From above, they looked like a white river flowing through the streets of Colombia's capital. They wore white T-shirts that read: "Yo Soy Colombia (I am Colombia). Stop the kidnappings, the lies, the murders…. No more FARC."
Hundreds of thousands of Colombians protested Monday against the violence and kidnappings of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Waving national flags and chanting "free them now," protesters demanded the release of more than 700 hostages held by the leftist rebel group, which has been fighting Colombia's government for decades.
The protest, dubbed "A Million Voices Against the FARC," was started last month by three young people on Facebook, the social-networking website. It grew in just a few weeks and, on Monday, became the largest public demonstration against FARC in Colombia's history. Thousands more joined the march in cities such as Madrid; New York; Caracas, Venezuela; Stockholm; and Tokyo.
"I'm 87 years old, a 1921 model," said José Ignacio Nieto, a retired businessman, as he marched cane in hand through one of Bogotá's streets. "I have never seen something like this, ever."
Local TV channels showed images of former FARC rebels held in Colombian jails who also joined the protest against the rebel group. At downtown Bogotá's Simón Bolívar Square, thousands sang the national anthem and waved white flags. Five hundred miles from there, in a public square in the northeastern Colombian city of Valledupar, President Álvaro Uribe told Colombians to join "efforts so that the kidnapped can return to their homes and to freedom."
Many marchers supported Mr. Uribe and chanted slogans against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Last month, Mr. Chávez played a key role during the release of two high-profile hostages held by the FARC. But after the hostages were released, the Venezuelan president suggested that the FARC be taken off the list of terrorist groups and be deemed a legitimate army.
Juan Alejandro Garzón, a self-employed environmentalist, carried a large banner that read: "Chávez: Get it right, Colombians don't want the FARC."
Speaking on local TV, former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas – who was held for six years by the rebel group and was released Jan. 10 – said she joined the march at the last minute. "I was walking, and I saw this wonderful thing, and I decided to join," Ms. Rojas said. "Having being kidnapped motivates me to help others find a way to free those who are being held."
Throughout the country, schools canceled classes for the day or let students out early. Susana Castro was one of them. "We left school to protest because we feel that it's unjust and we disagree with what the FARC is doing," said the high-schooler.
In the same street, Javier Vallen held his 2-year-old son Jeronimo in his arms. "We have a responsibility with our country, and, as a father, I have a responsibility to give my son a long-lasting foundation of peace and love," he said.
But not everyone supported the rally.
Critics said the march should have been aimed against all violent groups, including the right-wing paramilitary group known as United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Many hostages' family members declined to march, saying the protest could reduce chances of their loved ones' release. Instead, they attended church services throughout the country.
"We're here to say no more to violence; It's been too long, it's been 40 years," said Lucila de Sarrio, who lost her 9-year-old grandson during the February 2003 bombing of Bogota's Nogal club. The attack killed more than 30 people. After investigations, the Colombian government determined that it had been perpetrated by the FARC. The rebel group denied responsibility.