The futility of “body counts” Wilson Borja: “The entire Colombian opposition is in danger”
Jun 282007
The twelve kidnapped Valle del Cauca state legislators. Francisco Giraldo is in the middle row, all the way to the left.

Hello from Brussels, where I’ve been accompanying a delegation of Colombians organized by the British NGO Justice for Colombia and the British labor union UNITE. We are here to seek support for a “humanitarian exchange” to win the freedom of dozens of hostages whom the FARC has been holding for years.

The delegation includes the head of the Colombian Catholic Church Episcopal Conference; the mother of former senator and FARC hostage Íngrid Betancourt; an opposition congressman, a Liberal Party official; one of the authorized “facilitators” for FARC dialogues; two labor leaders, and the sister of one of the twelve departmental legislators whom the FARC has been holding for more than five years.

Needless to say, the group has had a very bad day.

We were at a meeting this morning in the European Union Council of Ministers, where the group was asking for some sort of statement discouraging armed rescue attempts and supporting dialogue.

Just as we were getting started, Ángela Giraldo, the brother of kidnapped Valle del Cauca legislator Francisco Giraldo, got a cellphone call. (See our interview with Angela posted May 30.)

According to a FARC communiqué, we learned, Ángela’s brother and ten other local legislators were killed on June 18. The FARC claim that they fell in the crossfire when an “unidentified military group” tried to rescue them.

There is no such thing as a good place to be when getting news that a loved one has been murdered. But the sterile, unwelcoming offices of the European Union are an especially awful setting. In the very least, though, Ángela Giraldo can say that at the very moment she found out about her brother, she was doing her absolute utmost to seek his freedom.

Ángela is on her way back home to Cali. The rest of the group, including Ms. Betancourt, has continued its agenda as planned. Here is a translation of their statement.

Invited by the British NGO Justice for Colombia and by Europe’s largest union, UNITE, a delegation made up of representatives of the Catholic Church, relatives of kidnap victims, the Liberal and Alternative Democratic Pole political parties, and the CUT labor union are in Europe to seek support for a humanitarian accord from the European Union and its member countries.

The support we seek has focused on:

  • A rejection of military operations attempting to rescue kidnap victims;
  • Stimulation of government and guerrilla action to make the humanitarian exchange reality, and
  • Calling attention to the need to find ways to end the armed conflict through political negotiations.

Among others, we have met with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Triesman; with members of the British Parliament; and with the European Commission, Council of Ministers, and Parliament.

He have heard the tragic news, still officially unconfirmed, about the violent death of eleven of the Valle del Cauca state legislators who were in captivity. To avoid this outcome was the exact purpose of our trip. This sad news reinforces the importance of our mission, which we will continue to the end, according to our original plan.

We have witnessed the international community’s consternation. We have seen how they find it incomprehensible that our country, seen from outside, appears to favor death over life. This is why it is so necessary to seek a dialogue for a humanitarian exchange.

The delegation extends its condolences to the state legislators’ families. Especially to Ángela Giraldo, the sister of one of the eleven, Francisco Giraldo. Until this morning, she was here with us in this noble effort.

Today more than ever, we consider that the national and international communities must take note of the uselessness of the war that spills our blood, and to promote and encourage the importance of political solutions to the conflict that afflicts our country.

Signed in Brussels, June 28, 2007

  • Wilson Borja Díaz, Representative of Colombia’s House of Representatives from Bogotá, Alternative Democratic Pole party
  • Monsignor Luis Augusto Castro, Archbishop of Tunja, Boyacá
  • Carlos Lozano Guillén, Director of the newspaper Voz and facilitator of the peace dialogues
  • Tarcisio Mora Godoy, CUT labor union
  • Yolanda Pulecio de Betancourt, Mother of Íngrid Betancourt
  • Jose Noé Rios, General Secretary of the Liberal Party of Colombia and former High Commissioner for Peace
  • Domingo Tovar, Director of the CUT Human Rights Department

8 Responses to “In Brussels, having a terrible day”

  1. Tambopaxi Says:

    Umm, I’m sure the members of the delegation are all good and gentle people, but didn’t it occur to one or more of them that their statement should also include a demand that the FARC (and other armed groups as well) stop kidnapping people? the first two points in group’s plea wouldn’t be necesarry but for the fact that the FACR in particular has made a real business of grabbing people and holding them for financial or political ransom….

  2. j. Says:

    De acuerdo con Tambopaxi: La mayoría de esos comunicados parecen implicitamente liberar de responsabilidad a las FARC exigiendo negociaciones al gobierno pero ni un gesto a la guerrilla. La vehemencia con la que Wilson Borja y Carlos Lozano condenan la acción de los grupos paramilitares contrasta duramente con su actitud permisiva al referirse a los crímenes de los guerrilleros. Increiblemente, pocos comunicados exigen a la guerrilla que detenga su accionar y libere de inmediato a los secuestrados. Ese debería ser el primer punto de cualquier llamado a la conciliación.

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    Of course you’re both right. A condemnation of the crime of kidnapping would have been fitting and appropriate.

    What a sad comment, though, you’ve made about Colombian politics and society. Just about anywhere else in the world, to say “kidnapping is evil” would be like pointing out that the sky is blue or that kittens are cute. But in Colombia, if you don’t throw in that painfully obvious disclaimer, you set yourself up for attack.

    Of course the FARC should free its hostages, and should never have taken them in the first place. They, like all parties to Colombia’s conflict, should not be involving civilians in the fighting in any way at all. Nearly all the signers of the above statement have said that publicly, on many occasions.

    But the sad reality is that the FARC are not going to release their hostages, even after last week’s horror. So what, then, is the least bad option if the surviving hostages are to come home alive? I can see no other choice but for both sides to sit down and talk.

    The Colombians’ declaration was meant to be forward-looking, to urge the pursuit of that least-bad option. It also sought to respond to irresponsible reports that morning in Colombia’s press alleging that the group was in Brussels “to make contacts with the FARC.” (In Brussels!)

    The group’s declaration committed the politically incorrect offense of failing to point out that kidnapping is evil. But what about its recommendations?

    Instead of parsing the text looking for nonexistent biases, why not discuss whether, and under what conditions, a humanitarian exchange should be pursued?

  4. Tambopaxi Says:

    Adam,

    Your point about the need for talks is intuitive good sense. The problem is intuititive good sense and incentives to act in what a gringo (I’m a gringo, btw) would consider a sensible way don’t apply in Colombia.

    Your point about discussions regarding a humanitarian exchange is a good example of a decent, well intended, and logical (again, from a gringo, or European point of view) idea and intiative. In fact this is not the first time that such an effort has been made; it’s more like the umpteenth time it’s been tried. In a terrible irony, it took place justo en el momento de un atentado a esos pobres congresistas.

    ….And of course, notwithstanding your group’s visit to Europe, and Uribe’s release of FARC members (I agree with your comments on that event, btw; nice gesture, but to what end/effect?), will it generate any real positive action from the FARC?

    I would say not. One only has to recall Andre Pastrana’s despeje concession and the FARC’s use of that concession, or any other government concession as basis for my answer….

    The answer is another sad Colombian simplicity: the FARC won’t/can’t negotiate in good faith. They never have, and they never will. To do so might, repeat might, llead to peace, which is bad for their business, and I use the word business in its private sector sense.

    Let’s be kind and say that the FARC gots its start on the basis of real problems in Colombian society that it hoped to correct. Further, let’s be really, really kind, and say that some true ideologists exist to this day in the FARC, that is, that it has some (I would say, tiny) core of true believers now.

    Whether that core is really in control of the FARC and its disparate/dispersed system of Fronts is debatable, and in lots of cases, I would submit that it’s not; rather it’s a collection of business oriented sorts (and we’re not talking ties and suits here), who make a living off of the narc business, kidnappings, extortions, hits, and etc. – in short, war is good business, and business is good for the FARC.

    In a situation like this, sadly, appealing the FARC’s humanitarian side is kind of like appealing to Chiquita’s or Oxy’s humanitarian side, and I leave it to you to decide if there is one.

    Finally, your last comment about parsing texts, looking for non-existent biases: As I said I don’t doubt that the group you went with consisted of good and decent people, and I don’t recall accusing them of being biased, nor did I say that humanitarian exchanges or peace negotiations shouldn’t be pursued; they should, obviously.

    I am saying that ignoring the fact that kidnappings of people is the cause of this problem in the first place in this is not full disclosure, nor full discussion. Absence of that full discussion admits implicitly that the kidnappers have the upper hand (and they do) and lets them off the hook morally in my eyes.

    Finally, Adam, I want to say that I think your blog is excellent, and your efforts to do something about the conflict in Colombia are truly laudable. My comments are not meant to take away, in any way, from what you and your colleagues work hard to do, and please, please, do keep doing those things. Frankly, I don’t think they help much, but they sure as hell don’t hurt, so don’t give up.

    I know Colombia pretty well, having lived there for years, and I admire the hell out of Colombians – but I know them, as I say, and I have no illusions as to their dark side, and hence my comments on the motivations of the FARC and their willingness to negotiate in good faith. Take care, T

  5. Adam Isacson Says:

    Though largely for different reasons (save it for another blog post), I agree that a real peace negotiation with the FARC is off the table for the foreseeable future. Let’s forget about taking steps that “might lead to peace.” You’d really have to be relying on starry-eyed intuition to believe that the Uribe government and the FARC will be talking about laying down arms anytime soon.

    The point here, as the hostages’ families are quick to remind, is the humanitarian exchange only. During that brief moment of optimism last October, the families and the intermediaries were alarmed when Uribe started talking about a larger peace process, even changes in Colombia’s constitution. That is a distraction. It is not the issue at hand.

    The question here is whether it is possible to have a reasonably quick, to-the-point negotiation that leads to the release some or all of the hostages. And under what circumstances (such as a security zone) that negotiation should occur.

    As you say, the FARC have the upper hand. Unlike hostage-takers in the Middle East, they have the advantage of very difficult terrain. Unlike hostage-takers in the Middle East, they have shown themselves willing to hold hostages for many years, which is arguably crueler than killing them after weeks or months.

    If the FARC have the upper hand, they’re going to use it by requiring the Colombian government to take some politically difficult steps to get the hostages free. They want a temporary zone in part for their own security, but in part because it would humiliate Uribe.

    That’s where international efforts are important. Expressions of international support for the humanitarian exchange lower the political cost for Uribe. International pressure on the FARC (quiet pressure, like the Europeans’ meetings with guerrilla leaders) lowers the cost further by encouraging the guerrillas to be flexible about the details of the zone.

    If both sides get to the table to negotiate a humanitarian accord, the FARC will not get everything it wants. For instance, I can’t imagine a scenario in which President Bush pardons Simon Trinidad and Sonia. Nor is the FARC likely to get permanently off the European Union’s terrorist list. If the guerrillas are not flexible at the table, the talks will indeed fail. But they must be tried.

    I think it would be very positive if the humanitarian-exchange talks built lines of trust and communication that could lead to an eventual broader peace process with the FARC. But that is a far-off goal – so far off that it distracts from the more immediate matter at hand: getting the hostages free.

    Barring a series of military rescues so miraculous that they strain the imagination, is there any other way to win the hostages’ release? If so, please propose it.

  6. Tambopaxi Says:

    Adam,

    To your last question, and I ask from ignorance, have you and/or has someone considered the idea of getting ex-FMLN, URNG and/or Sandinista leaders involved in nudging the FARC to the table? You’re probably aware that Augustin Ramirez Ocampo, ex-Canciller de Colombia, was instrumental in working with the OAS in negotiating the Salvadoran peace treaty back in ‘91-’92. I think it’d be kinda cool if Salvadorans like Shafik Handal or Joaquin Villalobos could somehow reciprocate… Anyway, just an idea. regards, T

  7. Adam Isacson Says:

    The idea has been considered and tried, unfortunately. Even during the 1998-2002 peace process, the FARC wasn’t interested in talking to the former Central American guerrillas.

    It appears they consider them to be sellouts because they negotiated a peace that didn’t give them power. Their list of sellouts also includes the M-19. (When offered a meeting with Antonio Navarro in 1998, Manuel Marulanda reportedly said, “We don’t need him here at the table to give us some clever proposals about how to get on one’s knees and grovel.”)

    It gets worse. I’ve been told that when asked whether he would intercede with the FARC, Fidel Castro explained that the group “thinks I’m just as bad as George Bush.”

    Meanwhile, Shafick is dead, and Villalobos is writing columns in Semana about “Why the FARC is losing the war” (http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=71428)…

  8. Constanza Vieira Blog » “A very bad day” Says:

    [...] for Internacional Policy con sede en Washington y quien acompaña la delegación, cuenta así en su blog lo que ocurrió el día 28 de [...]

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