At a midnight press conference in Bogota Nov. 16, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a halt to peace talks in Havana between his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Surrounded by military officers, Santos was reacting to the seizure that day in Chocó state of General Rubén Darío Alzate, a corporal, and an army lawyer. Blaming the FARC, Santos declared peace talks as “suspended until there is clarification and the prisoners are liberated.”
Government negotiators wouldn’t be heading back to Cuba for further negotiations and a military rescue mission was heading to Chocó.
Why, one asks, did a top general defy army rules and move about without a military escort deep inside an area occupied by the FARC? Why were he and the others wearing civilian clothes, Bermuda shorts in his case? Why did the first announcement of his capture come not from the government but from former President Álvaro Uribe, an avid foe of the peace talks?
According to Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, the General’s party “was surprised by men in civilian clothes with rifles. El Tiempo newspaper heard otherwise from Presentación Palomeque, a community council official in Las Mercedes, population 120, where the encounter took place. Traveling on the Atrato River, Alzate and the two others reportedly arrived by launch and waited nearby for half an hour before three ununiformed, unarmed “subversives” arrived in their launch. The two groups conferred peacefully in front of a church, and then all concerned headed north on the river in one boat.
The possibility exists that the FARC’s capture of its highest ranking prisoner ever was contrived. The next day, Uribe, now a senator, called upon “[t]he international community … to require this terrorist group (the FARC) unilaterally to stop [its] criminal activities.” Twice before, in 1992 and in 2002, seizure of a government official by insurgents halted other peace negotiations.
In the two years since the present talks began on November 19, 2012, negotiators have secured preliminary agreements on agrarian reforms, political participation of insurgents during peacetime, and drug trafficking. Discussion was to have continued on victims of armed conflict. The last agenda item, still waiting, is demobilization of combatants.
The stakes for Colombia’s majority population are high. As reported recently by Deutsche Welle: “Fifty years of armed conflict have provoked 218,000 murders, 27,000 kidnappings, 25, 000 disappeared persons, and more than 5.5 million internally displaced persons.”
Interviewed in Havana recently, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo said, although “we have advanced considerably, we are not at the point of irreversibility [in the talks].” He cited paramilitaries as an unsolved problem. Ex-President Uribe provides the main challenge, however. Candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a Uribe protégée, forced Santos into a second round of presidential voting in May, 2014. Defending the peace talks, Santos won because Colombian leftists came to his rescue.
Uribe enjoys backing from many military leaders. According to a website friendly to the FARC, “While ex-President Álvaro Uribe is on tour mobilizing allies of the extreme international right against the peace process, Colombian military intelligence (…) is carrying out electronic espionage and has implanted a virus in the computer of Humberto de la Calle, head of the government’s peace delegation .” Earlier, the mainstream Semana newspaper attributed the electronic intrusions “U.S. intelligence agencies, the Colombian military high command, military intelligence and counterintelligence, and high state functionaries.”
FARC peace negotiators confirmed that General Alzate and his companions were in FARC hands. Defending the peace talks, they promised the FARC “will respect the life and physical and moral integrity of our prisoners and we are fully disposed to guarantee this to the extent the state’s wrath allows us [to do so.]” They condemned the state’s “gigantic [military rescue] operation” for risking prisoners’ lives and the peace talks alike.
The FARC labeled the captured general as a prisoner of war rather than kidnap victim. Governmental refusal to let “talks evolve within a situation of truce or armistice contributes, negotiators explained, to the necessity for warlike measures. “[N]egotiating under fire makes very little sense,” they said. As inducement for the government to follow suit as negotiations proceeded, the FARC has carried out unilateral ceasefires lasting weeks at a time.
Colombia’s left is demanding that henceforth negotiations proceed under conditions of bilateral ceasefire. Comprising almost 2000 political and social organizations, the Patriotic March called for a bilateral truce and also nationwide demonstrations on behalf of the peace talks.
For the first time since its formation in 2012, Patriotic March recently announced it would be engaging in electoral politics, and would do so within a “Broad Front for Peace.” This same Broad Front headed street mobilizations In Bogota and elsewhere November 19 in support of the talks.
By that day’s end, government and FARC representatives had agreed to conditions for General Alzate’s release and that of his companions. Spokespersons for Cuba and Norway, guarantor countries for the peace talks, indicated “liberations will be accomplished in the shortest time possible.”
Photo: This Aug. 15, 2014 photo released by Colombia’s Army press office shows Colombian Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate in Colombia. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group after Alzate was taken captive Nov. 16. The U.S.-educated general and two others were allegedly intercepted while travelling by motor boat on a remote river in western Colombia. A fourth soldier allegedly captured said he managed to flee. That soldier said the captors were members of FARC. AP/Colombian Army Press Office