A high profile kidnapping threatens Colombia’s peace process

Brigadier General Alzate Mora Rubén
Brigadier General Alzate Mora Rubén AFP-Getty Images

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos warned the country’s largest guerrilla group that the future of two-year-old peace talks depends on their willingness to free a general and two others who were kidnapped over the weekend.

In a national address late Monday, Santos said he would not allow negotiations to continue until the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) release the three hostages.

“The FARC are responsible for their physical well-being and should return them immediately,” he said. “This is the moment for them to show that they’re committed to the [peace] process in Havana.”

The impasse comes after Brig. Gen. Rubén Dario Alzate, 1st Cpl. Jorge Rodríguez and Gloria Urrego, a lawyer, were detained at gunpoint Sunday in the remote settlement of Las Mercedes, in the northwestern department of Chocó.

Even as troops scoured the area looking for the hostages, there were questions about why Alzate, 55, who heads up the region’s Titán military task force, was in guerrilla-controlled territory unarmed, unescorted and out of uniform.

“There are several issues that need to be cleared up,” Santos said earlier Monday. “Why was Gen. Alzate dressed as a civilian? Why did he tell his bodyguards not to accompany him? Why did he ignore the warnings of the boat captain that they shouldn’t go so far downriver?”

During its 50-year history the FARC has often kidnapped security forces, which it considers prisoners of war, but Alzate is the highest-ranking officer to fall into its net.

Whether the kidnapping was planned or a crime of opportunity remains unclear. The guerrilla group did not immediately claim responsibility, but an editorial on Anncol, a rebel propaganda site, suggested that it was a shadowy attempt to scuttle talks.

The FARC delegation in Havana said it would give a formal statement Tuesday.

The future of the negotiations, which aim to end the country’s 50-year civil conflict, might hinge on the fate of the hostages.

“Alzate’s kidnapping will not necessarily end the FARC peace talks, particularly if he is returned alive,” the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor wrote, speculating that he might be used as a bargaining chip or for a prisoner exchange. “If Alzate is killed, however, public backlash against the negotiations will increase and will likely complicate Santos’ ability to offer the FARC a negotiated settlement.”

This is the latest in a string of high-profile confrontations that are straining the peace process. Last week, the FARC kidnapped two soldiers in the northeastern department of Arauca, although it has offered to release them. Earlier this month a FARC patrol in Cauca, in central Colombia, killed two members of the Nasa indigenous guard.

Santos said such acts were undermining the nation’s faith in the talks.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, who is now an opposition senator, said the FARC need to unilaterally cease all criminal activity for talks to continue.

“These events show that the terrorists see the government’s signs of peace not as an act of generosity but as a weakness that they take advantage of to advance their criminal plans,” he said in a statement.

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón pinned the responsibility on the FARC’s 34th Front, which is part of the Northwestern Bloc commanded by Luis Carlos Usuga Restrepo, who is in Havana.

The 34th Front operates in the swampy and remote Chocó region that’s a thoroughfare for drugs and weapons in and out of Central America. The National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal gangs also haunt the area.

The guerrillas have repeatedly asked for a bilateral ceasefire during the talks, but the government has been wary. During the so called Caguán negotiations from 1999-2002, the guerrillas were accused of using a lull in fighting to regroup and re-arm and Santos has said he would not fall into the same trap.

Clara Lopez, an opposition politician and former presidential candidate, told RCN radio that the lack of a ceasefire makes the process vulnerable. “This is the consequence of negotiating in the middle of the conflict,” she said.

Santos tried to assure the nation that progress is being made.

“I know it’s difficult to understand that while we talk in Havana there are still confrontations in the country,” he said. But he warned that a ceasefire would be counterproductive. “Believe me, to talk in the midst of the conflict is the most effective way to end this absurd war once and for all.”

Sunday’s incident began at about 3:30 p.m. when Alzate requested a boat to visit a hamlet 12 miles downriver from the regional capital of Quibdó, the Ministry of Defense said.

In the community of Las Mercedes, on the western bank of the Atrato River, the group was confronted by armed men dressed as civilians. A soldier traveling with the party managed to escape and sound the alarm, but by the time troops arrived the three hostages had been moved out of the area.

Santos said he has been in contact with representatives from Norway and Cuba, who are guarantors of the peace process, to resolve the issue.

“The FARC’s commitment is being tested,” he said. “Their decisions will determine whether or not we advance toward the end of this conflict and toward reconciliation.”

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