Prisoner Release Represents FARC’s First Political Concession
For the families of the captured soldiers and police the news couldn’t come soon enough. Dozens of mothers of the 450 or more conscripts and professional soldiers had spent months campaigning and pressuring the government to facilitate the release of their sons, apparently to no avail. When the long-awaited announcement finally came, it surprised everyone. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said that on June 28 they would unconditionally release more than 250 of the servicemen from the makeshift jungle prison camps where they have been held for as long as three years. The guerrilla spokesman who read the statement said it was a “goodwill gesture to illustrate (the FARC’s) desire to achieve peace and social justice.” Earlier, the guerrilla group had only committed itself to releasing about 100 of the men.
The FARC statement included an invitation to President Andrés Pastrana, the military high command and representatives of various Latin American and European countries to witness the event, to be held in their jungle haven south of Bogotá. Representatives of China, Iran, Iraq and Libya were also invited to what Gustavo Bell, Colombia’s new defense minister, quickly described as a “public relations show.”
The surprise announcement came only days after the FARC, the largest leftist rebel group operating in Colombia, released 55 sick soldiers and police as part of a limited humanitarian agreement with the government. Under the deal, the government freed from jail eleven ailing guerrillas, who were flown in a Red Cross aircraft to the rebels’ southern stronghold. Several days later, three more were freed.
The guerrillas’ decision was welcomed by Pastrana, who has been beleaguered by the troubled peace talks and a crippled economy. Camilo Gómez, the government’s top peace negotiator and the man who spent months arranging the details of the humanitarian accord, described the mass release as evidence that “significant progress” had been made in the peace talks.
Other political leaders in Bogotá, although welcoming the announcement, said the rebels should immediately and unconditionally release all of the captives. There were also calls for the FARC to release a kidnapped senator along with the large number of civilians they hold. On June 10, Senator Luis Eladio Pérez of the Liberal Party was kidnapped, presumably by FARC members, in the southwestern department of Nariño, near the Ecuadorian border.
The prisoner exchange has been a top priority for Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s aging commander, since the start of peace talks in January 1999. His movement has insisted that the detained servicemen are “prisoners of war” who were fairly captured in combat. Most of the men were taken during a series of devastating attacks on military and police bases during 1998 and 1999. Even after the announced mass release, the FARC will still hold members of the security forces. These men will probably be used as ‘bargaining chips,’ their fate decided during future negotiations.
The latest events are by far the most visible results of two and a half years of talks, temporarily helping to alleviate sharp criticism of the way the peace process has been conducted. Critics have slammed the talks as one-sided, with Pastrana making all the concessions in the face of FARC intransigence. With the FARC’s first political concession, the peace process gains a new sense of balance, sending a message that the rebels are interested in maintaining and advancing the dialogues.
The decision to free such a large number of troops suggests that FARC leaders are conscious of the need to counter the widespread opinion that the peace process lacks credibility. Pastrana has barely a year left as president and if visible progress is not made, there is a risk that the talks will end with his term in office.
Pastrana was elected in 1998 with a mandate for peace. He promised voters that his government would sit down with the rebels and take bold steps to end decades of internal strife. Many analysts agree that it was the front-page photograph of the former television news presenter embracing Marulanda in the southern jungles that won him his election landslide.
If Pastrana’s peace mandate continues to prove elusive, it’s highly likely that the next president will be elected with a mandate for war. All of the leading presidential candidates speak openly of the need to “refocus” the talks and set a clear timetable and agenda, a signal that they are not likely to continue the negotiations in their present form.
The FARC’s behavior in the vast “demilitarized” zone remains a key issue of contention, along with the guerrillas’ links to the drug trade and their routine use of kidnapping, extortion and economic terrorism. Beyond that lie even more complex issues related to possible reforms of Colombia’s social and economic system.
Despite the significance of the FARC’s symbolic gesture, the future of the talks remains far from secure. Just as the release of more than 250 prisoners was being announced, hundreds of rebels were storming Arbelaez, a town southwest of Bogotá, barely two hours by road from the capital.
An editorial in the daily newspaper El Tiempo commented, “If the FARC don’t show more concrete signs that they believe in a negotiated solution to the conflict, the freeing of prisoners will not be more than a passing respite to the on-going bloodletting”.