Suspected members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped the governor of a southern province Monday night in what could be a sign of a new surge in guerrilla activity after a series of setbacks for the leftist rebels.
Luis Francisco Cuellar, the governor of Caquetá province, was dragged from his bedroom in his pijamas after the door for his home in the city of Florencia was blasted down with explosives, according to local officials. One police guard was killed in the attack.
Mr. Cuellar will be the only politician now in FARC captivity, giving the rebels key leverage with the government that they had lost after a series of government raids in the past few years freed other high-level political hostages. Some analysts are now warning that the FARC have managed to regroup and may increase attacks in traditional strongholds, such as Caquetá.
"The FARC seem to be bouncing back,'' says León Valencia, director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think tank, which in its year-end report on Colombia’s four-decade-old conflict registered a 30 percent increase in the FARC’s offensive actions compared to 2008. Last year was considered one of the worst for the rebels in their 45-year-history, after the death of key figures among their leadership, the rescue of 15 of their top hostages and the capture and desertion of hundreds of mid-level cadres.
Manhunt for the rebels
“All of the armed forces and government authorities are working for the rescue of the governor,” Defense Minister Gabriel Silva told reporters outside an emergency security meeting in Florencia. He said the kidnapping was the responsibility of the FARC. The government has offered a $500,000 reward to anyone who offers information that leads to his release.
But President Álvaro Uribe ordered his troops to rescue not only Cuellar but all of the hostages being held by the FARC. "We cannot continue to submit to the whims of the terrorists, of the terrorists who bathe this country in blood," said Mr. Uribe, whose own father was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1982.
Troops combed the jungles and mountains of the region Tuesday searching for Cuellar and his abductors. During the chase, police discovered the charred remains of the pick-up truck used in the abduction about 20 minutes outside the city. Nine explosive charges were found near the truck.
Cuellar’s family said he had been under threat and Mr. Silva said authorities had received indications that the FARC were planning some sort of attack in the area.
Caquetá province: FARC stronghold
Caquetá – a region of cattle ranches and jungle -- has been wracked by violence and kidnappings for decades. Cuellar himself had been held for ransom there on four previous occasions.
Caquetá was also where French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 as part of a string of high-profile political abductions the rebels had hoped to use to negotiate with the government. Ms. Betancourt and 14 other prize hostages were rescued in a bold intelligence operation in July 2008 called Operation Checkmate.
Kidnappings have dropped sharply from an all-time high in 2000 of 3,029 to just 172 in the first 10 months of 2009 under the hard-line "democratic security" policies of the Uribe government. Through a series of unilateral releases, bold escapes and Operation Checkmate, the FARC are left holding 24 soldiers and police.
The FARC has said it was preparing to release two soldiers and the remains of a third, possibly before the new year. But Uribe said Tuesday he had ordered his top military brass to rescue all the hostages. “Who can believe in those bandits. Let’s not wait for acts of generosity from terrorists,” he said.
But the families of the remaining 24 hostages asked the president to reconsider his order for a military rescue of all the kidnap victims, fearing for the lives of their loved ones.
Marleny Orjuela, leader of an organization that groups the families, noted that the rebels were under orders to kill their hostages if troops closed in. “We don’t want them wrapped in a flag,” she said.