Colombia: FARC to free hostages?

On May 31 Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba told reporters that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest leftist guerrilla organization, was close to freeing Ingrid Betancourt, the 2002 presidential candidate of the Oxygen Green Party, and her running mate, Clara Rojas, along with Rojas’ child, who was born in captivity. The FARC captured Betancourt and Rojas in 2002. Apparently this is in response to a government plan to free a number of captured FARC members.

Also on May 31, the national armed forces commander, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, acknowledged that in May the military carried out an operation code-named “Tifon” (“typhoon”) aimed at freeing Betancourt and Rojas; Betancourt’s family was opposed to military actions to free the hostages. The operation, in which three alleged FARC members were killed, followed police agent John Frank Pinchao’s April 28 escape from the FARC after nine years in captivity; he had confirmed that Betancourt was alive. (EFE, June 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 3

See our last posts on Colombia and the FARC.

  1. FARC “foreign minister” released
    The highest-ranking imprisoned FARC member was freed June 4. Dressed in street clothes, Rodrigo Granda, known as the FARC “foreign minister,” was escorted from La Dorada prison northeast of Bogota onto a helicopter. He was expected to travel to the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Episcopate in Bogota.

    Granda was released despite having refused to mediate in a prisoner swap. “Rodrigo Granda today obtained his precarious liberty … in an unprecedented legal process and with the use of mechanisms that violate the constitutional and legal order,” Granda’s lawyer, Miguel Gonzalez, told reporters.

    Around 200 FARC guerrillas are expected to be released later this week, on condition that they not to return to “crime,” under a deal proposed last month by President Alvaro Uribe. (AP, June 4)

    The government transferred imprisoned FARC guerillas to a holding center in Boyaca June 1 as part of Uribe’s bid to win freedom for 60 FARC-held hostages.

    “This is advancing the goal of the national government to free all the kidnapped that are in the power of illegal armed groups,” Uribe’s office said in a statement. The government hopes its “humanitarian gesture” will prompt an in-kind response from the guerrillas.

    Uribe said the prisoners must “demobilize, promise not to return to crime and be under the supervision of a foreign government or the Catholic Church” to qualify for release on June 7.

    Around 1,000 FARC prisoners applied for release but only 200 —mainly imprisoned on minor offenses—would be eligible, said Gen. Eduardo Morales, head of Colombia’s prison system.

    Many imprisoned guerillas have rejected the release, saying they will accept it only through negotiations between the FARC and the government. “We are not prepared to negotiate our principles, and we tell the president and the international community and the people that the only real way will be through a prisoner swap,” FARC members in northeast Colombia’s Giron prison said in a statement.

    Such large scale releases have occurred before. In 2001, the FARC unilaterally freed about 250 kidnapped soldiers and police officers. (AP, June 1)

    The hostage issue was given greater urgency by the revelations of Jhon Pinchao, the Colombian police officer who escaped FARC detainment, that hostage Clara Rojas had given birth to a son, Emmanuel, while in captivity. Pinchao said the boy was healthy and was raised as “an Indian boy is treated,” but was in the hands of the guerillas not the mother. “They would take him to see her,” he said. “Then they would pick him up. The guerillas were in charge of the child.”

    Questions as to the relationship between Rojas and Emmanuel’s father, whose identity is not public, remain unanswered. “We do not know if rape was involved, but one certainty is that a woman in captivity is absolutely vulnerable,” said Olga LucĂ­a GĂłmez, director of the PaĂ­s Libre Foundation, which counsels kidnap victims.

    The FARC is known to prohibit physical intimacy between its fighters and captives. Pinchao said the child’s father was rumored to have been removed from his post or executed.

    Though kidnapping rates have declined in Colombia, abductions for economic and political purposes remain frequent. More than 3,100 are still held in captivity, according to the National Fund for the Defense of Personal Liberty. Ninety-two children were kidnapped in 2006, down from a high of 298 in 2002, according to PaĂ­s Libre.

    “If Emmanuel dies,” prominent Colombian novelist HĂ©ctor Abad Faciolince wrote in an essay, “[i]f Emmanuel doesn’t start school and doesn’t grow healthy and strong, we will be the most savage country on earth, the dirtiest, the worst.”

    President Uribe has asked Vice President Francisco Santos—who was himself abducted by a narco gang in 1990, in an episode later depicted in Gabriel GarcĂ­a Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping—to lead an international campaign to pressure the FARC to release Emmanuel.

    Among the FARC prisoners set to be released is a woman who is raising her two-year-old in prison. “It is a coincidence,” Interior Minister Carlos HolguĂ­n said June 1. “But it is a nice message for the FARC to give us Emmanuel.”

    Emmanuel’s grandmother, Clara González de Rojas, says her daughter was sending a message in the name she chose for the boy. “I looked up Emmanuel’s name in the Bible,” she said. The name, she said, which she was assured had been chosen by her daughter, means “God is with us.”

    An even more direct message may be found in the Catholic hymn that begins “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

    González de Rojas first learned about Emmanuel a year ago, when Jorge Enrique Botero, a Colombian journalist who had interviewed FARC commanders, published a book called Latest News of a War which discussed Emmanuel’s birth. Some doubted Botero’s account because he acknowledged fictionalizing certain details.

    In a telephone interview with the New York Times, Botero said he felt vindicated by Pinchao’s information about Emmanuel. “The story of this boy reflects the degradation of the conflict,” he said. “This is about people who are forgotten by our society.” (NYT, June 3)