Last military hostages released in Colombia, what next for FARC?

Jorge Romero, one of the 10 members of the security forces just released by the FARC-EP, walks away from the Brazilian army helicopter that flew him to freedom on Monday, 2 April 2012. © ICRC / B. Heger

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Sergeant Luis Arturo Arcia was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 14 years ago, at the age of 27. Last Monday, at 42, he was able for the first time to meet his nephews and nieces after being released as part of a group of ten members of the security forces after mediation by a group led by former senator Piedad Cordoba.

They were the last hostages from forces held by FARC. But although it has now renounced kidnapping for money, the oldest leftist guerrilla organisation in the Americas faces a very difficult situation, stuck between a series of military defeats and an inability to convince President Juan Manuel Santos to open negotiations.

The latest prisoner release marks the close of a dark chapter in the Colombian conflict. FARC started its campaign of kidnapping soldiers and policemen in 1996, with an attack on a military base in Las Delicias (Putumayo), in which they captured 86 soldiers. There were also civilian hostages – so many that the country gained the title of ‘kidnap capital of the world’. Especially damaging to FARC’s narrative was the fact that, despite claiming to fight for the poor, most of its kidnapping targeted people belonging to the middle and lower echelons of the country’s middle class.

It was a time of military strength for the rebels, which blinded the group’s leadership to its shrinking legitimacy in the eyes of Colombians from all social classes. The kidnappings s also cost the group external support, with no government willing to accept its claim to be  a legitimate ‘belligerent actor’ in the Colombian conflict. Father Dario Echeverri, member of the church’s Peace Commission, says the guerrillas paid a great political price, since they gained fame at the cost of legitimacy.

Another tactic that contributed to the conundrum in which FARC  finds itself in was the use of a 42,000-square-kilometre (16,000-sq-mile) safe haven, granted by then-president Andres Pastrana during peace negotiations between 1999 and 2002, to build up its forces, receive training and accelerate links to international drug trafficking. This led to what El Espectador newspaper calls the ‘loss of innocence’ by the state. The demilitarised zone ‘allowed the country to know until what point’ FARC was willing to take its ‘subversion’.

The subsequent military crackdown started by former president Alvaro Uribe and extended by President Santos sparked an accelerated process of military decline of the FARC. Since 2008, it lost four senior figures: ‘Raul Reyes’, head of the International Committee (COMINTER), ‘Ivan Ríos’, a key member of its Central Committee, ‘Mono Jojoy’, the main military commander, and, last year, the group’s top leader, ‘Alfonso Cano’. Late last month came the hardest blows to the guerrilla this year: 69 members killed in two army attacks. The most recent took place last week during a regional meeting and eliminated six commanders.

It should not be forgotten that the group retains a great deal of military skill and manpower: recent estimates point to at least 9,200 available fighters. On 17 March, the FARC’s 10th front killed 11 soldiers in an ambush. But its repeated calls for peace negotiations have so far fallen on (almost-) deaf ears.

The government and a majority among Colombia’s civil society argue that the group still has a lot to do in order to gain credibility for a peace process. It has yet, for example, to explain what it plans to do about an estimated 405 civilian hostages still being held in jungle encampments. There are also frequent reports of efforts by guerrillas to recruit underage students, using tactics such as throwing parties in order to convince them to join the armed campaign. Many young people do so attracted by the promise of leaving poverty behind.

The government insists that the FARC leadership should renounce such practices, alongside terrorism, before negotiations can proceed. But at the same time the guerrilla’s strategy of decentralisation and mobility, formally established in 2010, has denied the government the possibility of striking a blow that effectively ends the armed campaign. Initiatives such as Cordoba’s mediation efforts, have been crucial for recent hostage releases and can eventually build enough confidence to allow bolder measures towards peace.


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