| Foto: Guillermo Torres

Armed Conflict

New Hope for the Relatives of Colombia’s Kidnap Victims

This week, President Alvaro Uribe authorized opposition senator Piedad Córdoba to mediate in the release of the remaining hostages held by FARC. His announcement was seen as an important step towards freedom, although not everyone seems to be convinced by the news.

Thomas Sparrow, tsparrow@semana.com
10 de julio de 2009

One week after Colombia celebrated the first anniversary of Operation Checkmate, in which 15 hostages - including three American contractors and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt - were rescued by the Armed Forces, President Alvaro Uribe surprised everyone with a move to breathe life into the hostage talks.
Before flying to the United States, Uribe announced that opposition senator Piedad Córdoba, who has been a key figure in mediating with FARC rebels, is authorized again to take part in future negotiations with the guerrilla organization, this time regarding the 24 policemen and soldiers who are still held in the jungle. According to Colombia’s head of state, the hostages must be freed simultaneously and FARC must also hand over the corpses of three former kidnap victims who died during their ordeal. Córdoba, who said the president’s words were “positive”, admits she now wants to meet Uribe in private to discuss the subject. Meanwhile, the government, through Peace Commissioner Frank Pearl, has begun to contact both the Catholic Church and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to get the release process moving.

Not only does this step mean that Uribe is agreeing with the demands of the rebel group, which has always said that Córdoba’s presence is mandatory for new releases, it also signals a new direction in the president’s interests, because he has always been distrustful of the leftist senator’s role, particularly this year.

In April, FARC leaders revealed they were willing to release Pablo Emilio Moncayo, who has spent more than eleven years in the jungle, only if Uribe could make sure that both Córdoba and teacher Gustavo Moncayo, father of the kidnap victim and someone who has become famous for walking around the country and to various international destinations in order to increase pressure on the government, were present in the operation. Uribe did not like the offer and declared that the politician was no longer authorized to mediate and that he did not want to make a show out of this important topic. This decision seemed to block the possibility of FARC handing over their remaining hostages indefinitely, even though the rebel group announced two weeks ago that it would also release the soldier Josué Daniel Calvo, who was kidnapped in April. The government is now studying how to proceed with the release of these two Colombians.

Two months before that, Uribe and Córdoba had been involved in another dispute, this time during the release of four members of the Colombian Armed Forces and politicians Alan Jara, in Villavicencio, and Sigifredo López, in Cali. Uribe first authorized Córdoba, then changed his mind after a number of problems during the operation which brought the three policemen and the soldier back, and finally he had to give his consent again so that the release of the two politicians could be completed. (see related article)

Bearing in mind this background, it is understandable why relatives of the kidnap victims still held by FARC are happy with the recent news. For them, this is a step closer towards seeing their loved ones again after many years of suffering. Teacher Moncayo told AP that this was certainly “a ray of hope”, although he is not sure whether it might be another “government strategy” for delaying the releases.

The joy of the relatives is in marked contrast to the opinion of some opposition leaders, who are not all that convinced about Uribe’s intentions. Some aspiring Liberal Party presidential candidates told the Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador that it was a smokescreen, which diverted people’s attention from topics where the government has come off badly, for example the alleged bribery that facilitated Uribe’s re-election four years ago. That is why some analysts argue that Uribe’s intentions regarding Córdoba’s mediation are not all that humanitarian, but also a political move.

Irrespective of this, the fact is that Uribe has opened up a new possibility for the release of hostages held by FARC in the jungle. It remains to be seen whether Uribe, Córdoba and the rebel group can reach a final agreement that will bring those 24 soldiers and policemen back, after an inhuman ordeal lasting many years.