Big hurdle to Colombia peace: kidnapping

Apr 3, 2012, 7:18 PM

Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – No sooner had Colombia’s main rebel force released the last 10 soldiers and police it held as political prisoners than President Juan Manuel Santos was calling the move insufficient to merit peace talks.

Santos said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, must do more than claim it is putting ransom kidnapping behind. It has to prove it. The rebels also “need to free the kidnapped civilians still in their hands and give an accounting to their families of each and every one,” the president said in a televised address Monday.

Even if the FARC releases all its captives, and can prove it has stopped snatching more, many obstacles remain for talks aimed at ending a half-century of conflict. To begin with, mutliple groups engage in kidnapping, often posing as the FARC to throw off police.

The government has its own challenges, such as removing the threat of right-wing death squads that during the 1980s murdered hundreds of rebels who quit the armed struggle for politics.

Colombians were deeply skeptical on Feb. 26 when FARC commander Timoleon Jimenez announced the insurgents were dropping the funding source that a decade ago made Colombia the kidnapping capital of the world.

There is no indication the rebels have freed a single ransomed civilian since Jimenez made his announcement. But there’s also no evidence they’ve kidnapped anyone new.

“It will be months before we know if the FARC is going to keep its word. Nobody can agree even on how many people they continue to hold,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America.

The chief of Colombia’s anti-kidnapping police, Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, says there are at least six, including four Chinese oil workers seized last June.

Mery Conejo, the director of the anti-kidnapping unit in Colombia’s chief prosecutor’s office, says the FARC holds as many as 30 civilians.

The citizens’ group Fundacion Pais Libre maintains a list of 405 people the FARC kidnapped or has otherwise held against their will since 2002 who were never freed. It doesn’t expunge a name from its records until the person is released or a body shows up.

Jimenez, better known as “Timochenko,” has called the Pais Libre tally false.

The FARC, a 9,000-strong insurgency that took up arms in 1964, is only the biggest of a myriad of outlaw groups in the country that abduct people for financial, political and other ends.

And kidnapping Colombian-style is fraught with complexity and intrigue, with various groups sometimes “sharing” in a single ransom kidnapping.

They might include common criminals, far-right militias known as “paramilitaries” or the Andean nation’s smaller leftist rebel band, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

In many cases, kidnappers identify themselves as FARC even when they’re not. Sometimes, the FARC is a minor partner that comes into the action late after being sought out for its muscle. Or it will sell the “franchise” for a kidnapping to a criminal gang that does the dirty work while the FARC negotiates the ransom, said Gen. Guatibonza.

It also extorts businessmen and ranchers, and has abducted those who don’t pay, or their relatives. Timochenko hasn’t mentioned halting extortion.

There is also the issue of FARC discipline. Guatibonza is skeptical Timochenko can enforce a kidnapping ban among far-flung, decentralized cadres: “The rebels don’t even have complete control of their people.”

Conejo wants to believe the FARC is serious “but historically we’ve been in this same situation.”

“We got our hopes up and so did a great number of families (of victims),” she said. In the mid-1980s FARC leaders made a similar promise in peace talks that later collapsed.

The FARC, in practice, has only publicly acknowledged holding captives it considered “exchangeable:” police, soldiers or politicians it hoped to swap for imprisoned rebels.

It held scores of such prisoners in the late 1990s but gradually released them, never achieving the hoped-for exchange during 1999-2002 talks that also failed. As negotiations sputtered, the FARC continued to kidnap and ambush government troops while using a Switzerland-sized safe haven in the country’s south to deepen involvement in the cocaine trade.

Some political captives were rescued in recent years as Colombia professionalized its military with billions in U.S. aid and training, the case with Franco-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors in 2008.

But others, at least 25, died in captivity, many killed by FARC soldiers when real or imagined rescuers neared.

Gen. Guatibonza, like many Colombians, does not trust the FARC to be honest about its involvement in the abduction of civilians.

It certainly wasn’t, he says, in the September kidnapping of the 10-year-old daughter of the mayor of Fortul, a town in Arauca state bordering Venezuela where both the FARC and the ELN have a strong presence.

Both insurgencies issued communiques denying holding Nohora Valentina Munoz, who was freed three weeks after her abduction.

Six men, who included FARC militants, were arrested in the kidnapping, said Guatibonza, who says he has no doubt the FARC was behind it.

The FARC’s announced kidnapping halt should be seen mostly as symbolic of a genuine desire to re-ignite a peace process, said political analyst Leon Valencia, director of the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank.

He believes a militarily weakened FARC now fears it could lose the safe haven that Venezuela has long provided if Hugo Chavez’s cancer proves fatal and an unsympathetic government takes power.

Valencia also thinks it wasn’t Timochenko, but rather his predecessor Alfonso Cano, who decided to halt ransom kidnappings.

Since taking office in August 2010, Santos has succeeded in getting laws passed to compensate victims of Colombia’s long-running dirty war and return millions of acres of land to peasants from whom it was stolen.

Valencia believes Timochenko, a 53-year-old former rebel counterintelligence chief who was educated in Moscow, has sufficient gravitas in the FARC to enforce the kidnapping ban.

But whether Santos is even interested in back-channel negotiations with Timochenko is unclear.

Besides, analysts including Isacson don’t believe Santos would think seriously about peace negotiations until after May 2014 presidential elections. Santos has not yet said whether he intends to run for re-election.

What he has done is give every indication he intends to keep up military pressure on the FARC. Last month, Colombia’s air force killed more than 60 rebels in two air strikes.

Colombia has meanwhile asked Washington for more surveillance aircraft and other tools to track the rebels, said U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who visited last month.

He said he plans to shortly send, in an advisory role, Army brigade commanders with Iraq and Afghanistan combat experience to help Colombia’s military further weaken the FARC.


Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. Also contributing to this report was Associated Press reporter Robert Burns, from Tibu, Colombia.


Follow Vivian Sequera and Frank Bajak on Twitter at

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Big hurdle to Colombia peace: kidnapping