Prisoner swap brings hope to Colombia stalemate

Yesterday, guerrillas freed 42 ill detainees. In return, the Army must free 15 rebels.

Colombia's slow-moving peace process showed its first tangible results this week when leftist rebels freed a badly injured police colonel and three other officers at the start of a prisoner exchange with the government.

Officials say the agreement to swap sick prisoners may breathe new life into negotiations aimed at ending Colombia's savage 37-year civil war. But the deal's tortuous history illustrates the many stumbling blocks that remain on the road to a lasting peace.

Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, handed over Col. Alvaro Leon Acosta to the International Red Cross on Tuesday. He and his three companions are the surviving crew members of a helicopter shot down by the FARC last year.

Acosta was paralyzed in the crash, andover the 14 months he was held captive, he developed pneumonia and depression. For many Colombians, his story came to symbolize the plight of 400 troops and police agents in rebel hands. Some of the hostages have been held in jungle prison camps for over four years, as the FARC press for the release of some 350 jailed guerrillas.

Under the terms of the long-awaited deal, the rebel group agreed to free 42 sick soldiers and policemen in return for the release of 15 ailing guerrillas held in state prisons.

"We hope that Col. Acosta recovers quickly from his health problems, and we're very happy with the first concrete act of the humanitarian agreement. The peace process goes on, " said interior minister Armando Estrada following the release.

Two weeks after this initial exchange, the FARC will hand over at least 100 more captive servicemen, but the agreement makes no reference to the thousands of ordinary Colombians who are abducted every year.

Over 3,700 kidnappings were reported last year, most of them carried out by the FARC and other guerrilla factions, who depend on extortion to fill their war chests. On Sunday, senior rebel commander Raul Reyes said that the abductions will continue, and kidnapping promises to remain one of the thorniest issues in future peace talks.

"It's an infamy for the FARC to say that they will release some kidnap victims but keep taking others," says Armed Forces chief Gen. Fernando Tapias.

Military hardliners have opposed the prisoner exchange ever since the FARC proposed a deal in 1998, arguing that the 17,000-strong rebel group intended to free battle-hardened rebel commanders to lead new offensives.

Human rights groups were also wary of the deal, fearing that releasing convicted rebel prisoners could open the door to a blanket amnesty for human rights violations. During peace talks in El Salvador, a similar prisoner exchange went ahead only after more substantial agreements had been thrashed out.

In Colombia, the stalemate over the prisoner swap was symptomatic of the deep divisions left by nearly four decades of war. Since the current peace effort began in January 1999, talks have concentrated on procedural details, and both sides have walked away from the negotiating table on several occasions.

On Saturday, the FARC's septuagenarian commander, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, said the prisoner exchange could open the way to a suspension of hostilities and advances on the broad negotiating agenda."Now that we've reached this agreement," he said, "we can reach a second and a third, until we achieve what all Colombians are longing for, which is a political solution to the armed conflict.".

But with presidential elections in May 2002, there are signs that time could be running out for the peace process. Several candidates have called for a harder stance against the guerrillas, and an opinion poll published on Saturday suggested it might take more than one prisoner exchange to convince a skeptical public that the process is bearing fruit.

Eighty-two percent of those polled said the peace process was heading in the wrong direction; only 13 percent believed the FARC is interested in peace.

"Many people have lost faith in the peace process and would like to see war," the government's chief peace negotiator told Reuters. "But war only brings more war. We have built much confidence between the two sides that will obtain results soon."

That confidence has always been low, says kidnapping czar Juan Francisco Mesa. And that mistrust has a base in history: When FARC set up a legal political wing in the last peace effort, over 3,000 activists were killed by far-right militias and the military.

"Any kind of negotiation is based on confidence ... The peace process will only advance if you respect the principal of good faith," he says. "You have to love your girlfriend before you can marry your wife. So far, we're still just falling in love."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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