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Colombia's FARC rebels say group will stop kidnapping

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said Sunday it will free remaining hostages and stop kidnapping civilians in a bid to restart peace talks with the government.

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But giving up kidnapping for ransom will not put a dent in the FARC’s finances, analysts say. The FARC continues to garner abundant resources from extortion, drug trafficking, and illegal gold mining.

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Alfredo Rangel, a security analyst, says there is little sense in the FARC declaring an end to the practice of kidnapping if it continues to demand extortion payments. “If they are going to continue to extort people, we haven’t gotten anywhere,” he said.  The FARC have traditionally used kidnapping as punishment for failing to pay extortion payments. “So now they are going to place bombs instead? That’s hardly a great advance.”

In the past month, the FARC have attacked two police stations, killing 15 people and wounding nearly 100, most of them civilians. And on Feb. 23, a civilian who refused orders from FARC members to lead a donkey laden with explosives in front of an army camp in Cauca province, said he was tortured by having his fingers crushed and his mouth sewn up with wire before escaping to a hospital.

History repeating?

This is not the first time the FARC has announced an end to kidnapping.

In the mid 1980s the rebel group said it would put an end to the practice but never did. Instead, kidnappings became more common and by 2000, during failed peace talks with the government, it announced “Law 002.” This rule dictated that any person or company operating in Colombia with more than a million dollars in assets had to give 10 percent to the FARC, or else risk the penalty of kidnapping.  In addition to targeting businessmen, the FARC kidnapped politicians for use as bargaining chips with the government.

Among the most high-profile of the FARC’s hostages were three American military contractors and French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, nabbed in February 2002 when she was campaigning. The Americans and Betancourt, along with 10 others, were rescued by the military in July 2008, in a daring operation that duped their FARC captors. Other hostages have been released unilaterally by the FARC as gestures of “goodwill.”

Today, Mr. Rangel says, the FARC is applying political and military pressure to bring the government to the negotiating table. “Just sitting down to talk is a huge political gain for the FARC,” he says, noting that the negotiations would provide the FARC a new venue to showcase their political grievances.

Celis agrees, and says Santos is keenly aware of the FARC's motives and is likely to use the possibility of peace talks as a central issue in his likely bid for a second term in office in 2014. “He’ll probably leave the whole issue of negotiations for his second term," Celis says.

Top 5 signs of a weakening FARC

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