On Sunday, the FARC guerrillas released three policemen and one soldier whom they had held as hostages in the jungle for many years. Today, they released Alan Jara, the former governor of Meta department whom they had kidnapped in 2001. The images of Jara descending from a Brazilian helicopter this afternoon and greeting his family are stirring. Sometime this week, the FARC guerrillas are to turn over another politician, Valle del Cauca departmental legislator Sigifredo LÃ³pez, whom they kidnapped in 2002.
Do the hostage releases signal an opening, in which a newly image-conscious FARC may be signaling a willingness to return to the negotiating table? In Colombia’s mainstream media, the consensus answer from analysts is a resounding “no.” There is a slim hope that the hostage release is a fragile step that could build momentum toward greater dialogue. But the guerrillas’ motives are suspect and the belief seems to be that the FARC are only taking these small steps as a response to military pressure and international isolation.
Here are translated excerpts from two such analyses: journalist Mauricio Vargas’s column in yesterday’s El Tiempo, and the cover story in Sunday’s Semana magazine. Thanks to CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer for help with the translation.
Now it turns out that we owe them? – Mauricio Vargas, El Tiempo
The naivetÃ© of some of the terrorists’ useful idiots had led them to declare that these liberations open the doors to a new era of peace. It is a shame to have to rain on their parade, but I doubt that this is the case. The FARC aren’t carrying out these liberations becasue they have resolved to leave kidnapping behind, nor to sit down for serious negotiations with the government about its demobilization and disarmament. If there was any doubt, the corpses of Diana Margarita Mora, a 50-year-old part-time employee of a Spanish multinational, and Carlos Romero, a 30-year-old security guard and resident of a poor slum in the city’s south. They died from the bomb that the men of “Cano” and “Jojoy” caused to explode Tuesday night at the Blockbuster outlet on 82nd Street in BogotÃ¡, because the owners of the business had denied to pay extortion money to the FARC.
This group of criminals agreed to free a small number of captives – hundreds more remain in the jungle – for a combination of political, military and economic reasons. The first have to do with their need to recover an international audience, after the blows they received in 2008. The second, with the security forces’ pressure. And the third, with the fact that, according to numerous deserters’ testimony, it costs the FARC a lot of money to maintain so many captives.
That is why it is unacceptable that some now act as though it is necessary to make gestures of gratitude to the FARC for these liberations. What should they be thanked for? That they have destroyed the lives of thousands of Colombians and their families and that, for motives that have nothing to do with humanitarian reasons, they have resolved to free a few after a decade of shameful captivity?
Why are they releasing them? (Semana magazine)
The next elections are crucial for this group [the FARC]. The Uribe years have left them agonizing, and a third presidential term puts their survival at risk. Many believe that Uribe will seek another four years just to seek the guerrillas’ total annihilation.
The FARC think that the liberations weaken [the Uribe government's] Democratic Security [policy], and that if Alfonso Cano extends a hand, the issue of negotiations will become a fundamental axis of the campaign of 2010. Obviously the guerrillas would prefer to negotiate with a president other than Uribe. They would prefer a softer government that gives them political recognition and allows them some breathing room and time to strengthen themselves, as they have done in past truces or peace processes. A situation that they would certainly take advantage of to recover their military initiative, or to negotiate from a position of greater strength. Exactly the outcome that Uribe summarizes in one word: catastrophe.
This reading, however, is as simplistic as it is ingenuous. In the first place, because in an eventual third Ãlvaro Uribe administration it is very likely that a peace negotiation would begin. Uribe has commanded the war well and would be happy to seal the peace. While it might not seem like it, Uribe knows that in such difficult territory, with narcotrafficking, it is impossible to liquidate a guerrilla group merely with lead. His goal, ultimately, is to bring them to negotiate to avoid a military defeat. Something that perhaps isn’t very far off, but cannot be achieved during the year and a half remaining to the government. The problem is that an Uribe reelection is absolutely inappropriate for the country. His permanence in power is a time bomb for institutional stability and any democracy’s balance of power.
But no matter who the next president is, he will have to manage the dialectic of the war’s hard line and the soft line of a political solution. And the word “negotiation” will be on the table of the next person to govern Colombia, whether it is Lucho GarzÃ³n, Sergio Fajardo, Juan Manuel Santos, NoemÃ SanÃn or GermÃ¡n Vargas Lleras. Any sensible politician knows that it is better to end an insurgent war at the dialogue table than it is to allow a bloody agony with a high human and material cost for the country that suffers it. With the enormous risk that it becomes a war that never ends, with recurring cycles of offensives and counter-offensives. Something Colombia knows well, and will no longer tolerate.
Nonetheless, a negotiation scenario would still be very complicated. First, because at this point it is not clear whom the FARC represents. It is difficult to recognize that they have any legitimacy to talk about broad issues like agrarian reform, because it has been a long time since that guerrilla group has represented more than their own criminal ambitions. In the second place, the Justice and Peace Law, which was made with the paramilitaries, has placed a standard on negotiations that is difficult to ignore. Victims have become very important social protagonists, and they will not tolerate a high dose of impunity, which is what the FARC aspire to.
Nor will it be easy to lower this standard before international justice, which has followed the paramilitary process in detail, as well as the crimes against humanity that are committed in Colombia, where the FARC have been protagonists.
Even so, in the best of cases the liberations could be the first step toward opening negotiation spaces to bring an end to the war. But a danger exists. That the FARC start treading in the swampy areas in which the ELN found itself trapped two decades ago, when it decided to hoist the flag of the badly named “humanization of the war.” In practice that has means making small concessions in the humanitarian sphere, like abandoning political kidnappings, but with the trap of leaving the door open to keep carrying out kidnappings for ransom. These intermediate measures, which at first glance make the war less cruel, tend to serve, on the contrary, to prolong it. And to avoid talking about what is really important: how to end the conflict.