Colombia: Hostages released, peace talks far from imminent

Colombians at home and abroad got some great news this week. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) kept their word and released what it says were its last military and police hostages. These ten men suffered through between 12 and 14 years as captives of the FARC-EP in Colombia’s dense jungles. This unilateral action by the FARC-EP is a step in the right direction forColombia, which still seeks a peaceful resolution to the conflict between guerilla groups and the state government and armed forces that has raged since the 1960s. I agree with the analysts who believe current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is far from agreeing to peace talks with the FARC-EP, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

While some may seek to classify this unilateral action as a “good faith” gesture by the FARC-EP, I am skeptical. I believe that the guerrilla group is seeking to gain public favor and buy time to organize itself. As I have noted in other posts, the Colombian armed forces (with muchUSfinancial and training assistance) have inflicted significant losses on the FARC-EP in the past year. The FARC-EP’s kidnapping policy is also widely unpopular with the Colombian public, on whose behalf they supposedly fight. Therefore, I think that the release of hostages in conjunction with an earlier announcement that the group will cease its campaign of kidnapping for ransom is more of a public relations maneuver than anything else.

President Santos seems to share my skepticism, and is not willing to commit to peace talks after one “good faith” action. He has said he wants proof that the FARC-EP will truly abandon kidnapping for financial gain.Santoshas not provided a timetable, which sets an indefinite window for proof to be established, allowing him to postpone talks and continue the (successful) military campaign begun by his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, under whom he served as Defense Minister from 2006 to 2009. Furthermore, the Colombian government would like information regarding two other security force members who were captured in the late 1990s as well as a count of the ransom kidnap victims still held by the FARC-EP (and their eventual release). The estimates of the number of ransom kidnap victims has been estimated to be anywhere between six to more than 20.

It is unlikely that the FARC-EP would be willing to provide these figures or the release of some of their remaining bargaining chips in a timely fashion. According to intelligence analysts, the guerrilla group has seen its numbers reduced by almost half to an estimated 9,200 fighters since its height. The FARC-EP’s leadership has also regularly been in flux as a result of the Colombian armed forces’ operations. This only compounds the Colombian government’s fear of prematurely committing to peace talks, since it has been burned before. Over the past three decades, two peace negotiations between the government and the guerrilla group have failed spectacularly. The sustained military success against the FARC-EP probably will convince President Santos to continue on such a path and demand more from the FARC-EP before sitting down at the negotiating table.

I am pleased with the FARC-EP for its actions, and am hopeful that they truly are committed to a peaceful resolution of the civil conflict that has been tearing Colombia apart. However, this is only one of many steps on the path the peace. Peace talks might be tempting, but the government does not wish to waste the progress it has made in weakening the FARC-EP. A decisive victory over the guerrilla group would allow the government to force its terms for peace upon the FARC-EP and improve public opinion of the Santos administration. Therefore, I predict that Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, is correct in his assessment that there is still a “long way to go” before peace talks can and will occur.

 – Max Rava

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One thought on “Colombia: Hostages released, peace talks far from imminent

  1. This was very informative, thank you. While I think that Santos understands that the FARC is still a long way from the negotiating table, he, like others before him, have not hesitated to say that each small gain is one step closer to the end of the conflict. As you rightly point out, however, the release of the hostages was not necessarily a sign of weakness or a concession to the government.

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