prior to his assuming the presidency.

Manuel Marulanda, a.k.a “Tiro Fijo.” Source: Jornada, Mexico. Due to Betancourt’s French citizenship, the FARC made it known that they would like French President Nicolas Sarkozy to help broker a deal for her release in late May this year. This coupled with pressure from Betancourt’s family led the French President to try to make a deal to free FARC hostages in exchange for jailed FARC members. He, in turn, pressured Uribe to start a dialogue with the FARC to release her. In addition, Sarkozy thought it would be a good idea to involve Chavez in the negotiations. This past June, over 150 imprisoned FARC terrorists were transferred from prisons to a temporary holding center as part of a unilateral prisoner release that Uribe hoped would speed up an exchange and prompt the FARC to free many hostages they were holding in remote jungle camps across the country. Aside from Betancourt, the 60 so-called political hostages include members of the armed forces and local politicians as well as three U.S. contractors.

On June 4th, the Colombian government released terrorist leader Rodrigo Granda, FARC’s “foreign chancellor,” with hopes that he would play an important role in mediating an agreement. But Uribe’s move was promptly rejected by the FARC, which called it a “farce” and a “smokescreen.” In a press release, the FARC’s second-in-command, Raul Reyes, rejected the idea of a humanitarian prisoner exchange unless the government first established a demilitarized zone in two southwestern Colombian municipalities.3 The Colombian government has repeatedly refused to concede a safe haven to FARC terrorists as a venue for possible talks. In fact, the government is trying to regain control over previous territory, (known as the Despeje) given to the FARC. Uribe understands that having the Despeje, a 42,000 square kilometer territory in central Colombia was a failed policy because it gave the FARC the ability to arm its forces and build and consolidate significant portions of the drug trade. It is now estimated that there are over 4,000 people being held in captivity in Colombia by illegal armed groups and common criminals.

 

During Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ill-fated mediation effort to win the release of the hostages, the French and Colombian governments had demanded evidence the captives were still alive. The FARC never delivered the material and matters deteriorated further when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe abruptly ended the Venezuelan leader’s mediation role saying Chavez had overstepped his bounds and violated their agreement by directly contacting the head of Colombia’s army.4 There are even allegations that Chavez tried to secure an open area so that he and FARC members could meet without the Colombian government permission. Even worse, it was alleged that Chavez wanted to bribe the military members to stage a coup against Uribe. The commander in chief went directly to Uribe and told him that Chavez wanted to stage a coup using the military and turn Colombia into a FARC country.At the end of November, Colombian officials released newly seized videos of FARC-held hostages, including images of Ms. Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors. Also recovered were a series of letters apparently written by the hostages, including what appeared to be the will of U.S. contractor, Thomas Howes. The videos were apparently recorded as recently as late October. The videotapes, which were played at a news conference without sound, showed an extremely gaunt Betancourt apparently chained and in front of a jungle backdrop. Betancourt has long hair and stares blankly at the ground. These were the first pictures since 2003 that provided evidence that the captives might be alive. The tapes were seized during the arrest in Bogota of three suspected urban members of the FARC. The Americans were abducted by the FARC after their surveillance plane went down in a southern Colombian jungle in 2003.5 Sarkozy supported Uribe’s abrupt ending of Chavez’s intervention because the proof of life had come from the Colombian armed forces and not from Chavez. Chavez called that a betrayal and said if he were allowed to continue mediating, FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda, would almost certainly have turned over some hostages by Christmas. Uribe accused Chavez of pursuing an “expansionist” plan in the region. Chávez then called Uribe a “liar and cynic” who “does not want peace”, adding that Colombia “deserves a better president.”6

Uribe, in turn, accused Chavez of seeking to “build an empire based on his (oil-rich) budget” and of wanting Colombia to be “a victim of a FARC terrorist government”. That prompted Chávez to call Uribe “a sad pawn of the empire” (the United States), saying that he was putting relations with Colombia “in the freezer” and recalled his ambassador in Bogotá. Chavez then said he would have “no type of relationship” with Uribe or his government.7 Amid the diplomatic pressure, Uribe just this month reiterated his offer to allow the first face-to-face meeting between officials of his government and rebels, monitored by international and Roman Catholic observers. He said there would be no police and no troops in the 95-square-mile meeting zone and again insisted that mediators arrive unarmed. Uribe is adamant that his government is doing all possible to resolve the hostage issue, but said the response they have had from the FARC is the assassination of several hostages.8

In addition, Colombian police just this month foiled a FARC plot to kidnap President Uribe’s two sons as his government came under pressure to reach a deal securing the release of FARC members in jail. “With this strike, we’ve avoided a terrorist tragedy,” police chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo said. “These criminals had declared the president’s sons military targets.” Police played an audiotape of conversations they said revealed two guerrillas belonging to the FARC’s elite Teofilo Forero unit talking in code about Uribe’s sons, Jeronimo and Tomas.9

Meanwhile Congresswoman Piedad Cordoba, a self – declared Chavista and opposition Colombian senator who helped facilitate Chavez’s original mediating role, said that the Venezuelan president was willing to forget the past if he could help. Chavez told her “that if in any moment his presence was required by president Uribe, to help with the humanitarian exchange, he would forget the things that have happened and would be ready to contribute,” Cordoba told reporters.

In another related development, Chavez ally, Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, last week accused Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of effectively condemning to death a well-known hostage held by Colombian leftist rebels by suspending talks for her release. In his speech, Ortega referred to the leader of Colombia’s FARC as a “dear brother.” At the same time as Chavez is trying to foist himself onto the world stage as an honest negotiator and peacemaker, he reportedly gives sanctuary to the FARC inside Venezuela, provides them with safe houses and arms and views them as a viable political party instead of a long established Marxist insurgency. It seems that President Uribe fully understands where Chavez is coming from and said in a recent speech:

“Your words, your attitudes, give the impression that you aren’t interested in peace in Colombia, but rather that Colombia be a victim of a terrorist government of the FARC,” he said in the town of Calamar. The truth is President Chavez, we need mediation against terrorism, NOT to legitimize terrorism… and I reject the idea of Colombia’s tragedy being used in the expansionist projects of Chavez…We want help, but we do not accept expansionist projects…the law cannot be substituted by personal whim…You cannot set ablaze the continent like you do and mistreat Spain, the US, Mexico, Peru and other countries.”10

In the next months, it is likely that the hostage situation will be used by Chavez and other Latin American heads of state like Ortega in Nicaragua to bring pressure on Uribe to make a deal that favors the FARC but is detrimental for the political stability of Colombia.

 

Notes

  1. Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks, The Rand Corporation,2007,p. 253.
  2. Ibid, p. 254.
  3. Despite Uribe’s Controversial Release of FARC Prisoners, Colombian Hostage Standoff Continues. June 21, 2007. World Politics Review.
  4. Colombia seizes, releases video of rebel-held hostages, possible evidence of life. November 30, 2007. Los Angeles Times.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sad pawn sent to freezer. November 29. The Economist.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mother of captive Colombian says hostage breakthrough more likely from rebels than president. December 12, 2007. IHT.
  9. Rebels attempt to kidnap Uribe’s sons. December 20, 2007. Buenos Aires Herald.
  10. Uribe estalla y emite durísimas declaraciones contra Hugo Chávez. November 27, 2007. Noticias 24.
 

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