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.

Fernando Vergara/AP
A police officer holds a photograph of a fellow officer, who was kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the main square during a protest to demand his freedom in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday Feb. 23.

Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), announced Sunday it would abandon the practice of kidnapping – a tactic that has long defined the FARC. 

The group's declaration is a clear sign that the guerrillas are angling to restart peace talks with the government. However, analysts say negotiations to end the nearly five-decade-long conflict in Colombia are still far off.

In a communiqué posted on the rebels’ website and signed by the ruling secretariat, the FARC announced it would “forbid the practice” of kidnapping “as part of our revolutionary actions.” The FARC also said it would release its 10 remaining “prisoners of war,” members of Colombia’s security forces, some of whom have been held for as long as 14 years. There was no word as to when the releases would take place, or how many civilian hostages remained.

But with the announced liberation of the last remaining “swappable” hostages – policemen and soldiers – the FARC are giving up on one of their most long-held demands: an exchange of military and political hostages in return for jailed rebels.

Luis Eduardo Celis, an analyst with Nuevo Arco Iris, a conflict research center, says the recent decision by the FARC was aimed at creating conditions for peace talks.  The FARC’s new leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timoleón Jimenez or Timochenko, sees himself as “the man who will take the FARC out of the conflict,” says Mr. Celis. Timochenko took over in November 2011 after former FARC leader Alfonso Cano died in a raid on his camp.

“It’s a game where each side is taking positions. President Santos offers the victims [a] land restitution process. The FARC offer an end to kidnapping,” Celis says, referring to a law that went into effect in January providing damage payments to victims of the Colombian conflict and giving back land to those driven from their homes by the violence.

Insufficient steps

However, President Juan Manuel Santos declared the FARC’s announcement an “important though insufficient step in the right direction.” In addition to ending kidnapping, the government also demands that the FARC end forced recruitment, ban the use of landmines and leave civilians out of the conflict.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, at the height of the Colombian conflict, the FARC used ransom payments to fund their fight against the state, and used political hostages to put pressure on the government.  Many rightwing paramilitary groups began to emerge in reaction the FARC’s widespread practice of kidnapping, and Colombia became known as the kidnapping capital of the world.

In the mid 1990s Colombia witnessed more than 2500 abductions a year, most of which were attributed to the FARC. By 2011 there were 298 kidnappings in Colombia, according to the defense ministry, with the FARC responsible for 26 percent of those (more than 60 percent of the kidnappings today are attributed to common criminals).

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.

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.

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