Monday, February 27, 2012

Is the FARC Reforming?

Freedom coming? Guerrilla hostages in a jungle pen. 
 The FARC guerrillas' statement yesterday that they'd stop kidnapping civilians and release the ten soldiers and police officers they are holding in the jungles is either a landmark moment in Colombia's armed conflict or a cynical maneuver by a weakened guerrilla force.

El Tiempo newspaper opines that Colombians should wait and see whether the guerrillas actually fulfill their new vow. They're right.

It's hard to see the guerrillas truly giving up what is one of their most powerful tools for making headlines and extorting labor, resources and money from Colombian civilians. That's because behind the 'vacuna' which many ranchers and businesses in rural and small town Colombia pay to the guerrillas lies the threat of kidnapping. If that threat really disappeared, one of the guerrillas' big revenue streams could dry up.

A recent protest against the FARC guerrillas. 
Even the meaning of kidnapping is malleable in the FARC's world. I once interviewed a young woman who had been taken out of her apartment, together with her father, and held for several years in the jungle, until their relatives paid a ransom. Was that kidnapping? I expect the guerrillas would call it 'paying a war tax.' I once met a radio repairman who'd been forced by guerrilla threats to help them for weeks by building and repairing - unpaid - their jungle radio equipment. Was that kidnapping? I bet the guerrillas would call it 'collaboration.' I also met a woman whose sons had been carried away by the guerrillas to make them fighters. She had no idea whether they were alive or dead. Was that kidnapping? I'm sure that the guerrillas would call it 'recruitment.'

Still, the guerrillas' promise to end kidnapping of civilians and to free more kidnappees is a hopeful sign, if only because it seems to indicate an openness to making concessions in order to open dialogue with the government. But only time will tell whether or not this is a sincere step forward by a group which has caused tremendous damage to Colombia and its people.

FARC hostages, chained by the neck. 
The guerrillas' renunciation of what has historically been an important source of income for them might even be a negative sign if it means that they are earning so much from the cocaine business that they no longer require extortion and kidnapping income.

In any case, nobody should conclude from the guerrillas' renunciation of kidnapping that they have become a humane organization. Kidnapping is only one of the FARC's many human rights violations, which also include planting landmines, recruiting children, driving peasants from their homes and acts which can only be called terrorism, like the recent bombing in the small Pacific coast city of Tumaco. That bomb killed mostly poor, Afro-Colombian civilians - not exactly the country's traditional elite.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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