Fernando AraÃºjo’s escape from FARC custody is a remarkable story. The former minister of development, kidnapped by the guerrillas in December 2000, showed up exhausted and bone-thin in San AgustÃn, a village near Cartagena, on January 5. He had spent five days walking in the jungles and dry thickets of coastal BolÃvar department, after escaping a guerrilla encampment under military attack.
Colombia has been transfixed by images of AraÃºjo reunited with his jubilant family, after more than six years as one of the sixty hostages whom the FARC had been holding to pressure for a prisoner exchange. â€œThe 21st century begins for me today,â€ he told reporters.
Colombia’s military and defense establishment swarmed around Araujo, basking in the glow. But there is reason to fear that they are drawing the wrong conclusion from his liberation.
â€œWe are going to continue with rescue operations, in order that some day there might not be a single kidnapped Colombian,â€ promised Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
â€œThese [kidnapped] people who have special connotations for the FARC, because they prize them for their political or economic importance, or in the case of soldiers, as a mechanism to pressure the government – it is difficult for them to be freed by the guerrillas. This is where it is more correct to call for a successful military operation,â€ added the head of the armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla.
Emboldened by AraÃºjo’s escape, are the Colombian security forces truly determined to attempt more armed rescues of guerrilla hostages? Let’s hope not:
- Past rescue attempts, particularly in the case of well-known hostages whom the FARC hopes to exchange for prisoners in Colombian jails, have not always been successful. In May 2003, for instance, the FARC murdered the governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria, and his peace advisor, former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri, while the army – its helicopter rotors giving ample advance warning – sought to rescue them.
- AraÃºjo was simply lucky that he managed to escape before his FARC captors, surprised by helicopter artillery fire, could kill him. He was also lucky, notes the Colombian magazine Semana, that the army didn’t kill him by mistake: â€œHis flight took place in the midst of fire from helicopters. A fact that does not appear to fit with the directive to carry out a rescue that, above all, protects the life of the kidnap victim.â€
- Unlike most kidnap victims, AraÃºjo was being held in an area that is not a FARC stronghold. Northern BolÃvar department is dominated by paramilitaries; the guerrilla fronts there are isolated and largely confined to the most remote, least inhabited areas. â€œAraÃºjo was lucky,â€ said Marleny Orjuela, whose organization (ASFAMIPAZ) represents relatives of soldiers and police in FARC custody. â€œIt is one thing to carry out an operation in BolÃvar department and another to do it in the south of the country,â€ where the FARC’s grip is far stronger. Adds analyst and former guerrilla LeÃ³n Valencia: â€œIt is not the same to pressure a guerrilla group’s peripheral forces, where it has neither territorial control nor a key detachment of its forces, as it is to attack them in its rearguard zones where a large number of its combatants and arms are concentrated. There, the risk to the kidnap victims is enormous and the possibility of a successful rescue is very small.â€
Fernando AraÃºjo’s escape should not embolden Colombia’s security forces to attempt a series of high-risk hostage rescues. Nor should it lead decisionmakers to write off negotiations and view armed rescues as the best way to win all hostages’ release.
As AraÃºjo himself said last weekend, â€œI have faith in the military forces; however, the opportunity of a humanitarian [exchange] agreement is a solution that holds less risk for the kidnap victims.â€