Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis

Ana Carrigan
15 November 2007

"Mr President, we, who are about to die, salute you."

The message was delivered on 26 September 2007 to the Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe. It came from a hostage who had been seized by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia / Farc), with eleven other provincial deputies, in April 2002. By September 2006, the deputies had been held in a guerrilla camp in the Amazonian rainforest for four and half years, waiting, with diminishing hope, for the government and Farc to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Nine months later, eleven of the twelve deputies were dead. Among them the young deputy who had predicted his own and his companions' fate with such chilling accuracy. They were killed in circumstances that remain unclear, and contested.

Everything that touches on these deaths is emblematic of what has gone wrong in Colombia, now that the country, brutalised by a war which it is helpless to end, is turning for help, not to the United States, but to Europe and Latin America. This dynamic has accelerated with the involvement of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, in the hostage crisis: a high-stakes initiative which has the potential, in the longer term, of leading to a peace process to end Colombia's long war.

The mined path

On 8 November 2007, President Chávez had his first face-to-face meeting in Caracas with a member of Farc's seven-man ruling secretariat. The meeting involved Ivan Marquez, a former Colombian congressman, now a leading Farc ideologue, and the Colombian facilitator, opposition senator Piedad Cordoba. Marquez also met with the envoy of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government is intensely involved in efforts to free the most famous of the hostages, French-Colombian citizen and ex-presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt.

At a short press conference held on the steps of the Miraflores Palace, Chávez and Marquez were reticent about the content of their talk. They did, however, confirm that the legendary, octogenarian Farc leader Manuel Marulanda had ordered all Farc units holding hostages to produce proofs that they are alive; they also told the press that Marquez had brought an invitation to Chávez from Marulanda, to meet him in Colombia. "I have come", said Marquez, "to confirm to President Chávez, that if this meeting could take place", in a village in the traditional heart of Farc territory in southern Colombia, "we would find a formula for the release of the prisoners."

This long-anticipated meeting between Chávez and Farc is good and hopeful news. Yet its context and background is troubled and extremely volatile. As one analyst of Colombia's myriad efforts to find peace put it: "the meeting is a firm step along a mined path."

The hostage roadblock

Colombia's hostage crisis - like the country's insurgency war itself, now in its forty-third year - has lasted longer than any in the western world. Many of the current political players have been touched by it: President Uribe's own father was killed by Farc in a botched kidnapping in June 1983. Many too have become complicit in it: recent supreme-court trials of politicians charged with involvement in paramilitarism uncovered alliances between Uribe supporters, including his first cousin and closest political ally, with paramilitaries guilty of atrocities against Farc's rural civilian base. Now, again like the war, the fate of the hostages is mired in a legacy of mutual hatreds, and an apparent inability on either side to compromise.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Adam Isacson, "The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007) Farc is holding forty-five high-profile hostages whom it wants to exchange for hundreds of its own prisoners in Colombian jails. Some, like Ingrid Betancourt and her campaign manager Clara Rojas, are well known; so are three American defence-department contractors, whose plane crashed in guerrilla-held territory in February 2003. But there are forty others about whom nobody, except their families, knows, or - it seems - cares. They include several politicians and thirty-one army and police officers, some of whom have been held in guerrilla encampments deep in the Amazon rainforest, or on the remote slopes of the Andean sierras, for nearly ten years.

Any solution to this humanitarian crisis, must overcome two major road-blocks.

First, Farc refuses to talk to the government until it creates a demilitarised zone under Farc control. But Uribe refuses to withdraw troops from "one centimetre" of Colombian territory.

Second, Farc wants its released prisoners to rejoin the ranks of the guerrilla army. But Uribe insists they must commit to civilian life, or leave the country. In spite of efforts to broker a deal by the so-called "friendly" countries - France, Switzerland and Spain, which have worked ceaselessly for four years below the radar screen - the war has repeatedly defeated their efforts.

Occasionally, the outside world hears from the hostages via videos dispatched by Farc to reassure their families they are still alive. Since Uribe retreated in 2003 from international efforts to mediate an exchange of prisoners, opting instead for a military solution to the crisis, every video has carried urgent pleas to desist from any attempt to "rescue" them by force. "The bombings and the military operations" says a young soldier in a recent video, "put our lives at risk ... they keep moving us from camp to camp almost every day." A police captain who has been in captivity since October 1998 says: "Our situation here is very complicated and very difficult, and the only thing we know for sure ....is that a military rescue is the equivalent of a death sentence."

It is no secret that junior Farc commanders responsible for guarding the hostages are under orders to kill their captives if the army attempts to free them by force. This is no idle threat. President Uribe has twice ordered the Colombian army to attack guerrilla camps after military intelligence reported the presence of hostages, each time with predictable loss of life.

In June 2007, the war struck its latest deathblow to the hopes of a negotiated prisoner exchange. Just when talks between Farc and the delegates of France, Switzerland and Spain had reached their most hopeful moment in years, somewhere in Farc's rainforest territory - where the war rages, and the hostages are trapped like puppets in a shooting-gallery - eleven hostages died. The circumstances are still unclear and await full investigation, but the tragedy appears to have terminated any hope of negotiations for the release of the surviving hostages.

Farc announced the deaths on the internet on 28 June, saying they had been killed in crossfire ten days earlier, when "a military group, as yet unidentified" attacked the camp where they were held.

President Uribe then spoke on television, accusing the Farc of cold-blooded, premeditated assassination. He said the army could not have attacked the camp since it did not know the hostages' location; ministry of defence dispatches claimed no operations in the vicinity of Farc territory on 18 June, the supposed date of the killings.

The news reached Geneva in the early afternoon, where the French, Swiss and Spanish delegates were meeting to evaluate the results of their recent discussions in the rainforest with Raul Reyes, Farc's international commissioner and a member of its ruling secretariat.

Even before this tragedy, the delegates knew they were in a race against time. Their first priority was to stay in touch with the hostage-takers. Each time the Farc sent word it wanted to talk, delegates in Paris and Berne packed their jungle-boots, rain-parkas and mosquito-nets, and - with the authorisation of the Colombian government - set off for guerrilla-held territory. According to Bogotá sources they had made the arduous and risky journey seven times this year.

Their latest, twenty-four hour visit with Reyes concluded on the morning of 16 June; forty-eight hours before the alleged massacre. Sources in Bogota report that these talks had produced substantive agreements. An agenda, with a scheduled set of confidence-building steps, had been drawn up, and the Farc had started to follow through.

But those who work for peace in Colombia know from bitter experience that the most hopeful moments are always the most dangerous. On 28 June in Geneva, when the delegates learned that the hostages were dead, Parisian sources report they telephoned their emergency Farc contact in the rainforest to demand an explanation. They discovered the Farc knew nothing; the leadership had heard nothing; it could not understand how the camp's security had been breached; it had no notion where, or when, or how, or why the hostages had died. Reportedly, the contact kept saying, over and over: "this is a catastrophe! It's a catastrophe!" Farc immediately understood the implications, that this tragedy would destroy any possibility of a prisoner exchange.

Ana Carrigan is the author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy (Four Walls Eight Windows). Her reports from Colombia have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Nation, the Irish Times, In These Times and the Guardian. She is currently writing a book of Colombian memoirs.

Also on openDemocracy by Ana Carrigan,

"Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

"Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006) In Geneva, the European delegates conveyed their shock: "For many years the three countries have been working tirelessly in search of solutions to this grave humanitarian situation", they said. "It is inexplicable that ... it has not been possible to advance in any way towards overcoming this crisis....We make a formal call finally to solve this situation and avoid further tragedies." The delegates recommended that "the parties" - government and Farc - ask an impartial, investigative body, established under the Geneva conventions to investigate grave breaches of the laws of war. Incensed, Uribe accused the three countries of comparing his government to the Farc, and rejected any investigation under the Geneva conventions which would refute his longstanding claim that there is not a war in Colombia. "These three European gentlemen forget that we are not a state at war, but a democratic people vctimised by terrorism", he said.

The peace march

On 5 July 2007, one week after news of the massacre had shaken the country, millions took to the streets of Colombia's main cities.

The march was called by the governor of the deputies' home state to express support for the families of the dead, for the hostages still in Farc hands, and for negotiations to bring them home. It was originally intended to revive the tradition of great Colombian peace-marches of the past: an opportunity for a mass rejection of kidnapping and a wake-up call, to Farc and the government, to stop their madness and get on with a prisoner exchange. But Uribe moved to co-opt the march and transform its message into one of outrage with the Farc and support for the government's refusal to negotiate with "assassins, louts, and criminals." On the eve of the march Uribe told the media: "I invite the Colombians to tell the government: Government, firmness. Government, zero capitulations. Government, no demilitarised zones. Government, no release of Farc bandits so that they can commit more crimes."

The result was a march, organised by uribistas reflecting the polarisation of Colombia. Public employees, police, workers in the large corporations and the banks, were given the day off to march, wearing official, white T-shirts, many bearing the legend "No Demilitarisations". Non-uribista participants were a minority. Some had a difficult time. Banners calling for a humanitarian accord were trashed. Ingrid Betancourt's husband, wearing a T-shirt that said "Free Ingrid", was accosted and insulted on the street. Women's and peace NGOs were harassed by march stewards, and some barred from the central Plaza Bolivar in Bogota. One man returned deeply troubled. "Out there on the streets" he reported "this country is now like Germany in the 1930s."

In Cali, the murdered deputies' hometown, the teenage daughter of murdered deputy Carlos Alberto Charry spoke on behalf of all the relatives. Her words became famous, but they did not fit the official script:

"I am Carolina, daughter of ...Carlos Alberto Charry, killed by the Farc with the complicity of the national government...". She criticised the Farc as " a guerrilla group that has lost its way, ....that has remained alone in its own madness." She criticised the policies of a government, "stained with the blood of my beloved father and ten of his fellows killed with him, to whom an indolent president refused to listen when... they begged him to declare .... an encounter zone for a humanitarian exchange accord, as the only possibility of returning home alive. The demilitarised zone is not a desire of the [hostages'] relatives, it is a necessity for the kidnap victims."

When she criticised the government the crowd shouted her down. El Tiempo reported that "her voice was drowned out by those who led the march. They booed her while yelling: "Uribe, Uribe."

The commando confrontation

By mid-August 2007 there was still no information about how the deputies had died. Suspicion persisted that the "unidentified" military group whom Farc claimed had attacked the camp did exist, and that it had acted with the knowledge of the army. These suspicions refused to go away because nothing else made any sense. But they were difficult for the Colombian press to handle, because no rescue operation could be planned or executed without a presidential order. If the army had known of an attack, so had the president, but he had repeated, nationally and internationally, that the Farc had murdered the hostages in cold blood.

Then, on 21 August, this: "In the wee hours one night in June a motorboat carrying some thirty guerrilla fighters and eleven of the legislators who have been held hostage for more than five years ran into a Jungla commando in the headwaters of the Cajambre river in western Colombia."

This is the opening sentence of the only coherent and plausible reconstruction of the events that resulted in the deaths of the eleven hostages. Constanza Vieira, the Bogotá correspondent for the Inter Press Service news agency, (IPS), based the report on interviews with local sources living in the vicinity of the river Cajambre, and with a source close to the Farc (or perhaps a member of the Farc), who spoke on condition of anonymity. As Vieira wrote, his account "helps make sense of fragments of information from various sources gathered by IPS in the course of investigating the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the eleven lawmakers."

In checking the story, Vieira followed the golden rule of Colombian journalism: she spoke to ordinary people, ordinary families, pueblo, in the region and the nearby port town of Buenaventura, where local residents who knew people, who knew stories about what had happened on the river talked to her. She was also in touch with the community council of the Río Cajambre, who reported the displacement of fifty families living in the headwaters of the river "because of the risk of dying in the crossfire in clashes in the collective territory of Río Cajambre." These sources spoke also of intensified aerial bombardment, overflying and machine-gun strafing in the month of June, especially "high up the (Cajambre) river." "...The most critical events happened between the 10th and 18th of June, 2007, when the fighting intensified", the council said.

At first, Vieira's main source refused to talk. The Farc's leadership had imposed silence. It took her five hours to convince him to defy the order and tell what he knew of a battle on the river in which, allegedly, the hostages died.

This is his account.

The night before the deaths, seventeen members of the Farc unit assigned to guard the hostages deserted. Realising immediately the unit had been infiltrated by one of the army's new elite commandos, the senior commander of the camp decided to move the hostages to a new location. At dawn, the eleven hostages and thirty Farc guerrillas boarded a motorboat and set out downriver. A second Farc unit accompanied the motorboat from the shore. In the headwaters of the river they were ambushed by Colombian Jungla commandos.

The Junglas are trained in reconnaissance, infiltration and taking out targets. Their task is to infiltrate the rainforest, disguised as campesinos or indigenous people to gather information, and, if possible, infiltrate the Farc. Commandos are trained in survival techniques; they can live for weeks in the jungle, travelling quietly along the rivers in kayaks; when they locate a target, they call in reinforcements by helicopter. In Colombia, in the early 1990s, similar commandos were trained by members of the British army's Special Air Service (SAS).

When the Jungla attacked the motorboat with the hostages aboard, the source did not know whether or not it was a failed attempt to rescue the hostages. He said " the commandos' tactics are - attack, kill, get out - then be replaced by a different force", but, he said, that when the commandos attacked the boat "everyone started shooting." The motorboat pulled over to the shore to join the Farc land unit, and almost immediately "two or three" military helicopters flew in with more troops who joined the fighting.

"The shooting went on for three days", he said "and the bodies were left on the boat." Both sides then withdrew to shelter on the steep hills of the Andean gorge through which the river runs. According to the source, "the bodies were left there for another three days" before the guerrillas came back to "see what was left." They had lost their radio telephones and were incommunicado. When they returned, "the army was still there. They thought there were more guerrillas" than there actually were. The army ambushed the guerrillas a second time, and then, for a second time "the army and the Farc each went their own way."

Finally, the guerrillas returned to recover the bodies of the hostages and of their own dead. According to Vieira's source, it was when the guerrillas returned to the river to collect their dead, that their commander, "J.J.," was killed [see Box 1].

The truth hidden

By November 2007, four months after the hostages' deaths, the lack of an independent enquiry or forensic examination of the site of these killings has allowed all those involved - the Farc, the government, and the security forces - to engage in a cover-up (see Box 2). This guarantees that none of the crucial issues will ever be dealt with, and leaves the door open for a repeat performance. Since the issues in this case go to the heart of the conduct of the war, there is nothing more urgent than to force the truth into the open so that a discussion about the accountability of the state to its own citizens can begin. But in today's Colombia there is no demand for such a discussion. The only Colombians who care enough to insist on establishing the truth are a very small number of very isolated people - many of whom are relatives of the eleven murdered deputies.

From the first, their search for information was frustrated by a dispute over the logistics of recovering the dead bodies. The lengthy delay in returning the bodies to their families was blamed by President Uribe on the Farc, but sources in the region maintain it was the government's refusal to call off military operations and to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to enter and collect the bodies, that was responsible.

When the bodies were finally recovered, they were examined by an international forensic commission, led by the Organisation of American States (OAS), with doctors also appointed by Spain, Switzerland and France. The report concluded only that the deputies had died from multiple bullet wounds coming from different directions. The lawyer for the families, Faisuro Perdomo, told the press this OAS report had disappointed them. "We did not need an international forensic report to tell us that they were murdered", she said. The relatives intend to take their search for the truth to the courts. The wife of one of the dead deputies asked: "how can you forgive what you don't know?"

The president's offer

At this point, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela entered the scene.

The murky background of the Río Cajambre deaths put Álvaro Uribe under intense pressure to resume contact with the Farc. He appointed opposition senator Piedad Cordoba as facilitator to break the deadlock with the Farc. Cordoba in turn enlisted Chávez's support. In late August, Chávez and Uribe met in Bogotá and agreed that Chávez would act as "observer and guarantor" of a prisoner exchange.

At the time many analysts wondered where Chávez's enthusiastic embrace of this new role might lead. Thus far, Chávez's offer of a neutral territory where talks could commence has brought Farc leaders from the isolation of their remote Andean and rainforest territories to Caracas, and has delivered the expectation that Farc will produce physical proofs that the hostages are alive for Chávez to give to their families, to the United States state department, and to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Chávez has not managed however to persuade either the Farc, or Uribe, to compromise on the two issues that continue to block negotiations: the Farc's insistence on a demilitarised zone in which to hold talks; and Uribe's insistence that Farc's released prisoners cannot rejoin Farc ranks.

There is strong international support for Chávez's mediation efforts, most importantly from the George W Bush administration, which is under pressure to gain the release of the three American hostages. William Brownfield, the new American ambassador in Bogotá, has signalled that the state department only awaits a concrete proposal from Farc to start negotiations. The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and Democratic congressmen led by senator Jim McGovern have offered to support any proposal that brings the parties to the table.

President Sarkozy is intensely engaged. The French people care greatly about the fate of Ingrid Betancourt, whose photograph, hauntingly beautiful, hangs outside the city hall in Paris above the words: "Citizen of Honour of the City of Paris, Abducted 23rd February 2002, Detained in Colombia." Sarkozy's personal envoy has been to Caracas for a lengthy, "behind closed doors" meeting with President Chávez, and last week the French government's representative came to Caracas to meet Ivan Marquez.

The governments of Switzerland and Spain remain closely involved; the non-aligned group, as well as Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the ruling party of Uruguay, have all offered support for an accord; President Lula of Brazil is rumoured to be collaborating closely with Chávez.

But there was one notable absentee in Venezuela last week. The Colombian government was neither invited, nor even informed of the preparations for the meeting. This followed the postponement of an earlier meeting in Caracas with the Farc, when the Colombian minister of defence, Juan Manuel Santos, refused to provide security for Farc delegates crossing the border from Venezuela. At the time, Santos told the press that the Farc representatives would travel at their own risk and orders to the security forces to arrest them would remain in force.

This and other unhelpful government statements have created serious doubts about Uribe's intentions. Does he really want to negotiate the release of the hostages? What would persuade him to drop his veto on a meeting in Colombia between Chávez and Marulanda? Is it reasonable to continue bombing Farc targets in the rainforest, putting the lives of the hostages at risk, while Chávez is pursuing efforts to kick-start negotiations? After Piedad Cordoba met in the rainforest with Raul Reyes in August, army planes bombed and strafed Reyes's camp. Some in Caracas are now saying that Uribe is in the hands of sectors of the Colombian right who oppose peace and intend to block any hostage accord.

Nevertheless, when they met in Chile the day after the Chávez-Marquez press conference, the two presidents agreed that Chávez would pursue alternative scenarios to get both sides to the negotiations table.

These moves leave some essential questions hang unanswered. Why is Farc insisting that Chávez meet Manuel Marulanda? Is this, as Uribe claims another sophism to prolong their day in the international limelight? Or could it mean that the Farc's historic leader wishes to explore the larger scenario of a general ceasefire and eventual peace process, within which framework a prisoner exchange could fit? Senator Cordoba is adamant that Chávez would not leave a meeting with Marulanda empty-handed.

Hugo Chávez has offered the Farc an extraordinary opportunity to show the world that it deserves to be considered a political-military force, not merely as terrorists. But time is running out. This week, Carlos Holguin, Colombia's minister of justice and the interior, told the Spanish press that Uribe has always said, "such goodwill gestures" (as Venezuelas's) "could not be indefinite, nor be used by Farc to gain publicity;" the only formula, he said, to get the Farc to negotiate was "to reduce them militarily." In other words, a death sentence for the hostages.

Farc needs to talk less and take urgent action. An offer to renounce kidnapping in the future, and a decision to take full responsibility for the imperilled lives of the hostages, would go far to giving them international legitimacy. They may never have such an opportunity again. Their future and the lives of the hostages are now irrevocably linked.


Internet clues

Clues circulated on the internet about the Río Cajambre deaths. Was this the genesis of an attack in which the hostages may have died?

El Pais.com.co., opinion page of the main newspaper of the hostages' hometown, Cali:


"JULY 1ST - [an anonymous email response]:

Rio Cajambre - Sunday, July 01, 2007 at 3:44 PM [sic. - i.e.. original in English] - Was there an attack on the camp where the 11 hostage ex-deputies were? Who organised it? I found in the web page of El Pais... a notice of May 1st. Did someone follow the directions? Because for sure they were all exterminated. ...the government itself announced June 15th that they had killed ‘Comandante JJ', and that .... the troops had destroyed his two base camps, according to the text of a Communique of the President of the Republic ... later, the same President says there were no operations.

I think the ‘opinion' piece placed in El Pais has all the characteristics of a communication intended to activate the special commandos... it should be an object of analysis of an international commission to investigate these events."


How to write the official version

On 15 June 2007, the websites of the Colombian navy, the Colombian presidency, and the military actions logbook for the week of 16-22 June (maintained by the vice-president's office), all report:

"(In) a joint operation between the army, the navy and the air force, guerrilla leader...alias 'J.J.', was killed in combat while riding in a vessel on the Cajambre river"...."

The story was also carried on 16 June in El Pais and El Tiempo.

On the vice-president's website, the original text posted on 15 June read:

"15/06/2007. DISMANTLING CAMPS. In Barco, in the district of Cajambre and the jurisdiction of Buenaventura, fighting broke out between the navy and subversives of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Front of the FARC, in which Milton Sierra Gomez, alias 'J.J.,' the leader of this Front was killed. In the same action two of the guerrilla camps were dismantled. Source: El Pais."

Yet, after Farc's 28 June announcement of the death of the deputies, this entry on the vice-president's website was altered. Now, printed in blue typeface beneath the original text, the date of the operation in which JJ was killed was corrected. The correction read:

"However, according to information from the navy, this event happened in the same way and place described, on Wednesday Jun. 6, 2007."

Strangely, the naval website remained unchanged. However, from then on, every newspaper mention of the death "J.J." including those in El Pais and El Tiempo which had received the original report, on 15 June, by telephone, from the vice-admiral of the navy in person, placed J.J.'s death as having occurred on 6 June.


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