In Colombia, prisoner swap is sticky point

Relatives protest a stalemate between the government and FARC over

Smiling uncertainly, Adela Afanador shakes hands with the uniformed guerrilla. He holds an assault rifle; she clutches a large photograph of her son, who has been a rebel prisoner for more than a year.

Relatives of 382 soldiers and policemen captured over the past two years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, came from all corners of the country last week to beg the guerrillas to free their sons and husbands.

Most, like Mrs. Afanador, expected that they would be allowed to visit the prisoners. Others even hoped to bring them home. Instead, they were given lunch and told once more that the FARC won't release their captives until the government frees 450 imprisoned rebels and passes a law to allow regular exchanges of prisoners.

The government rejects the proposal, and human rights observers warn that an unconditional release of rebel prisoners could open the door to a blanket amnesty for human rights violators.

The stalemate is symptomatic of the deep divisions left by nearly four decades of violence. Although President Andrs Pastrana has made peace a priority in his administration, there has been no substantial progress since talks were launched in January.

The Colombian conflict has grabbed mounting attention in Washington and South American capitals in recent weeks as violence has escalated and fighting, usually far from Colombian population centers, has neared the capital of Bogot. Speculation over an eventual US intervention has led to warnings of a Latin Vietnam, a scenario Mr. Pastrana firmly rejects.

Until there are advances in the peace talks, the prisoner exchange will likely have to wait, says Winifred Tate, who monitors Colombia for the Washington Office on Latin America, a US think tank. A similar deal in El Salvador came only in the closing stages of that country's civil war.

"It's premature in the process to bring up the issue. The really pressing need now is to have the parties come back to the negotiating table," she says.

Since the 15,000-strong FARC first suggested the exchange in September 1998, the government has insisted that the captured servicemen are kidnap victims, not prisoners of war.

Since then the subject fell from sight - until the FARC called last week's meeting. More than 600 relatives - mostly middle-aged women - came to meet rebel spokesmen in a sweltering cow field patrolled by heavily armed rebel sentries and a dozen TV camera crews.

Most were bitterly disappointed to hear only the same rebel demands. "The only solution is a change in the law. There will be more prisoners on both sides, so we need to establish a mechanism for exchanging them," FARC commander Felipe Rincn told the relatives from the back of a flatbed truck.

"[The FARC's] sincerity is called into question here. They're willing to negotiate about the soldiers and police, and yet they continue to hold civilians for ransom," says Ms Tate, the Colombia analyst, who fears that an exchange could boost the country's kidnap rate - already the highest in the world.

Other observers say the rebel group is trying to win legal recognition - which would mean acknowledging that Colombia's 35-year conflict has spiraled into a general civil war.

But legal arguments don't move the prisoners' mothers, who feel their plight has been forgotten by President Pastrana.

"They need to get their people, and we need our boys home," says Afanador. Her son Edgar was seized when FARC guerrillas overran the Miraflores antinarcotics base last August.

At Wednesday's meeting, Afanador joined in the applause when rebel commanders told them that the government neglected them because they are poor. Although Pastrana has met with relatives of hostages held by the smaller National Liberation Army, he has refused to meet the soldiers' mothers. The FARC, meanwhile, gave food and lodging to the prisoners' relatives and contributed $53 toward each family's transport costs.

"The government has never paid us any attention, but these people treated us very well," she says.

Others were not so impressed. "It's just manipulation - they're working on people psychologically," says Orlando Len, whose police officer brother Gonzalo was seized while on patrol in Vichada state last year.

There was no news for Gladys Gutirrez, whose son Csar was taken from the Patascoy radar station in December 1997. "We came all that way for a piece of meat and a potato. We came here for nothing," she says.

Mrs. Gutirrez has been waiting for her son for 18 months now - and while the rebels insist on a permanent exchange law, it seems unlikely that she will see him soon.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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