“Para-Politicians” I have known Jesús María Valle, ten years
Feb 272008

A year ago, the FARC were believed to be holding 25 civilians hostage to pressure for a prisoner exchange. Then, last June, 11 of them were murdered. In early January, one (baby “Emmanuel”) was discovered to have been in government custody since 2005. Two were released unilaterally in mid-January. And four more were released today.

Our thoughts are with the families of Luis Eladio Pérez, Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltrán and Jorge Eduardo Gechem, who right now are being reunited with their loved ones for the first time in more than six years.

That leaves seven civilians among the FARC’s so-called “exchangeable” hostages, and thirty-three military and police personnel. Plus approximately 700 civilians whom the FARC are holding for ransom, as a brutal fundraising tactic.

For most of those who remain, the prospects of a prompt release are bleak. Here is an overview.

3 Colombian politicians

  • Names and dates of capture:
    • Oscar Tulio Lozano, former congressman from Caquetá, August 5, 2000
    • Alan Jara, former governor of Meta, July 15, 2001
    • Sigifredo López, former Valle del Cauca departmental legislator, April 11, 2002
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Moderate. Like those who have been released in January and February, these are regional politicians with low national and international profiles.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.

Ingrid Betancourt, French-Colombian citizen, former senator and presidential candidate

  • Date of capture:February 23, 2002
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low. As she is the most prominent of all FARC hostages, with a high international profile, the guerrillas are unlikely to release her without seeking to exact concessions.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.

3 U.S. citizens, employees of defense contractor Northrop Grumman

  • Names and dates of capture: Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, February 13, 2003.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low. As they are U.S. citizens captured while carrying out a U.S.-funded counter-drug surveillance mission, the FARC is unlikely to release them without seeking to exact concessions. The recent convictions of two mid-level FARC figures extradited to the United States further decrease the already small likelihood of any guerrilla “goodwill gestures.”
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: Moderate. Their release could be complicated by a FARC demand that the U.S. government release the two convicted mid-level FARC leaders in U.S. prisons (Ricardo Palmera, alias Simón Trinidad; and Nayibe Rojas, alias Sonia).
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes, as the three contractors are technically civilian non-combatants. Even if the FARC would seek to identify them as combatants, however, the three hostages are not being held under conditions that meet the standards set by the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Their captivity, therefore, still violates international humanitarian law.

33 Colombian soldiers and police

  • Names and dates of capture: See the list maintained on Wikipedia. Dates of capture are December 20, 1997; March 3, 1998; October 14, 1998; November 1, 1998; July 10, 1999; November 16, 1999; December 9, 1999; and July 4, 2007.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes, because they are not being held under conditions that meet the standards set by the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Approximately 700 people held for ransom

  • Source for this estimate: Fundación País Libre, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the rights of kidnap victims and their families.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: Low.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.

10 Responses to “Those who remain”

  1. Chris Says:

    Yep…sucks to be them.

  2. Santiago Says:


    I would just note that holding both the police/army fellows is a violation of international law regardless of the conditions in which they are being held.
    1. FARC are not legitimately recognized as a peer actor. For example, if Al Qaida decided to kidnap US soldiers in US soil and hold them in the rockies fulfilling the Geneva conventions after a battle fight, I do not think they would be in “compliance” with international law.

    2. Most of the attacks in which these folks were captured used illegal methods.


  3. Kyle Says:

    The FARC do meet the requirements for being recognized by and held to the standards of international law. If they were to take combatants from the battlefield and then hold them in standards meeting the Geneva conventions, it would at least meet the conventions’ regulations for international law.
    The question becomes if they are prisoners of war, in order to be detained must they commit a crime, as governments have done to detain people criminally, or must they just be a combatant? Also, whose laws must they violate? And lastly, does the right of due process apply if we have said “no” to the previous questions?
    The point is, it would get way into particularities to answer any hypothetical (or real) situation than can just be laid out with the Al Qaeda example.
    But one thing is clear, the FARC meet the requirements necessary to have international law applied to them.

  4. Chris Says:

    From that perspective Al-Qaeda could meet the requirements necessary to have international law…I mean in the end is all about how the powers to be classify them…i.e. your terrorist is my freedom fighter kind of thinking.

    I don’t like to get into the legality of things…complicates it too the point of insanity…I am not alligned with the FARC, I oppose them. I say that they are not freedom fighters, they are not fighting a just cause today. They are guilty of everything in my book.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  5. lfm Says:

    Kyle: Seems that you know about this more than I do and this is one point where I could use some education. Some years ago, former President Lopez Michelsen, that well-known FARC militant, argued that the men in uniform held by the FARC were technically speaking POWs. I found his argument convincing, but then again, law has never been my forte whereas he was quite an authority in these matters. So, if it doesn’t tax your time too much, I could use some explanations:

    1. What are the standards of international law in this regard? I very much doubt that there are objective, material standards because different armies all over the world have different capabilities. I would imagine that the Congolese army will not hold POWs in the same kind of facilities and conditions as the American army.

    2. I’m not sure that you need to establish that a person has committed a crime, under any law, to hold her as POW. Although I don’t know jack about this, and you seem to do, I suggest you may be wrong on that. The POWs in WWII were not violating any law, they were carrying on with their duty of defending their respective countries or fighting wherever their leaders told them to. Precisely that is the point of POWs. Of course, the tricky thing is whether an internal conflict can be regarded, on that count, as an international one. As far as I understood it, the whole discussion about belligerence back in the 90s, now rekindled by Chavez, was precisely a discussion about whether the FARC could be considered as having POWs.

    3. Your last statement has a lot of potential implications so I’m not sure if it is “clear.” The Uribe Administration, for instance, seems to take the position that since the FARC are mere criminals, international law has no business in this. Just as international law does not have any jurisdiction on how Texas judges and treats any serial killer, it should not have anything to say about the way the Colombian government deals with the FARC.

    But if, as you say, the FARC meet requirements to have international law applied to them, I wonder if this cuts both ways. In principle, international law may have some clauses that would favor them and, if it does, those would also have to be applied. For instance, could this have some implications for future extraditions? could this have implications for the conditions in which FARC members are imprisoned? I have no idea.

    I disagree a bit with Chris on that. All these niceties are complicated and boring, but they may be of utmost importance in any future dealing with the guerrilla.

  6. jcg Says:

    One thing is, even if they were in fact holding them as POWS, the issue of “belligerence” has nothing to do with their obligation to respect the laws of warfare, including the treatment of prisoners.

    President Chávez seems to believe that such a recognition is necessary in order for them to respect international law, but it is not. Even the Red Cross mentioned this recently, when some of its statements were being misquoted or misrepresented as recognizing FARC’s “belligerence” , which is something that organization cannot do in the first place.

    I believe recognizing the political status of FARC is easy enough, as is recognizing the existence of an armed conflict, but belligerence is another matter. It’s not something without complications worth considering.

  7. Camilla Says:

    I find it ironic that the actually bulk of humanity in this, the 700 “low value” hostages, are the least likely to ever be included in a “humanitarian” exchange. Maybe the term “humanitarian” should be called what it is: “political chit” exchange. Call things what they are.

    As for the 700 “low value” hostages, their best hope is in the unnamed Remaining Option, which is the Colombia Army. That’s who they can place their hope in. You wouldn’t learn it on this site, but President Uribe’s Web site notes that the Colombian armed forces just rescued five of the “low value” hostages from Marxist Narcoterrorists by force. Don’t expect them to get any credit.

  8. Kyle Says:

    Adam says what document applies to various hostages, but for POWs you need the Geneva Conventions relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War which can be found here. They include things like where to hold prisoners, the diet of prisoners of war, personal affects, even pay. You are right in pointing out that the Congolese army probably would not hold POWs in the same conditions as American soldiers would. Either way, both are held to the same standards, which are flagrantly tossed out the window, on various levels, by any army.
    2) I only brought up the idea of committing a crime because of how governments tend to approach POWs. For example, it is illegal to belong to an “illegal armed group” in many countries, including Colombia (”terrorist group” I believe is the wording). What this allows for is prosecution against civilians believed to be in groups and POWs. It fits the Geneva requirements and allows governments to hold POWs post-conflict, because of their criminal status, if found guilty of course. It is correct that the definition mentions nothing of having committed a crime, but nevertheless the Conventions do speak of judicial proceedings against POWs, which could apply to FARC prisoners, but do not, because as far as I am aware, the FARC do not do such things as trials for some POWs.

    3) I say the FARC meet the necessary requirements based on the albeit brief wording of Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, created in 1977, Article 1(1) states: “This Protocol, which develops and supplements Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 without modifying its existing conditions of application, shall apply to all armed conflicts which are not covered by Article 1 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) and which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.”
    The FARC do have a clear command structure (which is what is meant by “responsible command,” that there exists a hierarchy essentially), and clearly control territory which allows them to carry out military operations. The fact that Colombia also meets to political-scientific definitions of having a “civil war” (which implies two definitions) help concrete this even further, i.e. demonstrating that the FARC can and does carry out sustained and concerted military actions.
    The three definitions implied are that of “war” and “civil war.” I don’t have the exact texts in front of me (as there are various ones), but basically a war exists when at least two armed groups, each of which control some territory (this piece is debated by many on many grounds), whose hostilities/actions kill at least 1,000 people per year (that means anyone: combatants or civilians, in or out of combat). A civil war is thus a war over how a state should be run politically, which obviously is the case in Colombia.

    Uribe is wrong. 100% wrong. International law has everything to do with the conflict in Colombia. His lack-luster approach to the ideas of international law also threw him off when it came to the peace process with the AUC; he really does not know his stuff when it comes to international law. Any person who knows this stuff would never make the arguments he does because they are unsustainable. It does not matter if he thinks the FARC are criminals, terrorists or nincompoops, as I believe he once called them. What he is doing is trying to deny the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia to try to lift the obligations. If the FARC have armed forces, control territory from which they can carry out military actions, have a clear command structure, and if Colombia has armed forces, then they have an armed conflict, to which ALL PERTINENT LAWS OF WAR MUST APPLY TO ALL PARTIES EQUALLY. All of course apply.

    Yes there are probably some laws of war that favor the FARC. With regards to extradition, FARC can claim nothing as the US and Colombia have an extradition treaty, making it OK. The only thing that FARC could try to argue is illegal violation of sovereignty, which is an idiotic argument as the treaty exists, and well, citing international law to conclude that someone has violated your sovereignty is foolish. International law itself is a violation of sovereignty, by definition. States are just willing to accept them.
    It does have implications for how FARC prisoners are treated. If any person is detained by the Colombian government and meets the requirements for who is a prisoner of war, then the conventions apply and must be enforced.

  9. Kyle Says:

    Might I point out, as well, that no civilians can ever be POWs, as pointed out in Article 3 Sec. 1:
    (1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

    (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

  10. Kyle Says:

    Well, to be more accurate, non-combatants, can never be; this is what I meant by civilians but it is disingenuous as some civilian personnel can be considered POWs by Art. 4 of the convention…

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