Say what you want about Ãlvaro Uribe â€“ he’s certainly not predictable. Yesterday
evening, the hardliner who got elected by promising not to give an inch to Colombia’s
guerrillas announced a move that even "appeasers" like his predecessor,
AndrÃ©s Pastrana, had never contemplated. Uribe pardoned twenty-three low-ranking
FARC prisoners in Colombian jails, granting them a unilateral release, with
no strings attached.
Uribe’s move seeks to encourage the FARC to release approximately fifty-nine
people â€“ captured military officers, kidnapped political figures, and three
U.S. citizens who were working on a Defense Department contract when their plane
went down in FARC-held territory in February 2003. Though the guerrillas probably
have over 1,000 kidnapped people in their custody at any given time, the group
considers the fifty-nine to be "political detainees": instead of
a ransom, it is demanding a reciprocal release of prisoners in Colombian jails.
The FARC wants to win the return of dozens of mid-ranking leaders whom Colombian
authorities have captured over the years; the group’s leadership no doubt believes
that the reincorporation of such experienced cadres would improve command of
its far-flung fronts and help it on the battlefield. The guerrillas also are
pushing for the return of the few "big fish" in government custody,
among them "SimÃ³n Trinidad," a high-ranking guerrilla who was one
of the FARC’s most visible faces during the 1998-2002 peace talks; "Sonia,"
who ran the finances of the FARC’s Southern Bloc; and perhaps "JuliÃ¡n,"
the second-in-command of the FARC’s feared TeÃ³filo Forero Column.
("JuliÃ¡n" still faces prosecution, incidentally, even though two
weeks ago President Uribe put him up for two nights in a suite in BogotÃ¡’s five-star
Tequendama Hotel. This was an odd ending to a bizarre episode: the hotel stay
was a reward for the FARC comandante’s decision to turn himself in to
authorities, less than two weeks after a remarkable (and no doubt expensive
â€“ lots of guards had to be paid off) escape from his detention cell in the headquarters
of Colombia’s attorney-general (FiscalÃa), a heavily guarded fortress
across the road from the U.S. Embassy.)
For its part, the BogotÃ¡ government is under pressure to do something â€“ or
at least to appear to be doing something â€“ about the military and police officers,
senators, congresspeople, local legislators and governors, and U.S. personnel
in FARC custody. The list includes former senator and presidential candidate
Ãngrid Betancourt, an internationally known figure. Most of the detainees have
been imprisoned at FARC jungle camps for years â€“ as many as six or seven years
in the case of several military officers.
Both sides’ positions on a possible prisoner exchange have been evolving. The
FARC initially insisted that the government pull troops out of the departments
of Putumayo and CaquetÃ¡ before it would agree to talks. The government automatically
rejected that request: those two departments, the initial focus of Plan Colombia,
are a vast coca-growing area far larger than the zone ceded to the FARC during
President Pastrana’s failed peace talks. Though it has since agreed to use the
Catholic Church as an intermediary and has named its representatives to eventual
talks, the FARC still insist on a demobilized zone for discussions; their most
recent demand has been a troop pullout from a smaller zone: the municipalities
of Cartagena del ChairÃ¡ and San Vicente del CaguÃ¡n in CaquetÃ¡, which lie at
the geographic heart of the months-long "Plan Patriota" military offensive
occurring in southern Colombia.
The Uribe government â€“ already wary of a prisoner exchange, which could establish
a precedent that would encourage the FARC to kidnap more civilian officials
â€“ refused that request as well, since complying would cripple Plan Patriota.
Uribe’s position has nonetheless evolved over the past two years. The president
arrived in office refusing to engage in direct talks with any group that did
not first declare a cease-fire. Though the FARC have kept fighting, he has since
sought contacts with the guerrillas through intermediaries â€“ first the UN, then
the Catholic Church â€“ but has made no progress on securing any hostage’s release.
While Uribe has refused to demilitarize territory for talks, he has more recently
offered to host FARC negotiators in the Vatican embassy in BogotÃ¡ or a third
country. He has even offered to carry out negotiations over the Internet. The
FARC has rejected all of these proposals, insisting on a demilitarized zone
The decision to begin letting prisoners go unilaterally is a new evolution
(erosion?) in Uribe’s position. But it is not brand-new: the president in fact
announced this policy in a href="http://www.presidencia.gov.co/sne/2004/octubre/01/17012004.htm" target="_blank">speech
back on October 1.
We have sent a proposal via the Swiss government: we are willing to free
a number of FARC guerrillas, before the FARC free their hostages, to show
the government’s seriousness. â€¦ We have proposed that only guerrillas found
guilty of rebellion (treason) can be freed. We cannot free anyone jailed for
atrocities. â€¦ And a second condition: that those who leave jail do not return
to the guerrillas. Do you think we would be doing any good if we released
everyone from jail only to see them committing crimes again? What of the security
forces’ sacrifice in capturing them? â€¦ We have offered two options: that they
go to another country, like France, or that they enter the government "reinsertion"
I have no idea whether the FARC sent back a positive reply via the Swiss government;
in fact, I don’t know whether the FARC responded at all to this proposal. It
would be surprising indeed, however, if the guerrillas expressed any interest.
It would mean yielding on two of their main goals: reincorporating experienced
mid-level leaders, and benefiting from a temporary demilitarized zone.
If Uribe carried out the unilateral release without any expression of interest
from the FARC â€“ as is likely â€“ he has overwhelmingly ratified critics’ charges
that he and his peace team have no coherent negotiating strategy, that they
are wildly improvising and simply hoping for the best. (This charge, of course,
has also been href="http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000026.htm">leveled
at his government’s talks with the paramilitaries.)
While Uribe’s hard line toward negotiations stood almost no chance of working,
improvising and unilaterally releasing prisoners is likely only to embolden
the FARC. The timing of the release will not be lost on the guerrilla leadership.
From their jungle hideouts, they no doubt see a president who, having just won
a legislative fight to seek re-election, is trying to show progress in advance
of the 2006 campaign. With hostages in custody for years, the guerrillas have
shown that they can wait a long time; if they believe that President Uribe will
keep loosening his position according to a political timetable, they will be
content to wait a bit longer to get a better deal.
So why did Uribe authorize the prisoner release, which seems so strange on
the surface? Probably because it’s a brilliant piece of domestic politics. The
president has been under fire from relatives of FARC "detainees,"
as well as from several ex-presidents, for failing to do enough about the hostage
crisis. A botched mid-2003 rescue attempt resulted in the guerrillas’ killing
of the governor of Antioquia and a former defense minister; he has since abandoned
the military route and either done nothing or made only halting steps toward
In Colombia’s political arena â€“ the arena that matters most to a president
about to seek re-election â€“ the unilateral prisoner release essentially "inoculates"
Uribe on the hostage issue. He now has a ready response to family members and
ex-presidents who were pushing for action: "Iâ€™m doing all I can, I even
pardoned twenty-three prisoners, but I haven’t received a response."
The release also places the ball in the FARC’s court, politically at least.
Will the FARC respond positively by releasing some of those in its custody?
I would be surprised if they did, since the release is not happening even remotely
under the circumstances that they have demanded. There’s little reason for optimism.
The FARC even said in April that a prisoner exchange will be impossible while
Ãlvaro Uribe is president; if Uribe is re-elected, this would close the door
I could be wrong, and I hope I am. How wonderful it would be if Uribe’s gamble
paid off, even a little bit. A reciprocal prisoner release could be a foot in
the door â€“ a toe in the door, really â€“ toward more substantial contacts between
the government and the guerrillas. If the door stays open even a crack, a bare
minimum of mutual trust could be established, after two years of total distrust.
Channels of communication opened through this process could stay open. The result
could be the embryo of a new attempt to negotiate peace.
Even though it is probably the product of a rash improvisation, we encourage
the FARC â€“ whom so many have written off as "narcoterrorists" who
have jettisoned their ideology â€“ to seize this opportunity to re-engage in a
But don’t get your hopes up. While the ball may be in the FARC’s court, it
is unlikely that the guerrillas â€“ notorious for their imperviousness to political
pressure, public and international opinion â€“ will hit it back.