Be our colleague A serious wave of threats
Mar 172008

This sort of thing keeps happening:

  • Colombians were outraged in 2000 when word got out that the FARC held a farewell party, complete with whisky and dancing, for Víctor G. Ricardo, the Pastrana government’s outgoing high commissioner for peace.
  • Colombians were outraged in 2002 by photos of James LeMoyne, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Colombia, happily embracing FARC leaders after narrowly averting a breakdown in peace talks.
  • Colombians were outraged in 2004 by leaked recordings from the government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups, in which High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo assured AUC leaders that they will not be extradited to the United States.
  • Colombians were outraged in 2007 by photos of opposition Sen. Piedad Córdoba, an authorized “facilitator” of hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks with the FARC, donning a beret and accepting flowers as she posed for pictures with FARC leaders in Caracas for talks.
  • Colombians are outraged in 2008 by reports of an October 2007 letter from a U.S. citizen to FARC leader Raúl Reyes, taken from a FARC computer recovered at the site where Raúl Reyes was killed.

The U.S. citizen, development expert and consultant James Jones, offers to serve as a “bridge” to make possible a proposed meeting with members of the U.S. Congress. His note to Reyes quietly conveys a message that Rep. Jim McGovern went on to deliver publicly during a January 2008 trip to Bogotá: “I would be willing to meet with the FARC only if I thought it would achieve something positive and tangible.”

What makes Jones’ letter controversial, as Semana magazine notes, is the “cordial and friendly tone” with which Jones addresses Reyes. Even if it means coming with proofs-of-life or a similar concession in hand, Jones writes, a meeting with a U.S. Congress delegation “would be an ideal way to internationalize the FARC and would give them international recognition (something that [Colombian President Álvaro] Uribe doesn’t want). It would also give an opportunity to show the world that one can negotiate with the FARC.” Jones signs off with “a Boliviaran greeting.”

I have known Jim Jones since 2001, when he was carrying out dozens (perhaps hundreds) of interviews for a research project on Colombia’s conflict. It is through some of these interviews that he came to know guerrilla leaders like Reyes. I know that Jim Jones does not support the FARC’s choice to pursue armed struggle, and he doesn’t want Manuel Marulanda to be the next president of Colombia. Jim is working from the best of intentions: he very dearly wants to see the FARC and the Colombian government return to the negotiating table.

Like many before him, Jim Jones is being publicly embarrassed for being revealed to have shown too much softness, friendliness or bonhomie in private communications with an armed group. As Jones’s statement, translated below, indicates, he used the language he did in order to foster a measure of trust, without which his request would have gone nowhere. As he argues, his methods had some impact: his October 2007 suggestion that the FARC provide proofs-of-life made it all the way up to the top of the FARC leadership, and the photos and videos were taken not long afterward.

In a similar situation, a seasoned, trained conflict-resolution expert would not adopt the tone and language that Jim Jones, Victor Ricardo, Piedad Córdoba and others have used, in what they thought were private efforts to achieve a climate of trust and mutual confidence. But such an expert’s work requires him or her to walk a difficult line.

Political reality and public opinion might reward a confrontational style, one that misses no opportunity to remind the guerrillas that they are murderous monsters. Building a working relationship, however, means adopting a more constructive approach – all the while avoiding behavior that could, if it came to light, be misconstrued as misguided or romantic guerrilla solidarity.

This dilemma makes clear how hard the job of a mediator or facilitator really is.

Here is Jim Jones’s statement in English:

Your article extracts and de-contextualizes parts of my long letter, which had the purpose of moving the humanitarian accord forward, and thus to return the prisoners to their families. It would appear that my letter to Reyes had a positive effect. For one thing, it arrived in the hands of the FARC’s maximum leader, Manuel Marulanda. And for another, some proofs of life were produced soon afterward.

I think the current [Colombian] government is wasting valuable opportunities to return the prisoners to their loved ones – Íngrid Betancourt, my three compatriots, and the Colombians retained by both sides. To achieve this return was the primordial reason for my letter to Mr. Reyes. For the moment, it is deplorable that the humanitarian accord lies in the ashes of a bombed-out encampment in Ecuador.

Your article highlights the language of my letter to Reyes, which suggests that there was a relation of trust between us. Of course there was one, because without that trust any effective communication would be impossible between two human beings of very different origins and experience. Let’s be clear that I do not agree with the guerrillas’ violent methods, but neither do I agree with the government’s methods of seeking military solutions for a decades-old conflict based on acute political and socio-economic problems. The current mistrust impedes dialogue between the parties to the conflict. I regret having offended some people with my language, but their negative reaction indicates the depth of the hatred and the scarce space available for a constructive dialogue.

By saying in your article that I have “a romantic vision of the FARC,” the intention is to question the credibility of my professional credentials and the role that I was (and mean to continue) playing. In the past 40 years, I have worked in 30 countries from Africa to Asia to the Middle East, without mentioning my extensive relations to Latin America. I have seen firsthand the way that poverty, inequality and violence dehumanize and disfigure communities. Believe me, I am neither that innocent nor that romantic. Blood doesn’t produce romance, just repugnance. My action seeks to confront a serious problem through use of reason.

19 Responses to “Jim Jones and the dilemma of building trust”

  1. Jaime Bustos Says:

    I am outraged having read this column! ;)

  2. Chris Says:

    “My action seeks to confront a serious problem through use of reason.” (Jim Jones)

    That’s great and all, but if that was really possible there wouldn’t be a Palestinian/Israeli problem, problems in the former Yugoslavia, problems in Africa….people don’t reason, especially when it’s a cultural, religious and ideological difference that results in conflict (40+ years in this case).

    Has there been a negotiated peace to a similar conflict in other parts of the world, in the past?

  3. Will Says:


    Would you count conflicts in:

    Guatemala, El Salvador, South Africa, or Northern Ireland?



  4. Will Says:

    Or how about Nepal?

  5. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Most of the problems people above talk about have been deliberately ignited. By guess who!

  6. Will Says:


    Do you mean Chavez?!! Just kidding…

  7. Fabio Says:

    I guess I’m having trouble comparing the nobility of the FARC’s cause with those of the rebels in Guatemala, El Salvador, et al. Does the FARC represent the interests of any constituency outside of the FARC itself? Or, who exactly is the FARC fighting for? Can someone please throw me a rope? Thanks.

  8. LFM Says:

    OK people, the threats keep rolling in. I just learned that Diana Gomez, the daughter of Jaime Gomez, an assassinated aide to Piedad Cordoba, and a political activist in her own right, has received a death threat. This case hits closer to home in my case because I happen to know her. The threat comes from the “Black Eagles” but, again, it must be a mistake because President Uribe already informed us a few days ago that paramilitarism in Colombia has been dismantled.

    Right now she is desperately looking for ways out of the country. She is a student of History and Psychology at the Universidad Nacional. If anybody out there knows of ways to help her to safety let me know. I’m looking on my end. In the meantime, if you can’t help on that, at least relay the information.

  9. James C. Jones Says:

    I appreciate Adam’s excellent translation of my response to the Semana article; the response is now on Semana’s website, linked to the article.

    I would only make one comment: at this point in Colombia’s armed conflict, the situation is far advanced, the hatreds deep; the time may not be such that “a seasoned , trained conflict-resolution expert” could even approach the FARC, much less apply his or her expertise. I think we’re a long way, and probably gallons of (Colombian) blood, from that point. Meanwhile, the less “seasoned” and less “trained,” but who can make the approach and sustain a relationship, do what we can with the lights we have.

    I see little interest in policies from either Bogota or Washington to bring matters to a critical point where such experts might ply their trade.

  10. Jaime Bustos Says:

    LFM find a way and give me your contact info. ;)

  11. lfm Says:

    Jaime: I wonder if Adam can help us with this. He may relay each other our contact info. Let’s see if he reads this, as he often does, and if he finds it within his means to do so.

  12. jcg Says:

    I have not had the fortune of knowing Mr. Jones or his work, but the above words sound spot on and I hope that, while much bloodshed may still have to be seen before the final resolution of this conflict, some day his advice will be useful in tangible form.

    In any case, it’s true that others will jump to conclusions that interfere with or even sabotage such efforts.

    There’s indeed a narrow line between an honest, sincere mediation effort which only seeks to build the necessary trust between the parties, and one that has less admirable purposes in the long run. But some people just choose to stick to their feelings of suspicion, paranoia and mistrust, without giving peace a chance, so to speak.

    Needless to say, the media, with or without reason in each specific case (looking at that diverse list posted by Adam), has not helped to create the proper environment for truth, and has even compromised the work of the mediators.

    IMHO, some caution is always necessary, but so is some flexibility.

    LFM: Unfortunately, I cannot responsibly say I have the means to help her, so I hope that, if possible, Jaime (regardless of everything else, including what I may think about him and what he may think about me, etc.) or anyone else can truly do something that eventually leads to an outcome which respects her life and safety.

  13. Adam Isacson Says:

    Regarding Diana Gomez and others, at this point several members of Congress have weighed in with the U.S. embassy in Bogota and the Colombian embassy here. Ambassador Brownfield deserves praise for paying visits this week to some of the NGOs specifically listed in the Aguilas Negras threats.

    I’m happy to relay contact info; my email address (which is posted elsewhere on CIP’s site anyway, so my spam filters already work overtime) is isacson < >

  14. Camilla Says:

    Explain to me why FARC should get ‘international recognition’? Does this mean anything to anyone?

    Shall we pretend this stuff never happened? Shall we ignore this and move on? Shall we say all these victims are expendable, collatoral damage, ‘people’s justice’? Shall justice be subordinate to ‘international recognition’ for FARC and instead reserved strictly for the first world people only? Is it a matter of ‘this only happens to Colombians, so why should we grant-and-laurel-seeking gringos really care?’

    Bring on the radical-chic Lenny Bernstein parties with the dry sacky nuts tiptoeing against the cheese on the cocktail platter and let’s give FARC its ‘international recognition’! /s

    Some people I just can’t understand.

  15. Camilla Says:

    By the way, Hugo Chavez can get all 800 hostages released any time he wants – by telling FARC he’ll shut down their drug corridor through Venezuela and destroy FARC’s 7 safe-haven training camps inside Venezuela – where Sureshot is believed to be convalescing. Will he do that? Nope. Will someone like Jones ask him to do that? Hell no.

    Chavez instead prefers to tinker with well-meaning and not so well-meaning ‘interlocutors’ or whatever, releasing hostages, one by one, toying with them on strings as dangly puppets, playing with their emotions, building up his own political power as well as his public relations clown show in the palace upon every release, always getting something for himself out of it, the better to aggrandise himself and weaken Colombia’s legitimately elected government.

    I think anyone who wants to bring ‘peace’ to region ought to go to the source of war itself and tell Hugo Chavez to start shutting down the FARC camps and blocking FARC’s cocaine transshipment corridors. That’s the real issue. No nation can end a war against an internal enemy if its neighbors are extending safe haven to terrorists. The way to giving peace a chance is to make Hugo a truly neutral player instead of an active FARC enabler.

  16. Camilla Says:

    One last thing: Adam – does it drive you nuts that none of the media seem to ever grasp how to spell your name correctly? The Semana piece got your name wrong too, and surely you have been around long enough on the Colombian scene for them to know who you are, so they have no excuses. If your name was Szczkrowaszewski or something, ok, I’d understand – but it’s Isacson, easy to pronounce, easy to read, easy to remember – is Isacson all that hard to spell right? Well, not to them. Every single time, the media seem to come up with ever new and more creative ways to spell your name that have nothing to do with accuracy! What’s the matter with these people!

  17. Boli-Nica Says:

    Jones signs off with “a Boliviaran greeting.”
    That is the bottom line right there. Exchanging pleasantries, acting friendly, or having drinks with individuals from an armed faction you are trying to bring to the negotiating table is arguably part of the game. Perhaps more so in Latin America.

    But, to use the ideologically-charged slogans that one side uses in communications is plain wrong, and can easily be interpreted as a sign of bias. The very term “Boliviariano” is at this point, exclusive property of the Fariano and Chavista propaganda inventory.
    You don’t mediate conflicts involving Marxist-Leninists addressing them as “compa~ero:” – they can call you that if they want. To use their terms is symbolic of “belonging” or “identifying with”.

    “but neither do I agree with the government’s methods of seeking military solutions for a decades-old conflict based on acute political and socio-economic problems.”

    That is just wrong. The FARC in 2008 do not represent a significant constituency drawn to it through “political and social-economic problems:” 50 years ago, they could claim to represent a segment of the Colombian society, even 20 years ago when they cynically sacrificed a lot of civilians who actually believed them, in Arenas’ cycnical political charade.
    Right now, they are little better than a criminal gang, though their Leninist organization and cohesion and Marxio-Bolivarian delusions has them on auto-pilot targeted at weakening the state.

  18. steve Says:

    There are many leftists in America that overall look FARC killings and crime – the end justifies the means. Hypocritical at best.

  19. Phillip Says:

    I think the only crime Mr. Jones has commited is being such an ignorant, by believing that one can sit down and negotiate with the leadr of a group whose only purpose is to send cocaine to the united states and use the profits to kill inocent people. The actions of Mr. Jones must be taken seriously, and must be investigated by the CIA. Mr. Jones is mocking the United States by having “a friendly talk” with a terrorist gruop. A terrorist group that has targeted and killed U.S. citizens, just like Al Quaeda. I guess everything would be different if Mr. Jones had sbeen speaking to Osama Bin Ladden… but is there really a difference betwen a guy who ordered the twin towers attack (3500 death) and a guy who has sistematically ordered the death of millions of colombians fot the last 40 years? Mr. Jones ignorance has no excuses. His role as an academic demonstrates that his actions cannot be based on a good will, since he knows very well the type of terrorists he was trying to support.

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