Colombian hostages released, peace hopes raised

In December, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signaled its intention to release six prisoners. The guerrillas brought the prisoners to a clearing in Caquetá Department on Feb. 1. The three policemen and one soldier boarded two helicopters provided by Brazilian authorities that, having proceeded from Florencia, Colombia, took them to nearby Villavicencio City. There they fell into the arms of waiting family members.

On board the helicopters were Red Cross officials, two journalists, and peace activists belonging to Colombians for Peace. Starting in August 2008, that group, working with Senator Piedad Cordoba, engaged a suspicious FARC leadership in written dialogue. As negotiations continued, the government of President Alvaro Uribe tried to end Cordoba’s involvement. She persisted and ultimately was able to communicate the landing site coordinates provided by the FARC to the pilots.

Piedad Cordoba has served as lead facilitator of humanitarian prisoner releases since mid-2007. This time, media hoopla attending two hostage releases early last year was missing, as was high profile involvement by Venezuela. Nor did this release evolve into an army rescue escapade as occurred with a release initiative last July that freed 15 hostages.

Hopes were high. Gustavo Moncayo, the so-called “walker for peace” and father of a soldier held hostage, looked forward to “opening a door for dialogue.” Carlos Lozano, editor of the Communist paper Voz and leader of Colombians for Peace, identified humanitarian prisoner exchange as an “entryway [into] the politics of pacific solutions.” The negotiating process “generates confidence,” he said. Spokesperson for Colombians for Peace, human rights defender Ivan Cepeda Castro praised the group for “social and ideological diversity” and as Colombia’s “first initiative emanating from civil society in the search for a peaceful solution.”

Problems cropped up. Although the Colombian government had promised a combat timeout in the area of prisoner release, military planes followed the helicopters and circled overhead during the transfer. FARC leader Jairo Martínez told TeleSur news that the Colombian Army killed one guerrilla belonging to the prisoner escort detachment and captured another, a report confirmed by journalist Jorge Enrique Botero, traveling in one of the helicopters.

Late that night, President Uribe dismissed Colombians for Peace and banned Piedad Cordoba. His pretext was the bombing hours before of a police station in Medellin that left one dead and several wounded, which he blamed on the FARC. He refused “to allow the FARC to celebrate.” Cordoba had offended him by warning of dangers posed by military intrusion in the process.

The release Feb. 2 of hostage Alan Jara, former governor of Meta department, and that of Sigifredo López, legislator from Valle del Cauca, on Feb. 4 were postponed. President Uribe the next day conceded that military planes would no longer hover over prisoner releases. Pressured by the Red Cross and prisoner families, he reinstated Piedad Cordoba.

Early on Feb. 3, a helicopter left Villavicencio with Cordoba and Red Cross officials aboard to pick up Alan Jara. Lopez is to be liberated Feb. 5

Episodes of violence multiplied during January. Referring to a bomb attack in Bogota on Jan. 27 that killed two “humble workers,” Carlos Lozano laid responsibility on those “interested in supporting war and promoting ‘democratic security,’” code words for Uribe anti-insurgency operations. He said liberation of FARC prisoners is regularly accompanied by blame heaped on the FARC for a wave of murders and attacks.

Colombia’s violent atmosphere has long nurtured tactics adopted by the insurgency. In Arauca, Alfredo Leguizamón was assassinated on Jan. 5; in Saravena, on the same day, two other men were killed, and two weeks later, a mother of three. In Vista Hermosa, Meta, as of Jan. 29 some 500 paramilitaries “were sowing terror among the inhabitants.” The 17th Army Brigade announced plans that day to “exterminate the Community of Peace of San José de Apartadó.” On Jan. 16, Intelligence Service operatives leveled the Salmon Cultural Center in Bogota, and thugs tried to kill its director, Yury Neira, outspoken father of a murdered son. That day explosives destroyed a restaurant next to the International Red Cross headquarters.