SEMANA/Cover Story | 1/31/2009 12:00:00 AM
The FARC: Why are they freeing their hostages?
SEMANA analyzes why the FARC are interested in reliving the possibility of a political negotiation. In the picture, Alfonso Cano, the new commander in chief of the guerrilla group, who has the obligation of showing that he can lead the FARC in the worst moment in its history.
A few years ago, their strategy of turning the humanitarian exchange into a political cause maneuver in the international stage seemed to have no obstacle. European countries such as France, Switzerland and Spain were seriously interested in achieving an exchange between political hostages and imprisoned guerillas. In 2007, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela also sought the same objective, first with the authorization of the Colombian government, and later without it, causing tension in bilateral relations.
The fact is that one year ago, in December 2007, the FARC was able to attract the international community, which would send delegates for the first unilateral liberation of hostages. The massive participation from representatives of Latin American countries was due to the fact that the region is dominated by left-wing governments, many of which are lenient with the FARC struggle. Even Hollywood participated when film director Oliver Stone arrived in Colombia's Llanos, the eastern plains, to await the liberation of Consuelo Perdomo, Clara Rojas and Emmanuel. But, as was proven, the FARC did not have the child Emmanuel in their power, and the fiasco destroyed the spectacle that they had created, before the outrage of all Colombians.
Nevertheless, in January and February of 2008, six politicians were unilaterally freed. When the guerrillas had announced that they would not make any more unilateral gestures and that they would insist upon the humanitarian exchange, the toughest blows against the FARC Secretariat in its entire history came to pass: the deaths of "Raúl Reyes" and "Iván Ríos" and their legendary leader Manuel Marulanda. The final blow to their cause of humanitarian exchange came with Operation Checkmate, which snatched from under their noses the most valuable hostages who had the most international impact: Íngrid Betancourt and three Americans.
Militarily cornered, with millions of Colombians on the streets expressing their rejection towards their barbarous acts, and with an international community once more indifferent regarding the Colombian conflict, the FARC was left without initiative.
In addition, the FARC was in its worst moral and psychological situation in its revolutionary life, having the sensation of being watched and infiltrated, with troop demobilizations and with a lack of confidence towards all of the mediators and humanitarian agents. Obviously, they also felt rage towards the government. The death of "Tirofijo" left a sensation of being orphaned and the new commander in chief, Alfonso Cano, has the obligation of showing that he can lead this guerrilla group in the worst moment in its history.
Facing such a climate, lack of confidence became the rule. The FARC does not believe the church, sees the Red Cross with a certain mistrust and considers the government to be a traitor. The Colombian people don't believe anything from the guerrillas, and the government brands the FARC as cheaters. That is how a labyrinth without exit has been built, despite the fact that at least 25 people continue to agonize in the jungle before the indifference of the international community and the neglect of the Colombian people.
This was true until an exchange of correspondence between the FARC and a group of intellectuals along with Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba called Colombians for Peace gave the Secretariat a pretext to talk again about liberations, humanitarian exchange and kidnapping.
But where is the FARC really going with these liberations?
For decades, the FARC was drunk with blood and gunpowder. They attacked villages, assassinated politicians, kidnapped civilians and opted for the path of clandestine organizations. They made the language of the bullet their only language for being heard, while at the same time, were deaf towards the clamors for truce that governments and the country as a whole made.
But in view of the loss of military terrain- perhaps irreversible- guerrilla heads are urgently seeking room to maneuver. The only instrument that they have today for that is their hostages. That is why it is very likely that more unilateral liberations like this will take place. It is possible that they will insist in an exchange but without the conditions that they have placed in the past, like the demilitarization of territory. What could even be behind these liberations is the path towards the abandonment of kidnapping as a weapon of war, as what several people who have had communication with Secretariat members have said.
Despite the understandable lack of confidence by the majority of the Colombian people, there are several reasons that could make the FARC leave aside this crime against humanity. The first is that kidnapping has been harmful for their armed struggle. In the eyes of the international community, they are seen today as vile criminals, save for isolated expressions from neo-populist caudillos like Chávez. Before the eyes of Colombia they are seen as a terrorist group that has only achieved a bloodbath in which terror is their only source of power.
But there are also practical reasons. Kidnapping requires territorial control, something that the guerrillas have significantly lost, and a great logistical effort. In a cost-benefit analysis, for them today it is more costly to kidnap. In fact, the kidnappings by the FARC today do not represent more than 20 percent of the total which occur in the country, and despite that, according to the government, this crime has diminished by 89 percent. In real numbers, while a decade ago the guerrillas could kidnap 1,500 people per year, today that figure is approximately 70.
Instead the guerrillas have discovered extortion against big national and foreign businesses as a new means of financing. Extortion needs less logistics, is quick and the punishment for those who do not obey their demands is terrorist sabotage, like what happened last week when they put a bomb at the Blockbuster in the north of Bogotá, killing two.
But beyond the considerations about the suspension of kidnapping- which remains to be seen- these liberations are the preamble to set the stage for potential peace negotiations that the FARC wants and needs.
In that context, the next elections are crucial for the FARC. The Uribe years have left them in agony and a third term of the president puts their very survival at risk. Many believe that Uribe will seek another four year betting on the total annihilation of the guerrillas.
The FARC believes that with the liberations they are weakening the policy of democratic security and that if Alfonso Cano extends his arm, negotiation will become a fundamental issue in the 2010 campaign. Obviously the guerrillas would prefer to negotiate with a president who is not Uribe. They would like a softer government, that gives them political recognition and that would give them room to maneuver and strengthen themselves like they have during previous truces or peace processes. It is a situation that surely they would take advantage of in order to recuperate their military initiative, or seek a negotiation in which they have a stronger negotiating position. That is exactly what Uribe sums up in one word: catastrophe.
The other fallacy that has gained traction is that a president different from Uribe would be complacent with the FARC and would roll back what the policy of democratic security has gained. If there is something that has become clear during the Uribe administration, it is that security now is a state policy and a right that the citizenry will not give up. That is why, from field of viable presidential candidates, there are none who deny that they will continue the military offensive against the guerrillas. Defending democratic security is necessary for democracy and also popular for the government in power.
But at the same time, any future president will have to manage the dichotomy of having a strong war policy and at the same time open to negotiation. The word negotiation will be on the table for the next Colombian president, no matter whether that president is Lucho Garzón, Sergio Fajardo, Juan Manuel Santos, Noemí Sanín or Germán Vargas Lleras. Any sensible politician knows that it is better to end an insurgent war on the negotiation table than allow for a bloody and costly agony in human terms as well as material terms for the country to suffer. This brings the enormous risk of a war might never end and will have recurrent cycles of offensives and counteroffensives. It is something that Colombia is familiar with and will not stand for it any longer.
However, a scenario of negotiation is not without complications. First because at this point, it’s no longer clear who represents the FARC. It is difficult to recognize the legitimacy to speak about key issues like agrarian reform because for such a long time that guerrilla group has not represented anything more than its own criminal ambition. Secondly, the Law of Justice and Peace that was made with the paramilitaries created a standard for negotiation in the country that is difficult to ignore. With this law, victims have become very important social actors and will not put up with a heavy dose of impunity, which is what the FARC aspires to have.
Neither will it be easy to lower the legal standards vis-à-vis international justice, which has closely followed the peace process with the paramilitaries and the crimes against humanity in which the FARC have been heavily involved. Furthermore, the times such as in the 1990s with the M-19, in which the government negotiated political power seem to have come to an end. Now the model is desertion, the handover of weapons and reincorporation to civilian life. Even the debate about whether to concede political power to the FARC at a negotiating table is the Gordian knot and this debate will ultimately define the type of process that can be done with the FARC.
Even still in the best of scenarios the liberations could be the first step in order to open negotiation in order to put an end to the war. But a danger exists: that the FARC will step on the thorny terrain which the ELN became trapped two decades ago, when it decided to pursue the so-called "humanization of war." In practice, that would mean making small concessions in humanitarian issues, like abandoning political kidnapping, but with leaving the possibility to continue making extortionist kidnappings. These intermediate measures, that a first glance make war less cruel, end up serving, on the contrary, to prolong it, and to avoid that what is really important is discussed: putting an end to the conflict.
This is an alternative which many people of good faith may pursue, trapped in a war in which the Colombian people have suffered too much.