We applaud the three successful humanitarian operations last week that reunited six of the FARC guerrillas’ long-held hostages with their families.
The following actors deserve high praise for the professionalism and discretion they showed last week.
- The International Committee of the Red Cross carried out flawlessly the difficult, delicate task of organizing hostage pickups at three secret, remote jungle locations during five days, while coordinating between parties who have no direct contact with each other. Christophe Beney, Yves Heller and other professional ICRC staff in BogotÃ¡ showed the world how these complex operations are properly performed.
- Similar praise goes to the government and army of Brazil, whose helicopters made the pickups and whose crews handled the logistics. The Brazilians stayed out of the spotlight, but their involvement – absent from most past Colombian peace efforts – was a welcome confidence-builder.
- Colombianos por la Paz (Colombians for Peace), an ad hoc group of intellectuals, leftist politicians and activists, seems to have set the process in motion with a September letter to the FARC that began a public exchange of communications with the guerrillas. In the group’s second letter to the FARC, the “Colombians for Peace” asked the guerrilla leadership to release all of its kidnap victims and renounce the practice of kidnapping. The FARC have yet to agree to that, but they did agree to release last week’s six hostages. Colombian opposition Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba, a signer of the “Colombians for Peace” letter who has been a key link of communication with the FARC, worked tirelessly last week to ensure that the hostage releases went ahead.
- The hostages’ families deserve the highest praise for their perseverance, their efforts to raise the profile of their loved ones’ suffering, and the dignity they maintained throughout the process. More concretely, they may have even helped save last week’s releases with a cell-phone call placed to Colombia’s first lady, Lina Moreno de Uribe, on the night of February 1, after President Uribe put the process at risk by briefly prohibiting Sen. CÃ³rdoba’s participation.
- The U.S. State Department was mainly on the sidelines, but did release a positive statement “welcoming” the first hostage release and praising Brazil.
But there are exceptions. The hostage releases seemed to bring out the worst in some of the others involved.
- Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, authorized Colombia’s air force to dispatch planes to circle above the site where, on February 1, the FARC were to hand over four hostages. The presence of the high-flying aircraft delayed the handover for hours. Journalist Daniel Samper, a member of the “Colombians for Peace” mission aboard the Brazilian helicopters, said that, faced with the FARC’s refusal to carry out the handover while the aircraft were present, the mission tried to call the Uribe government’s top negotiator, Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo – but Restrepo’s phone went straight to voicemail. It took two hours to get Santos to call off the planes. While Santos insisted the Red Cross agreement allowed the planes to fly at over 20,000 feet during the rescue, the agreement in fact referred to commercial aircraft. A February 3 editorial in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper characterized Santos’s attitude as “stubborn and defiant.” Added Semana magazine, “It was very bad if the intention was to gain a military advantage by carrying out intelligence in the midst of a humantarian operation. Even worse, if they sought to intimidate with their planes an already paranoid guerrilla group [thereby threatening the hostage release].”
- Independent journalist Jorge Enrique Botero has accompanied efforts to win hostages’ release for years, and has often played a useful supporting role for Sen. CÃ³rdoba and others. During the February 1 airplane-flyover incident, however, Botero – on the ground in the jungle – made the unfortunate choice of contacting the Venezuela-based TeleSur network and denouncing the Colombian military’s actions, even inviting one of the FARC guerrillas carrying out the hostage handover to comment on the air. Normally, an outrage like the handover zone overflights is the sort of “scoop” that a journalist should seek. At the time, though, Botero was a member of a humanitarian mission, not a correspondent. The matter he was denouncing was delicate, best left entirely up to the International Committee of the Red Cross to communicate to the Colombian government. Botero has since apologized.
- Hollman Morris is another Colombian independent journalist known for traveling to some of the most dangerous and conflictive corners of Colombia to cover the conflict. (We interviewed him in 2007, video here.) He appears to have been the victim of a coincidence – or at least found himself used by the FARC. While recording a documentary about kidnapping, Morris had arranged an interview with FARC leaders in the jungles of CaquetÃ¡ department in southern Colombia. They turned out to be the same FARC leaders holding the four hostages released on February 1. The humanitarian mission picking up the hostages had specified that no reporters would be present; its members were very surprised, then, to find a well-known journalist already on the ground at the pickup site. Before granting their freedom, the FARC required the four hostages – a soldier and three policemen – to submit to interviews with Morris as a condition of their release. Morris says that, realizing what was happening, he only asked the hostages their names and the amount of time they had been held. The hostages have asked that Morris not make the resulting footage public, and we hope he honors that. Hollman Morris found himself in a difficult situation, and had few options. Nonetheless, as Semana magazine put it, “On one hand, his rush to get the story may have led him to lose sight of the fact that he could have interfered in the hostage release. On the other hand, as a member of Colombians for Peace, he may not have pondered the possibility that he could have become – against his will – an obstacle to the complex task Piedad CÃ³rdoba was carrying out.”
- While Morris did nothing illegal, top Colombian government officials reacted very poorly. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was quoted as saying that Morris is “close to the FARC.” President Ãlvaro Uribe added that Morris “shields himself in his status as a journalist to be permissive and complicit with terrorism.” Both public accusations – that Morris supports a guerrilla group that kills and kidnaps hundreds of Colombian citizens each year – are unfounded, irresponsible, and place Morris in grave danger. Both leaders must retract them publicly.
- President Uribe behaved erratically on the night of February 1st when, sometime around midnight, he abruptly prohibited Piedad CÃ³rdoba – and anyone but the ICRC and the Brazilians – from participating in the remaining two hostage pickups. Uribe took this move out of anger about the behavior of Botero and Morris, but because of the importance the FARC placed on CÃ³rdoba’s participation, the President risked scuttling the entire operation. By the morning of the 2nd, apparently after strong urging from the Red Cross, the Brazilian government, and the alarmed relatives of to-be-released hostages, Uribe reversed himself, allowing Piedad CÃ³rdoba – but nobody else from “Colombians for Peace” – to participate in the hostage pickups.
- The government’s “high commissioner for peace” or chief negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, was largely left out of last week’s proceedings. He nonetheless managed to behave bizarrely. On February 3, after the humanitarian mission departed the airport in Villavicencio, Meta, to pick up FARC hostage Alan Jara, Restrepo decided to ban the media from the airport so that they could not cover Jara’s return. In the face of complaints from every Colombian news organization, the Colombian Presidency overruled Restrepo’s decision and allowed the press back in. The Peace Commissioner responded by turning in his resignation – for the fourth time in his 6 1/2-year tenure – and disappearing for at least a day. On February 4, El Tiempo reported that Restrepo was not even answering his phone when President Uribe called. By February 5, El Espectador was reporting that Uribe planned to replace Restrepo with Frank Pearl, the official in charge of the government’s demobilization and reintegration programs. By February 6, however, the Colombian Presidency reported that Restrepo had been located, President Uribe had not accepted his resignation, and Restrepo was reinstated as high commissioner for peace.
- Of course, the party whose behavior deserves the strongest condemnation is the FARC, whose cruelty and utter disregard for international humanitarian standards made last week’s operation necessary in the first place. After holding these men for so many years, their “goodwill gesture” to Colombians for Peace generated very little good will for them. The guerrillas continue to hold twenty-three more soldiers and police – some for over eleven years – to pressure the government for a prisoner-exchange deal. (They poured salt in that wound with a letter last week mocking one of the hostages, Police Gen. Luis Mendieta, who has been held for ten years.) They hold untold hundreds more civilians hostage for ransom. In the past few weeks, they are responsible for bombings that have killed civilians in BogotÃ¡ and Cali.
Last week’s releases indicate that those within the FARC’s leadership who have insisted on kidnapping civilian hostages are starting to lose the internal argument. A guerrilla group that has shown very little concern for its image made a move that appeared to indicate that it was conscious of public opinion. That is a positive development, though it offers little reason to believe that a movement toward dialogue – or even a “humanitarian exchange” of prisoners for hostages – is likely in the near term. Nonetheless, we hope that any momentum begun last week builds and continues.
We call on the FARC to take the logical next step: releasing all of its hostages and kidnap victims and renouncing the practice of kidnapping once and for all.