Mar 30

4,483 days after the FARC guerrillas took him hostage, Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo has been freed. The FARC handed him over to a commission of Colombian church representatives, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba.

However, as of this writing bad weather has prevented their helicopters, provided by the Brazilian armed forces, from leaving the handover site in rural Caquetá department. The 30-year-old Moncayo’s family, who have not seen him since he was 18 back in 1997, must wait a few more hours to see him.

The FARC continues to hold 21 more soldiers and police to pressure for a prisoner exchange. While President Álvaro Uribe recently said he was open to negotiating such an exchange, this does not represent a significant departure from his earlier positions. A “humanitarian exchange” dialogue probably remains far off, not least because Colombia is in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Top: Moncayo moments before his release. Bottom: Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba meets with FARC members at the site where Moncayo was freed.
Feb 10

Washington has been hit by two big snowstorms in the past five days. Everything has been closed all week – the government, the schools, and CIP’s offices (everything is closed tomorrow too; the roads are impassable). On the bright side, being trapped at home gave me a chance to read three just-released books about Colombia. All of them are from careful, credible authors who happen to be very clear writers.

Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure, by John Otis, published by William Morrow. (Official release February 23.) John Otis has reported from Colombia for more than a decade for the Houston Chronicle, Time, and the Global Post website. He spent much of that time in the field, covering the Pastrana government’s failed peace process with the FARC, the expansion of U.S. aid programs, the plight of guerrilla hostages, and other stories. Law of the Jungle focuses especially on the three U.S. contractors who were taken hostage by the FARC in 2003 and freed in 2008, and the Colombian military unit that came upon a multi-million-dollar cache of guerrilla dollars in the jungle in 2003, then got in trouble after spending it lavishly on themselves.

Otis’s book is written for an audience that is not intimately familiar with Colombia; he includes a lot of background information, vividly written. The book is fast-paced and peppered with anecdotes. Striking examples include a 2001 battle between the FARC and DynCorp contractors sent into the wilds of Caquetá to rescue the head of Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police, who was pinned down by guerrilla fire; and the too-slow response after Colombian soldiers caught a glimpse of the three U.S. hostages in early 2008. In general, the U.S. government is portrayed as lumbering, bureaucratic, and slow to learn. The Colombian military is portrayed as at times heroic — the case of Operación Jaque, the July 2008 ruse that freed 15 FARC hostages, is richly detailed — but at times abusive or corrupt, as in the case of the guerrilla cash find or former Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya’s alleged collaboration with paramilitaries.

Otis includes some unvarnished quotes from people involved in the story; U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield even drops the “f-bomb” once or twice.

“No divulgar hasta que los implicados estén muertos:” Las guerras de “Doblecero,” by Aldo Civico, published by Intermedio. Aldo Civico, an Italian-born  anthropologist who heads Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, was doing post-graduate research in Medellín in the early- to mid-2000s. He developed a relationship, with interviews and a long series of e-mail exchanges, with Carlos García, alias “Rodrigo Doblecero,” the leader of the AUC paramilitary group’s “Metro Bloc,” which for a time at the turn of the decade dominated Medellín and much of Antioquia department. By the time Civico met “Doblecero,” he was on the run from his former paramilitary colleagues (especially Diego Murillo alias “Don Berna,” now in a U.S. prison), from whom he had split out of disagreement with their increasing involvement in narcotrafficking. By then the paramilitary leader was fighting “Don Berna” and the military far more than he was fighting guerrillas. Cívico was in regular contact with “Doblecero” (who at the time was also talking to U.S. reporters) from mid-2003 until days before he was killed in May 2004.

Most of the book is transcriptions of emails from “Doblecero,” or his recorded words as Civico interviewed him. Much is autobiographical or explaining the origins of the paramilitaries, making “No Divulgar” an interesting companion book to AUC founder Carlos Castaño’s 2002 autobiography Mi Confesión.

His analysis of what is wrong with Colombia’s politics and economy makes “Doblecero” sound like a leftist: venal, corrupt elites and narcotraffickers, in his view, are strengthening a feudal system. But those he regards as the “true” paramilitaries are defending the interests of middle-class landholders, whom the guerrillas — in what he sees as a great miscalculation — began to target in the 1980s. “Doblecero” believes that the paramilitary cause went badly in the late 1990s, when leaders like Carlos Castaño allied with the country’s principal narcotraffickers, many of whom became top paramilitary leaders and amassed huge quantities of land. “Doblecero,” however, has very little to say to Civico about the massive atrocities that even the most “pure,” non-narco paramilitaries committed, including the bloody mid-1990s Urabá campaign in which he participated.

Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, by Vanda Felbab-Brown, published by Brookings Institution Press. Brookings Institution Fellow Felbab-Brown traveled extensively to Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru to research a study concluding that U.S. “War on Drugs” programs badly undermine U.S. counter-insurgency goals. In countries where insurgencies draw support from the drug trade, one of the main assumptions underlying U.S. counter-drug policy has been that attacking drug production will take resources away from the insurgency, weakening it badly. Felbab-Brown dismantles that argument.

Instead, she argues for a “political capital” model, which considers how the U.S.-supported operation affects the population’s perception of the insurgents. If people in Colombia or Afghanistan live off of coca or poppy plants, an eradication campaign may modestly reduce the insurgents’ income. However, Felbab-Brown argues, the eradication will alienate the population from the government and increase their support for the insurgents, adding to their “political capital,” which gives them strong military advantages. Shooting Up makes an important, well-documented point, one that explains much of the frustrations of U.S.-supported campaigns in Colombia and Afghanistan during the 2000s (both of which left drug production unaffected while insurgent groups tenaciously persist).

Felbab-Brown’s model points to only one type of drug policy that can reduce both the insurgents’ drug income and their “political capital” simultaneously. This would be something along the lines of a “laissez-faire” approach, or even decriminalization and regulation, which would reduce the drug trade’s profitability while offering no political advantages to the insurgents. She acknowledges, however, that for now such approaches are “politically infeasible.”

Apr 17

Our thoughts are with the family of Pablo Moncayo, a Colombian Army corporal taken captive by the FARC guerrillas in December 1997. Early this morning, the FARC issued a communiqué announcing that it would unilaterally free Mr. Moncayo to opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba and to his father, Gustavo Moncayo, a leading advocate of a negotiation to free the guerrillas’ hostages. Senator Córdoba says the release could take place within twenty days.

Corporal Moncayo was 18 and engaged to be married when the FARC captured him during its takeover of a military base in Patascoy, Putumayo. He is now 30, and his ex-fiancee, whom he told in a proof-of-life video to “live her life” without him, is now married with two children.

Gustavo Moncayo, the hostage’s father and a soft-spoken schoolteacher from Nariño department, became known as the “peace walker” after walking the length and breadth of Colombia’s territory to raise awareness of the hostages’ plight. In all public appearances, Moncayo wears chains that recall those the guerrillas attach to their hostages at all times.

His advocacy of a negotiated prisoner exchange has earned Moncayo the ire of Colombia’s right wing. Fernando Londoño, President Álvaro Uribe’s first interior and justice minister, once wrote a column in the El Tiempo newspaper calling the hostage’s father of spreading “Marxist venom through Colombia’s veins.”

Gustavo Moncayo learned of the FARC’s announcement of his son’s impending release this morning, when a radio station called him in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo. [MP3]

I think this is great news, I’m in Sincelejo, and I didn’t know this news. This took me by surprise, just a moment ago. I thank God for this infinitely big moment. The emotion is so great that it clouds my mind, my [inaudible]. We must fight for the liberation of all. And it hurts because I know that the soldiers and police are dying out there, and I will keep fighting for them.

In December 2001, the FARC refused the request of a boy dying of cancer to see his father, a police hostage. That they are now willing to reunite Corporal Moncayo with his father is a sign of progress, of sorts. We can surmise that at least some elements in the FARC leadership are conscious of the irreparable damage the group’s practice of kidnapping and hostage-taking has done to its reputation and credibility.

But nobody has anything to thank the FARC for. Even after they free Moncayo, the guerrillas will still be holding 21 police and military personnel hostage, many of them since the 1990s, to pressure for a prisoner exchange. They hold an unknown additional number of Colombian civilians for ransom.

It is important that the Colombian government be open to peaceful means to free the remaining 21 hostages, such as a humanitarian negotiation. But it is even more important that the FARC put a definitive end to the unspeakably cruel practice of kidnapping, once and for all, and release its remaining captives.

Apr 07

Not all House Democrats seek a range of views on the human rights situation, narcotrafficking, or the complexities of U.S. policy in Colombia. Here is House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), speaking today on a visit to Colombia whose agenda consisted almost completely of meetings with Colombian government officials. (Audio here.)

It is hugely disappointing that a prominent member of Congress failed to use this forum even to say a sentence about the importance and legitimacy of non-governmental human rights defenders, journalists, and judges. Though Álvaro Uribe frequently subjects these individuals to vicious verbal abuse – including irresponsible accusations of support for terrorism – Mr. Hoyer warmly praised the “respect and protection” that President Uribe purportedly offers them.

Thank you very much, Mr. President. I am pleased, along with Mr. Blunt, to lead this delegation of nine members of the Congress of the United States. We have taken an opportunity over this break in the Congress’ business to visit Mexico, Panama, and Colombia, and we will be going from here to Medellín, and then to Brazil.

One of the focuses of our trip has been the critical importance of the partnership between the United States and our friends, to fight those who would undermine the health and security of our countries and of our people with narcotrafficking and terrorism.

The success that Colombia has had under President Uribe has been extraordinary and welcome. Plan Colombia has worked, is working, and we believe needs to continue to work.

We are pleased as well with the progress that has been made on human rights, with the commitment of President Uribe and his cabinet, to focus on making sure that every individual’s rights are respected, and protected. Whether they be friends, or whether they not be allies or friends. That all people deserve respect and protection.

We are also pleased to be joined by our ambassador, Ambassador Brownfield, and most particularly, by the ambassador of Colombia to the United States, Carolina Barco, who is with us as well, who does such an extraordinarily good job in representing the people of Colombia and the Uribe administration.

We obviously, as well, talked about the free-trade agreement that is pending. I am a supporter of that agreement, as is Mr. [Roy] Blunt [R-Missouri]. And we heard from the President, from the Minister of Labor, the Minister of Trade, the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, on how very important this agreement is, not only to the economic relationship between Colombia and the United States, but also to the people of Colombia. We will hope to return to the United States and to work with the administration to see this matter move forward.

I’m now very pleased to yield, but before I do that, as I said, we are going to Medellín, the city of the President’s birth. Medellín, where I have never been, but I am told is a striking example of the success, Mr. President, that you have had in reclaiming a city from narcoterrorists, providing security and safety for people, so the quality of life of your people has been enhanced very substantially. We look forward to that visit.

Feb 25

Five months into Fiscal Year 2009 (which began October 1), the U.S. Congress has almost completed the 2009 federal budget. The House and Senate have developed an “omnibus” spending bill combining ten sections of the budget, which the House is expected to vote on today.

One of those ten sections funds foreign assistance for the rest of the world. The 2009 State Department and Foreign Operations bill provides Colombia with US$547.05 million in aid for 2009. Of that total, 55.8 percent (US$305.05 million) would go to Colombia’s armed forces and police.

An additional amount of military and police aid goes separately, through accounts in the Defense Department’s budget. In 2007, the Defense budget added an additional US$114.26 million in military and police aid. If that amount is similar in 2009, then total aid to Colombia this year will add up to US$666.31 million. Of that total, 62.9 percent (US$419.31 million) will be military and police aid.

The 2009 aid bill’s Colombia outlay almost exactly resembles the amounts and military-economic splits that Congress provided to Colombia for 2008. The Bush administration, which heavily favored military aid to Colombia, had sought to undo the Democratic Congress’s far less military 2008 aid package for Colombia; in February 2008 it requested a 2009 aid package for Colombia that was 72.9 percent military and police aid (76.9 percent when Defense-budget aid is added). Congress denied this request and maintained 2008 aid levels.

Here are the details, from the House-Senate Conference Committee’s “Joint Explanatory Statement” (PDF).

Military and Police Aid:
(Thousands of dollars)

Aid program 2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Andean Counterdrug Programs 247,098 329,557 242,500
Foreign Military Financing (FMF) 55,050 66,390 53,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 0 19,247 5,000
Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining and Related (NADR) 3,715 3,150 3,150
International Military Education and Training (IMET) 1,428 1,400 1,400
Subtotal: Foreign Operations programs 307,291 419,744 305,050
Defense-Budget programs (estimate based on 2007) 114,264 114,264 114,264
Total 421,555 534,008 419,314

Economic and Social Aid:
(Thousands of dollars)

Aid program 2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Economic Support Fund (ESF) 194,412 142,366 200,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 39,427 11,340 40,000
USAID Transition Initiatives (2009 est.) 2,000 2,000 2,000
Subtotal: Foreign Operations programs 235,839 155,706 242,000
Defense-Budget programs (2009 est.) 5,000 5,000 5,000
Total 240,839 160,706 247,000

Overall Total:
(Thousands of dollars)


2008 2009 – Bush administration request 2009 – H.R. 1105
Economic Support Fund (ESF) 194,412 142,366 200,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 39,427 11,340 40,000
USAID Transition Initiatives (2009 est.) 2,000 2,000 2,000
Foreign Operations programs 543,130 575,450 547,050
Defense-Budget programs (2009 est.) 119,264 119,264 119,264
Total 662,394 694,714 666,314

The House-Senate Conference Committee’s statement [PDF] provides this additional detail about economic aid to Colombia, indicating how it recommends that the 2009 aid money be distributed.

Feb 17

Gerardo Reyes in Saturday’s El Nuevo Herald: “What is your opinion of him [Álvaro Uribe] today?”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (1994-1997) Myles Frechette: “Very frustrating. He is a much different person than I thought. He is not democratic, he doesn’t have much respect for the judiciary or the Congress, he is an authoritarian and very populist person, in many senses he is very similar to [Hugo] Chávez.”

This interview is fascinating. Frechette relates a 1996 meeting with Álvaro Uribe, then the governor of Antioquia department, in which he confronts Uribe about rumored past ties to narcotrafficking. Frechette says he was “not satisfied” by Uribe’s answers.

Feb 10

We applaud the three successful humanitarian operations last week that reunited six of the FARC guerrillas’ long-held hostages with their families.

The following actors deserve high praise for the professionalism and discretion they showed last week.

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross carried out flawlessly the difficult, delicate task of organizing hostage pickups at three secret, remote jungle locations during five days, while coordinating between parties who have no direct contact with each other. Christophe Beney, Yves Heller and other professional ICRC staff in Bogotá showed the world how these complex operations are properly performed.
  • Similar praise goes to the government and army of Brazil, whose helicopters made the pickups and whose crews handled the logistics. The Brazilians stayed out of the spotlight, but their involvement – absent from most past Colombian peace efforts – was a welcome confidence-builder.
  • Colombianos por la Paz (Colombians for Peace), an ad hoc group of intellectuals, leftist politicians and activists, seems to have set the process in motion with a September letter to the FARC that began a public exchange of communications with the guerrillas. In the group’s second letter to the FARC, the “Colombians for Peace” asked the guerrilla leadership to release all of its kidnap victims and renounce the practice of kidnapping. The FARC have yet to agree to that, but they did agree to release last week’s six hostages. Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, a signer of the “Colombians for Peace” letter who has been a key link of communication with the FARC, worked tirelessly last week to ensure that the hostage releases went ahead.
  • The hostages’ families deserve the highest praise for their perseverance, their efforts to raise the profile of their loved ones’ suffering, and the dignity they maintained throughout the process. More concretely, they may have even helped save last week’s releases with a cell-phone call placed to Colombia’s first lady, Lina Moreno de Uribe, on the night of February 1, after President Uribe put the process at risk by briefly prohibiting Sen. Córdoba’s participation.
  • The U.S. State Department was mainly on the sidelines, but did release a positive statement “welcoming” the first hostage release and praising Brazil.

But there are exceptions. The hostage releases seemed to bring out the worst in some of the others involved.

  • Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, authorized Colombia’s air force to dispatch planes to circle above the site where, on February 1, the FARC were to hand over four hostages. The presence of the high-flying aircraft delayed the handover for hours. Journalist Daniel Samper, a member of the “Colombians for Peace” mission aboard the Brazilian helicopters, said that, faced with the FARC’s refusal to carry out the handover while the aircraft were present, the mission tried to call the Uribe government’s top negotiator, Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo – but Restrepo’s phone went straight to voicemail. It took two hours to get Santos to call off the planes. While Santos insisted the Red Cross agreement allowed the planes to fly at over 20,000 feet during the rescue, the agreement in fact referred to commercial aircraft. A February 3 editorial in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper characterized Santos’s attitude as “stubborn and defiant.” Added Semana magazine, “It was very bad if the intention was to gain a military advantage by carrying out intelligence in the midst of a humantarian operation. Even worse, if they sought to intimidate with their planes an already paranoid guerrilla group [thereby threatening the hostage release].”
  • Independent journalist Jorge Enrique Botero has accompanied efforts to win hostages’ release for years, and has often played a useful supporting role for Sen. Córdoba and others. During the February 1 airplane-flyover incident, however, Botero – on the ground in the jungle – made the unfortunate choice of contacting the Venezuela-based TeleSur network and denouncing the Colombian military’s actions, even inviting one of the FARC guerrillas carrying out the hostage handover to comment on the air. Normally, an outrage like the handover zone overflights is the sort of “scoop” that a journalist should seek. At the time, though, Botero was a member of a humanitarian mission, not a correspondent. The matter he was denouncing was delicate, best left entirely up to the International Committee of the Red Cross to communicate to the Colombian government. Botero has since apologized.
  • Hollman Morris is another Colombian independent journalist known for traveling to some of the most dangerous and conflictive corners of Colombia to cover the conflict. (We interviewed him in 2007, video here.) He appears to have been the victim of a coincidence – or at least found himself used by the FARC. While recording a documentary about kidnapping, Morris had arranged an interview with FARC leaders in the jungles of Caquetá department in southern Colombia. They turned out to be the same FARC leaders holding the four hostages released on February 1. The humanitarian mission picking up the hostages had specified that no reporters would be present; its members were very surprised, then, to find a well-known journalist already on the ground at the pickup site. Before granting their freedom, the FARC required the four hostages – a soldier and three policemen – to submit to interviews with Morris as a condition of their release. Morris says that, realizing what was happening, he only asked the hostages their names and the amount of time they had been held. The hostages have asked that Morris not make the resulting footage public, and we hope he honors that. Hollman Morris found himself in a difficult situation, and had few options. Nonetheless, as Semana magazine put it, “On one hand, his rush to get the story may have led him to lose sight of the fact that he could have interfered in the hostage release. On the other hand, as a member of Colombians for Peace, he may not have pondered the possibility that he could have become – against his will – an obstacle to the complex task Piedad Córdoba was carrying out.”
  • While Morris did nothing illegal, top Colombian government officials reacted very poorly. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was quoted as saying that Morris is “close to the FARC.” President Álvaro Uribe added that Morris “shields himself in his status as a journalist to be permissive and complicit with terrorism.” Both public accusations – that Morris supports a guerrilla group that kills and kidnaps hundreds of Colombian citizens each year – are unfounded, irresponsible, and place Morris in grave danger. Both leaders must retract them publicly.
  • President Uribe behaved erratically on the night of February 1st when, sometime around midnight, he abruptly prohibited Piedad Córdoba – and anyone but the ICRC and the Brazilians – from participating in the remaining two hostage pickups. Uribe took this move out of anger about the behavior of Botero and Morris, but because of the importance the FARC placed on Córdoba’s participation, the President risked scuttling the entire operation. By the morning of the 2nd, apparently after strong urging from the Red Cross, the Brazilian government, and the alarmed relatives of to-be-released hostages, Uribe reversed himself, allowing Piedad Córdoba – but nobody else from “Colombians for Peace” – to participate in the hostage pickups.
  • The government’s “high commissioner for peace” or chief negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, was largely left out of last week’s proceedings. He nonetheless managed to behave bizarrely. On February 3, after the humanitarian mission departed the airport in Villavicencio, Meta, to pick up FARC hostage Alan Jara, Restrepo decided to ban the media from the airport so that they could not cover Jara’s return. In the face of complaints from every Colombian news organization, the Colombian Presidency overruled Restrepo’s decision and allowed the press back in. The Peace Commissioner responded by turning in his resignation – for the fourth time in his 6 1/2-year tenure – and disappearing for at least a day. On February 4, El Tiempo reported that Restrepo was not even answering his phone when President Uribe called. By February 5, El Espectador was reporting that Uribe planned to replace Restrepo with Frank Pearl, the official in charge of the government’s demobilization and reintegration programs. By February 6, however, the Colombian Presidency reported that Restrepo had been located, President Uribe had not accepted his resignation, and Restrepo was reinstated as high commissioner for peace.
  • Of course, the party whose behavior deserves the strongest condemnation is the FARC, whose cruelty and utter disregard for international humanitarian standards made last week’s operation necessary in the first place. After holding these men for so many years, their “goodwill gesture” to Colombians for Peace generated very little good will for them. The guerrillas continue to hold twenty-three more soldiers and police – some for over eleven years – to pressure the government for a prisoner-exchange deal. (They poured salt in that wound with a letter last week mocking one of the hostages, Police Gen. Luis Mendieta, who has been held for ten years.) They hold untold hundreds more civilians hostage for ransom. In the past few weeks, they are responsible for bombings that have killed civilians in Bogotá and Cali.

Last week’s releases indicate that those within the FARC’s leadership who have insisted on kidnapping civilian hostages are starting to lose the internal argument. A guerrilla group that has shown very little concern for its image made a move that appeared to indicate that it was conscious of public opinion. That is a positive development, though it offers little reason to believe that a movement toward dialogue – or even a “humanitarian exchange” of prisoners for hostages – is likely in the near term. Nonetheless, we hope that any momentum begun last week builds and continues.

We call on the FARC to take the logical next step: releasing all of its hostages and kidnap victims and renouncing the practice of kidnapping once and for all.

Feb 04

Here is a translation of Semana magazine’s excerpts from the lengthy press conference that former Meta department Governor Alan Jara gave yesterday afternoon, shortly after being released from 7 1/2 years as a captive of the FARC guerrillas.

Greeting to his comrades in captivity

“I spent seven years and seven months kidnapped. It was for 394 long weeks that I was in Colombia’s jungles. I want to greet those who shared these 2,760 days (or rather, nights) of jungle captivity with me: Luis Mendieta (police colonel), the husband of María Teresa, the father of Jeny and José Luis. Captain Murillo, Murillo the champion, as we called him, the fencing champion. A greeting to Donato, the son of Tiberio, who I think just turned 84 years old. To Pablo Emilio Moncayo, to Carlos José Duarte, to Arbey Delgado, the army sergeant. To José Libardo Forero, to Jorge Romero, from Pasto. To Jorge Trujillo, from Gamarra. To César Lasso, from Cali. To Salcedo, to Lucho Beltrán, to Luis Alfredo Moreno, another young man from Nariño. With these men I had the honor of sharing my time. To Elkin Hernández, Edgar Yesid, Álvaro Moreno, to Herazo Maya. To Captain Guillermo Solórzano, a police officer.”

The day of his kidnapping

“On July 15, 2001, I was invited with the United Nations to go to Lejanías, where they were going to serve the community with a bridge built with resources from the mayor’s office’s budget. When I asked about the security issue, they told me that there would be no problem, but that there were no security forces. It was a municipality bordering the demilitarized zone [from which the government of President Andrés Pastrana had pulled out troops to meet a FARC pre-condition for peace talks]. I had asked President Andrés Pastrana, in writing and orally, to ensure that there was security in the municipalities around the demilitarized zone. But this request was not attended. The guerrillas patrolled there. I came to a roadblock. They asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ I responded, ‘to inaugurate the bridge.’ ‘Go ahead,’ they told me. On the way back, the same roadblock stopped us. They required my presence. I got out of the car and they said they needed to talk to me. I had no other alternative. It was then that they took me away. I went through Mesetas, La Uribe, La Julia, La Macarena and arrived in the Caguán. There, Jorge Briceño (alias ‘El Mono Jojoy’) interviewed me. He made a series of declarations, recriminations, clarifications and the last sentence was ‘You didn’t know that I’d said I was going to grab legislators to be exchanged [for FARC prisoners in Colombian jails]?’ I said to him: ‘I’m not a legislator.’ ‘But you were going to be one,’ he answered.”

President Álvaro Uribe

“I think that the President’s [Álvaro Uribe's] attitude hasn’t at all helped the exchange and the liberation to happen. It would seem that President Uribe benefits from the situation of war that the country is living through, and it seems like the FARC likes to have him in power. In one direction or the other, they aim the same way.

Everything I’ve heard is about the strength and success of the Democratic Security Policy. And if it is so strong, could it be that a humanitarian accord would set it wobbling?  … When one is in the jungle tied to a pole, and you hear that there are “immovables,” for me the immovable is that pole, not the conditions.”

The FARC

“I’m going to tell another story to illustrate the reach that the FARC have today. One day we arrived in an area where, apparently, there was nothing. There, they were cooking with firewood. I said to the comandante: ‘This wood is making a lot of smoke, we can’t keep cooking without a gasoline stove.’ The next day, the stove was there. They started to cook,  but the stove used up a lot of gasoline and the beans they were cooking wouldn’t soften. ‘Why don’t you get a pressure cooker?’ I asked jokingly. And the next day the pressure cooker was there. So, with that demonstration of how they operate, we arrived at a stream at about 11 or 12:00 at night. After walking I don’t know where, it is impossible to say, there was a boat waiting for us. After half an hour, another boat launched, picked us up and we arrived at a site where, with lanterns, from the bank, they signaled that we had to get off at that point.”

Life in the jungle

“After being kidnapped for two days, they gave us a snack. It was Royal water and soda crackers. I put down the cup and put the soda crackers on top. I went out to “take care of business,” and when I came back, the crackers were folded over from the humidity. If that’s what it does to some crackers, imagine what it does to the people there. It kills and rots everything. That’s why the humanitarian exchange is urgent.

… And as Chavo del Ocho says, one thing is one thing and another thing is another thing. One thing is the decision to keep us in the jungle for so much time, and another thing is the treatment we received every day. They give us what is within reach. There is no mistreatment, nor rudeness, nor humiliations. They just give us what there is. Most of the time, a rich diet. Rich in flour. Rice and peas. Beans and rice. In the afternoon they’d vary it with rice and pasta, rice and lentils. One can know what the date is depending on whether it is rice or pasta. When conditions allowed, animals were hunted. Big tigers [jaguars and similar big cats]. Like the saying goes, I even ate monkey. I ate rays, armadillos, deer, fish. Breakfast was a soup of everything: beans, rice and lentils.”

The danger of death

“I spent seven weeks walking, before being free. I counted that every 4,000 paces, they stopped. I spent 17 days counting from one to 4,000. I calculated 150 kilometers, without counting what we did in a boat. Around us, like planets orbiting, were many guerrillas of the vanguard and rearguard, who served as protection. On occasion they came close to us or we retreated. On one occasion when they came close, about 50 meters I think, the group that was in front encountered an Army patrol. We, who were a bit behind, heard the shots. They held me down on the ground, the shots continued. And so I didn’t know which bullets to protect myself from, those of the Army or those of the guerrillas. It was very tense, we stayed on the ground all afternoon until it got dark. Once it was night, we moved a bit backward. We had to walk in silence. I remembered Alan Felipe [his son] when he was 4 years old. One day he said to me, “Papi, I hate you,” and I thought that the world was backward. And that’s how it was that night, like the world backward: the guerrillas protecting me and the Army shooting. … In the past, on four occasions bombs and planes passed very close by. The guerrillas ran to get us out, to protect us.”

Torture

“The chains were used as a security method. They didn’t mean to put chains on us to torture us. When we were penned up, there were no chains. When we went out to walk there were chains. That was a sad, painful circumstance. Even the guerrillas, when they put them on us, their faces grimaced. I prefer to remember them in the morning, when they took them off of us. They put my chain on my left leg, but the rest around their necks. A regrettable fact, for example: two of them, due to the guerrillas’ own error in positioning the chains, had them a bit loose. The punishment was never to allow them to be taken off, and as a result for the past two years, they are chained together at the neck. If you go, I have to go. If one goes to the bathroom, the other also has to do it. From here, I ask the guerrilla comandantes to stop using the chains as a punishment.

Walking in the jungle, it’s so hard with the chains, professor Moncayo! [The father of one of the remaining police hostages, Gustavo Moncayo, raises awareness about his son's plight by wearing a chain of his own.]  With a chain around your neck, you go stuck together, if one falls so does the other. An anecdote: One day we had to cross a wide river. We hung from a rope from one side to another. It was 340 meters. It was a very turbulent river. On the bank was Martín Sombra, directing the operation. To the pair ahead of me, Sombra asked, ‘Do you know how to swim?’ ‘Yes,’ they answered. ‘Oh good, be careful,’ Sombra said. After that, he asked the next one, ‘Do you know how to swim,’ the other answered ‘no.’ ‘Oh good, be careful,’ said Sombra.”

The road to freedom

“I was sick, I had the early stages of malaria, high fever. On December 18, the subcomandante of the group that had us came up to us. He told us that we had two minutes to pack. I was lying on a sheet of plastic, in very bad shape. Every one of my compañeros, Mendieta, Murillo, Delgado, Donato, began to pack up what was theirs. I gathered my things as I could. The comandante called me over. He said to me, ‘You come here, you’re already read.’ He called me urgently to leave the delimited area. He said ‘Walk.’ At that moment, I saw my compañeros for the last time. Colonel Mendieta said ‘Thank you Alan’ and began to applaud. The other compañeros joined him: William, Enrique and Arbey. They all thanked me. I had a 40-degree [104 degrees Fahrenheit] fever, and I didn’t understand anything. They yelled, ‘Thank you Alan, long live Alan!’ The guerrillas tried to shut them up. I didn’t understand what was happening.  I went to where the chief of the encampment was. I didn’t know where I was going. … Regrettably I didn’t bring proofs of life, everything happened in a rush.

… When one turns on the radio in the jungle at midnight, one closes one’s eyes and is transported, it is an astral journey, when one imagines one’s family is there.  I imagine them sitting on a green couch that was mine, or in bed. One sees them thanks to the magic of the radio. To recover the lost time, never! They stole that time from us. The pain of not seeing [my son] grow up, or even to hear him, is nothing compared to his pain in not seeing me.”

Feb 03

On Sunday, the FARC guerrillas released three policemen and one soldier whom they had held as hostages in the jungle for many years. Today, they released Alan Jara, the former governor of Meta department whom they had kidnapped in 2001. The images of Jara descending from a Brazilian helicopter this afternoon and greeting his family are stirring. Sometime this week, the FARC guerrillas are to turn over another politician, Valle del Cauca departmental legislator Sigifredo López, whom they kidnapped in 2002.

Do the hostage releases signal an opening, in which a newly image-conscious FARC may be signaling a willingness to return to the negotiating table? In Colombia’s mainstream media, the consensus answer from analysts is a resounding “no.” There is a slim hope that the hostage release is a fragile step that could build momentum toward greater dialogue. But the guerrillas’ motives are suspect and the belief seems to be that the FARC are only taking these small steps as a response to military pressure and international isolation.

Here are translated excerpts from two such analyses: journalist Mauricio Vargas’s column in yesterday’s El Tiempo, and the cover story in Sunday’s Semana magazine. Thanks to CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer for help with the translation.

Now it turns out that we owe them? – Mauricio Vargas, El Tiempo

The naiveté of some of the terrorists’ useful idiots had led them to declare that these liberations open the doors to a new era of peace. It is a shame to have to rain on their parade, but I doubt that this is the case. The FARC aren’t carrying out these liberations becasue they have resolved to leave kidnapping behind, nor to sit down for serious negotiations with the government about its demobilization and disarmament. If there was any doubt, the corpses of Diana Margarita Mora, a 50-year-old part-time employee of a Spanish multinational, and Carlos Romero, a 30-year-old security guard and resident of a poor slum in the city’s south. They died from the bomb that the men of “Cano” and “Jojoy” caused to explode Tuesday night at the Blockbuster outlet on 82nd Street in Bogotá, because the owners of the business had denied to pay extortion money to the FARC.
This group of criminals agreed to free a small number of captives – hundreds more remain in the jungle – for a combination of political, military and economic reasons. The first have to do with their need to recover an international audience, after the blows they received in 2008. The second, with the security forces’ pressure. And the third, with the fact that, according to numerous deserters’ testimony, it costs the FARC a lot of money to maintain so many captives.

That is why it is unacceptable that some now act as though it is necessary to make gestures of gratitude to the FARC for these liberations. What should they be thanked for? That they have destroyed the lives of thousands of Colombians and their families and that, for motives that have nothing to do with humanitarian reasons, they have resolved to free a few after a decade of shameful captivity?

Why are they releasing them? (Semana magazine)

The next elections are crucial for this group [the FARC]. The Uribe years have left them agonizing, and a third presidential term puts their survival at risk. Many believe that Uribe will seek another four years just to seek the guerrillas’ total annihilation.

The FARC think that the liberations weaken [the Uribe government's] Democratic Security [policy], and that if Alfonso Cano extends a hand, the issue of negotiations will become a fundamental axis of the campaign of 2010. Obviously the guerrillas would prefer to negotiate with a president other than Uribe. They would prefer a softer government that gives them political recognition and allows them some breathing room and time to strengthen themselves, as they have done in past truces or peace processes. A situation that they would certainly take advantage of to recover their military initiative, or to negotiate from a position of greater strength. Exactly the outcome that Uribe summarizes in one word: catastrophe.

This reading, however, is as simplistic as it is ingenuous. In the first place, because in an eventual third Álvaro Uribe administration it is very likely that a peace negotiation would begin. Uribe has commanded the war well and would be happy to seal the peace. While it might not seem like it, Uribe knows that in such difficult territory, with narcotrafficking, it is impossible to liquidate a guerrilla group merely with lead. His goal, ultimately, is to bring them to negotiate to avoid a military defeat. Something that perhaps isn’t very far off, but cannot be achieved during the year and a half remaining to the government. The problem is that an Uribe reelection is absolutely inappropriate for the country. His permanence in power is a time bomb for institutional stability and any democracy’s balance of power.

But no matter who the next president is, he will have to manage the dialectic of the war’s hard line and the soft line of a political solution. And the word “negotiation” will be on the table of the next person to govern Colombia, whether it is Lucho Garzón, Sergio Fajardo, Juan Manuel Santos, Noemí Sanín or Germán Vargas Lleras. Any sensible politician knows that it is better to end an insurgent war at the dialogue table than it is to allow a bloody agony with a high human and material cost for the country that suffers it. With the enormous risk that it becomes a war that never ends, with recurring cycles of offensives and counter-offensives. Something Colombia knows well, and will no longer tolerate.

Nonetheless, a negotiation scenario would still be very complicated. First, because at this point it is not clear whom the FARC represents. It is difficult to recognize that they have any legitimacy to talk about broad issues like agrarian reform, because it has been a long time since that guerrilla group has represented more than their own criminal ambitions. In the second place, the Justice and Peace Law, which was made with the paramilitaries, has placed a standard on negotiations that is difficult to ignore. Victims have become very important social protagonists, and they will not tolerate a high dose of impunity, which is what the FARC aspire to.
Nor will it be easy to lower this standard before international justice, which has followed the paramilitary process in detail, as well as the crimes against humanity that are committed in Colombia, where the FARC have been protagonists.
…

Even so, in the best of cases the liberations could be the first step toward opening negotiation spaces to bring an end to the war. But a danger exists. That the FARC start treading in the swampy areas in which the ELN found itself trapped two decades ago, when it decided to hoist the flag of the badly named “humanization of the war.” In practice that has means making small concessions in the humanitarian sphere, like abandoning political kidnappings, but with the trap of leaving the door open to keep carrying out kidnappings for ransom. These intermediate measures, which at first glance make the war less cruel, tend to serve, on the contrary, to prolong it. And to avoid talking about what is really important: how to end the conflict.

Feb 01

It was just confirmed that the FARC has finally released 3 Colombian policemen and one soldier whom it has held for many years. Two Brazilian helicopters with Red Cross insignia left Florencia, Caquetá after 8 AM, with a commission of Red Cross officials and Colombian peace activists aboard. They returned not long ago to Villavicencio, Meta, with the four freed hostages.

El Tiempo has coverage and video (in Spanish).

Dec 22

From Semana.

The pro-FARC website ANNCOL posted a communication from the guerrilla leadership yesterday announcing the FARC’s intention to release six of the twenty-eight so-called “exchangeable” hostages who have been in its custody for many years. (These are in addition to untold hundreds of hostages the group is holding for ransom.) Those to be freed include both of the remaining civilians on the list of those whom the FARC have long held as a brutal tactic to pressure the Colombian government for a prisoner exchange.

  • Alan Jara, former governor of Meta department, kidnapped in July 2001.
  • Sigifredo López, the only survivor among twelve Valle del Cauca departmental legislators kidnapped in April 2002. The rest were murdered in June 2007.

Though the FARC communiqué does not specify who the four non-civilians to be released will be, El Espectador reports that the four most likely to be let go are a soldier and three policement who have been held for less than two years. Most of the other security-force hostages have been in captivity for nine years or more.

  • Willam Geovanny Dominguez, soldier kidnapped in January 2007.
  • Alexis Torres Zapata, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.
  • Juan Fernando Galicia, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.
  • José Walter Lozano, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.

If correct, this list does not include Pablo Emilio Moncayo, one of the two longest-held hostages, who just completed eleven years in guerrilla custody on Saturday. Moncayo’s father Gustavo, a teacher from Nariño, has been one of the most active and highest-profile advocates of a solution to the hostage crisis.

The guerrilla announcement is a partial success for the so-called “Colombians for Peace” group, a collection of prominent citizens and intellectuals, including opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, who began an “epistolary exchange” of letters with the guerrillas in September. The announced hostage release comes at the end of the FARC’s second written response to the group.

The success is only partial, however, since the group’s last communication to the guerrillas had asked for much more: that they release all of their hostages and renounce the practice of kidnapping. The FARC refuses to do that, returning to its insistence on a prisoner exchange.

The announcement nonetheless may contain a shred of hopeful news about what could be happening within the guerrilla leadership. We do not know if the FARC have been in internal agreement about whether holding civilians hostage for years was a strategy that made any strategic sense. Whether those who held this barbaric view were the entire leadership or just a powerful majority, though, one thing is apparent: another hostage release in exchange for nothing is a clear defeat for them. And that is good news.

Oct 29

That the FARC guerrillas actually responded publicly and positively to a communication should hardly be news. Except that it hasn’t happened in a very long time.

On Tuesday the FARC’s top leadership, or Secretariat, made public an October 16 response to a large group of Colombian intellectuals and politicians, most of them left-of-center politically, who had written a September 11 letter calling on them to engage in an “epistolary exchange” – a public written correspondence.

The purpose of this exchange would be to discuss how to move toward a “humanitarian accord” to free guerrilla hostages, as well as a renewed peace negotiation. (Or, as the letter’s incredibly indirect language put it, to “identify elements to allow the definition of an agenda that can clarify the routes by which it would be possible to reach an understanding that could lead to the long-desired humanitarian accord.”)

The guerrillas’ response, and the likelihood of an exchange of public correspondence on these topics, is cause for faint hope. This is so if only because talks between the FARC and the Colombian government are such a distant possibility, and no interlocutors acceptable to both sides have emerged to facilitate communications through any other channels. (In fact, many who served as interlocutors in the past are now under government investigation for alleged guerrilla ties.)

Faint hope is also warranted because this is the first direct FARC reaction in a very long time to what could be considered an expression of public opinion. Analysts have used the word “autistic” to describe the guerrillas’ years of unresponsiveness to regular governmental, non-governmental and international appeals. That they have responded now could be an indication of a course change – however slight – under the leadership of Alfonso Cano, who replaced Manuel Marulanda as the group’s maximum leader in March. Another factor increasing their responsiveness, meanwhile, may be the increased military pressure the FARC is feeling.

The FARC response was written before, but released after, the guerrillas’ latest humiliation: Sunday’s escape of Oscar Tulio Lizcano, a former congressman whom the group had held hostage since 2000 – an escape that was aided and abetted by his FARC captor. Lizcano’s account of beyond-inhuman suffering during his captivity – forbidden to speak to anyone, he whiled away time teaching imaginary classes to sticks -  has further hardened public opinion against the FARC, but has also underlined the need to try any available means to win the remaining twenty-eight political hostages’ freedom.

A public exchange of correspondence is an unusual way to get a serious conflict-resolution effort started. But if no other options exist – and they do not appear to – it should be pursued.

Surely there will be voices in Colombia condemning those who participate in this “pen pal” arrangement as useful idiots, appeasers, or naive individuals helping the FARC to buy time, improve its public image, or achieve an undeserved political status. The Colombian government, however, would do well to let this exchange go forward without attacking it, as long as it continues to take place publicly and transparently. Drawing the guerrilla leadership into a political discussion, including clarity about its conditions for talks, can do little harm and quite a bit of good.

Here are the letters translated into English, presented in reverse chronological order. Both are heavy on run-on sentences and indirect phrasing; key parts are highlighted.

FARC response to letter from Colombian intellectuals, politicians and journalists

Mountains of Colombia, October 16, 2008

Respected Compatriots:

With satisfaction we have received your September missive which invites a collective exploration of pathways to peace, far from the current government’s direction of perpetual war and persisting in the impossibility of a military solution to political, economic and social problems that underlie the bloody conflict that shocks the country.

We greet the flourishing of a current of opinion that diverges from false triumphalism, and from the parameters of a warlike solution to large national problems. We have no doubt that your effort will succeed because it coincides with the majority’s feeling and desire for peace.

This letter is now the beginning of the Epistolary Exchange that you propose to us to discuss a political solution to the conflict, the humanitarian exchange, and peace. We will participate, in the people’s full view, in a wide-ranging and frank dialogue, without dogmatism, without sectarianism and without disqualifications of the issues that you suggest. It is necessary to work to achieve the participation of the greatest possible number of political and social organizations, and independent people.

Continue reading »

Oct 21

The Colombian network Noticias Uno yesterday broadcast the fascinating video below, which is a guerrillas’-eye view of the impressive military ruse that freed fifteen FARC hostages.

The video adds some new elements to the story. It now appears that the soldier illegally disguised as a Red Cross official was in fact the first to approach, and speak with, the guerrillas, pretending not to speak good Spanish. In an interesting final touch, the delegation left behind a gift for the guerrilla captors: two cases of beer.

At the end of the video, the guerrilla narrator says, “The comrade has gone” – probably referring to one of the captors who accompanied the hostages.

Then one hear’s a woman’s voice off camera, referring to the beer: “Do you know what the guy from the … what’s it called? … the Red Cross said to me? ‘Take care of it, it’s a good gift.’”

Jul 31

Ingrid the ingrate?

Íngrid Betancourt endured inhuman treatment as a FARC hostage in Colombia’s jungles for nearly 6 1/2 years. Though it’s hard to imagine, after her miraculous July 2 rescue there were people out there – people able to publish their views in widely read media – who apparently asked themselves, “how long until we can start attacking her?”

The answer, we now know, is 26 days.

In a July 28 posting to the online version of National Review (which alexa.com puts within the 6,000 most-visited sites on the Internet), Bogotá-based analysts John R. Thomson and Dorotea LaSerna decided that Íngrid’s honeymoon had gone on long enough.

Does Betancourt deserve all the attention lavished upon her, even after six and a half years in confinement?…

Ingrid spent less than 24 hours in her country, and only briefly thanked President Uribe before leaving for France on Sarkozy’s airplane. …

Betancourt’s behavior problems go beyond ingratitude, though. Since her release, she has repeatedly called for an international effort to liberate the estimated 2,000 remaining hostages through negotiations. …

She has bathed in the glow of soporifically soft questioning, including appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and the BBC’s Hard Talk (with the normally hard-nosed Stephen Sackur).

Nearly a month since her escape, the question must be asked: Is Ingrid of Paris and Bogota a reincarnated Joan of Arc, or is she suffering from Stockholm syndrome? It seems incredible that having endured numberless indignities by her FARC captors during more than six years’ jungle confinement, she could speak so naively. So far, to the chagrin of her Colombian rescuers, the record suggests Ingrid Betancourt is sadly deluded.

It is hard to say exactly what the authors expected to gain with this piece, which even if it were accurate wouldn’t reflect well on them. But it’s not even accurate – it’s riddled with misstatements and innuendoes. If the authors’ goal was to stretch the bounds of taste and publish a vicious armchair attack on someone who has just gone through hell, could they at least have gotten the facts right?

Examples:

“Ingrid Betancourt was captured by the FARC during her fringe-leftist 2002 presidential campaign”

Betancourt’s politics could be described as social-democratic, and her small political party bore the lefty name “Green Oxygen.” But this patrician politician had few ties to Colombia’s left. Most Colombians knew her as a one-issue candidate, that issue being opposition to corruption – presumably a non-ideological platform. They recall the withering, nationally televised tirade to which she subjected FARC leaders when she visited the demilitarized zone along with other presidential candidates (excluding Uribe) in January 2002. Betancourt, meanwhile, was hardly a “fringe” figure: her strong stance on corruption made her the number-one vote-getter in Colombia’s 1998 Senate elections.

“President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government took up the cause and paid a reported $500,000 in ransom, which the FARC leadership kept, together with Ingrid Betancourt.”

An incredible claim like that needs a footnote, a hyperlink, or at least an “according to” clause to back it up. (”A reported $500,000?” Reported by whom?) This may have been a reference to a July 2003 incident discussed in deceased FARC leader Raúl Reyes’s computer files (recounted by Semana columnist Alfredo Rangel) in which Villepin, fooled by a third-party hoax, allegedly made a ransom payment and sent an aircraft to Brazil to pick up Betancourt.

It is far from clear whether any payment – even to grifters posing as guerrillas – was actually made. But no matter – Thomson and LaSerna are convinced not only that it happened, but that the payment was made by Nicolás Sarkozy’s government. Even though Sarkozy didn’t actually take power until nearly four years later, in May 2007.

“[O]nce freed and safely in Bogota, Ingrid spent less than 24 hours in her country. … She showed no interest in returning to Colombia for the joyous celebration on July 20 of the country’s independence and the hostages’ release, instead watching the proceedings on a giant television screen in Paris’s Trocadero Park.”

Betancourt has made clear that she’s avoiding Colombia for now because she fears a FARC attempt on her life. But Thomson and LaSerna chalk it up to ingratitude.

“Nearly a month since her escape, the question must be asked: Is Ingrid of Paris and Bogota a reincarnated Joan of Arc, or is she suffering from Stockholm syndrome? It seems incredible that having endured numberless indignities by her FARC captors during more than six years’ jungle confinement, she could speak so naively.”

The “naiveté” the authors refer to is Betancourt’s expressed support for a negotiated end to the conflict. In their view, does anyone uncomfortable with the idea of prolonged war really suffer from “Stockhom syndrome?” And are they talking about the same Betancourt who has effusively praised the Colombian military and President Uribe, and who has recorded messages calling on guerrillas to desert and turn over hostages, which the army now blasts from loudspeakers on helicopters flying over Colombia’s jungles?

OK, enough, this is more analysis than Thomson and LaSerna’s screed deserves.

Perhaps what is most surprising about it, though, was where it was published. In its 53-year history, National Review has been a mainstay of the American right, galvanizing the conservative movement during the 20th century’s second half, because its writing was so often substantive, research-based and intent on making contributions to the public debate.

Thomson and LaSerna’s piece is none of these. It’s more Coulter than Buckley. National Review’s readers should expect better, and American conservatives will have to look elsewhere for ideas about how the United States can best support Colombia.

Jul 21

Yesterday’s marches in Colombia and around the world are the third massive outpouring in just over a year of rejection of the FARC and its practice of kidnapping. (Large-scale rallies took place on July 5, 2007; February 4, 2008 and July 20, 2008.)

These emotional events are proving to be a very effective way to weaken the guerrillas. If the goal is to make the FARC feel isolated and besieged – thus complicating recruitment, encouraging informants and deserters, and discouraging international solidarity – these marches are more effective than military operations.

They are the biggest demonstrations Colombia has seen since 1998-1999, when the guerrillas were at the height of their military capacity. Then, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets calling for the government and the FARC to negotiate peace. Now, millions of Colombians are calling on the FARC simply to go away, freeing their hostages in the process.

The marches reflect a national mood in which only a minority of Colombians are willing to support negotiations with the FARC, beyond terms of surrender. They rest appear to prefer to pay the cost – which could total several years, thousands of lives, and billions of dollars – of a continued military campaign.

Of course, the FARC have made that choice easy, as they have given very little evidence of flexibility on peace talks or even the terms for negotiating a hostage exchange. It appears that the FARC wants to continue fighting.

All of this benefits President Álvaro Uribe, whose hard line that seemed so radical in 2001 is now Colombia’s conventional wisdom.

Where, though, does that leave Colombia’s democratic opposition? What is left for people who support neither Uribe nor the FARC?

Those who believe that the war should be brought to a negotiated, political end are in a bind, because the FARC themselves do not appear to be interested yet. How, then, do they join in efforts to exert political pressure on the FARC without appearing to boost a president whose policies they oppose? How to express anger at the FARC, but also express anger at a president who defends the military’s hardest line, has numerous political supporters tied to paramilitaries, picks ugly fights with the justice system, routinely attacks human rights groups, and calls his political opponents “terrorists”?

Colombia’s opposition has not figured out how to square this circle. The main left opposition party, the Democratic Pole – whom columnist Daniel Samper this weekend compared to a bunch of hippies who take an hour to argue about what drink to order in a restaurant – is on the ropes.

After some internal debate about unduly supporting the president, the Pole decided to participate in yesterday’s marches, but their statement revealed the contortions they had to perform in order to justify doing so. “While the Humanitarian Accord, in the view of Polo President Carlos Gaviria, is still a valid option, ‘the guerrillas must take note and be conscious that the citizens are asking for kidnappings to stop and the conflict to cease.’”

The Democratic Pole’s message continues:

It is important that these citizen protest marches against such abominable acts as kidnapping become institutionalized, but also for causes like forced disappearances, unionist killings, the rule of law, peace and the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Broad-based citizen marches for these causes would be a wonder to behold. But in the current climate they are sadly unlikely.

In his last column for El Espectador, former Bogotá mayor Luis Eduardo Garzon, a founder of the Democratic Pole, aimed his frustration at the FARC.

The only successful blow they [the FARC] have dealt is to weaken the opposition. Every day it is harder to exercise opposition, not just for lack of security guarantees, but because the guerrillas’ actions end up giving Uribe more to work with. Those who oppose re-election, those who defend the justice system’s decisions, those who want to warn about the economic and social catastrophe that awaits, those who believe that this must end in a political negotiation and those who wish to humanize the war, among other issues, end up being seen as accomplices of the FARC.

Yesterday’s marches illustrate the opposition’s dilemma. The FARC have left the opposition with no ability to dissent from President Uribe. “Ni con uno, ni con el otro” is not a message that resonates with most Colombians.

Colombia’s non-violent left is being asphyxiated, but right now the FARC are sucking away more oxygen than Uribe is.