Colombia: who killed Gov. Cuéllar, and why?

Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba announced on Dec. 26 that she had asked the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to state whether they are responsible for the Dec. 21 abduction of Luis Francisco Cuéllar, governor of the southern department of Caquetá, whose body was found with a slashed throat outside the state capital, Florencia, on Dec. 22. Police agent Javier García Gutiérrez was also killed in the incident, and two agents were injured. The government of right-wing president Alvaro Uribe immediately blamed the FARC for the kidnapping and deaths. Agencia de Noticias Nueva Colombia (ANNCOL), a news agency which carries communiqués from the rebels, called the government’s claim “irresponsible,” but as of Dec. 26 there had been no denial from the FARC.

Many governments—including those of Chile, France and the US—issued statements denouncing the killings. On Dec. 23 the center-left government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa expressed its “most energetic condemnation and rejection of the kidnapping and murder” and its “solidarity with the relatives of the governor and the police agents.”

The incident may put a brake on negotiations that Sen. Córdoba and the organization Colombians for Peace had been holding with the FARC for the unilateral release of two soldiers the rebels are holding captive: Pablo Emilio Moncayo and Josué Daniel Calvo. President Uribe reacted to the abduction and killing by announcing that his government would take military action to free all FARC prisoners. As of Dec. 26 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had been making arrangements for the transfer of the prisoners, had suspended its participation, citing the lack of safety guarantees if the government is carrying out military actions.

The case of Pablo Moncayo, a noncommissioned officer, is especially familiar to the Colombian public because his father, the schoolteacher Gustavo Moncayo, has been carrying out a “walk for peace” for several years to call for the government and the FARC to negotiate his son’s release. Gustavo Moncayo has asked the government not to attempt a rescue of his son. (El Universal, Caracas, Dec. 26; Prensa Latina, Dec. 23, 26; El Tiempo, Bogotá, Dec. 23; EFE, Dec. 23)

Aside from delaying or possibly sabotaging the prisoner release, the operation against Gov. Cuéllar seemed badly timed in other ways for opponents of President Uribe, one of the US government’s few remaining Latin American allies. Elections are scheduled for March 14 to select 102 senators and 166 representatives for the Congress, along with five members of the Andean Parliament; on May 30 voters are to choose the president and vice president, with a runoff on June 20 if no one wins a majority. Uribe, who has based much of his political career on confrontations with the FARC, is contemplating a controversial run for a third term.

Cuéllar’s death is “opportune” for Uribe, Argentine-born journalist Irene Selser wrote in her column in the conservative Mexican daily Milenio on Dec. 24. It also “legitimizes the presence in the country of US troops, who will be arriving in the next weeks to ‘defend…democracy from these narco-terrorists,’ as the White House put it” on Dec. 23.

The FARC unit that operates in Caquetá is the Teófilo Forero column, which is known for such spectacular operations as the kidnapping of Green presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the hijacking of former senator Eduardo Gechem Turbay’s plane, both in February 2002. But recently the unit has been quiet, according to Selser, who wrote that “a possible action of infiltration by the US can’t be discounted.” The Venezuela-based television network TeleSUR reported on Dec. 23 that according to its Colombia correspondent “some Colombians have indicated that the governor’s death could be a matter of a ‘false positive’ carried out by the Colombian government”—a reference to cases of the Colombian military killing civilians and then dressing their bodies in FARC uniforms. (Prensa Latina, Dec. 26; Milenio, Dec. 24; El Tiempo, Dec. 23; Colombia Reports, Dec. 23)

But others thought the operation may have stemmed simply from local Caquetá politics. The rebels frequently accused Cuéllar of supporting the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) when he was mayor of Morelia, and they had kidnapped him for ransoms a total of four times before the Dec. 21 incident.

Meanwhile, this year the national government was investigating Cuéllar for “parapolitics,” based on accusations by former paramilitary leader Luis Alberto Medina Salazar AKA “Cristo Malo” that the governor had funded paramilitaries. In an appearance before the prosecutor’s office in Bogotá in early November, Cuéllar denied the charges, which he said were politically motivated. In fact, a political rival, former governor Juan Carlos Claros, allegedly had members of the Heroes of the Andaquíes Bloc—a paramilitary group reportedly tied to Claros—plant 300 uniforms camouflage uniforms in one of Cuéllar’s ranches in 2005 to create the appearance that Cuéllar was still working actively with the paramilitaries. (Rebelión, Dec. 24)

In other news, the Corporation Humanitarian Action for Coexistence and Peace in the Antioquian Northeast (Cahucopana) reported the discovery of the body of Luis Alberto Aris Pran (presumably a local resident) on Nov. 21 in Remedios municipality in the northwestern department of Antioquia. According to some reports, the killing was carried out by paramilitaries operating in the region; the group is said to include an army deserter. On Dec. 13 the vendor Sergio Alonso Gallego was murdered in Remedios; the motive and identity of the killers is unknown. (Adital, Dec. 22 from Prensa Rural)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 27

See our last post on Colombia and the Cuéllar case.