New Internationalist

Drugs, guns and money

Issue 406

Colombian rebels provoke hostage crisis

In Colombia, a country numbed to human tragedy, one story is more emotive than ever: the plight of the country’s 3,000-plus hostages. Since the murder in June of 11 politicians held in captivity, demands for a humanitarian exchange between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (who hold most of the hostages) have reached fever pitch. Mass marches against kidnapping have taken place, the Government has unilaterally released guerrilla prisoners, both Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Sarkozy have intervened as mediators, and one hostage’s father has set up camp in Bogota’s main square, having walked almost a thousand kilometres from his home to get there.

Yet what does the FARC want? In order even to discuss the hostage exchange, the FARC has demanded a demilitarized zone, measuring 785 square kilometres. President Alvaro Uribe has refused, claiming it would be used for drug-running to the Pacific coast. Most Colombians support him, seeing the FARC – which is classified as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU – as a cocaine cartel in communist clothes. In 1998, Uribe’s predecesor, Andrés Pastrana, granted the FARC a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland to assist peace talks, but the area became a haven for kidnapping and drugs production. The experience has not been forgotten.

However, for some observers, the FARC’s transition from left-wing guerrillas to drug-running kidnappers is unconvincing. Surely the group must have a political agenda?

The FARC was founded in 1964, just five years after the Cuban Revolution, by communist peasant guerrillas. Yet, unlike Fidel Castro, it never came close to taking power. Now it appears to have two options: to negotiate, disarm and enter national electoral politics; or to exercise local power funded by drugs revenues.

The first option appears as remote as ever. In peace talks, the FARC have proved the most stubborn and delaying of negotiators, even when governments – like Pastrana’s – have made genuine concessions. The group lacks a strong ideological critique of Colombian society, and its focus on land reform is increasingly outdated in an urbanizing country. Manuel ‘Sureshot’ Marulanda, the group’s founder and leader, has never been to a Colombian city. Opinion polls show less than five per cent public sympathy for the FARC, compared with over 30 per cent for the brutal right-wing paramilitaries.

Nor has the recent rise of the Left in Latin America encouraged the FARC to turn to electoral politics, as Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela after his failed 1992 coup. Indeed the group has harshly condemned Colombia’s left-wing coalition, the Polo Democrático, including leading senator Gustavo Petro. Petro, himself a former member of the demobilized M-19 guerrillas, accuses the FARC of ‘Stalinism, a total incomprehension of diversity’, saying that there is ‘a great distance between the FARC and Colombia’s political culture’.

So, the second option – the status quo – looks set to continue. The FARC exercises considerable regional power, including along the Ecuadorian border. It gains local legitimacy by its control of the drugs trade, forces those who object into exile, and uses the jungle to evade the military. Its leaders seem happy to enjoy this wealth, power and relative safety, rather than take the risks inherent in disarming.

‘Sureshot’ Marulanda, having survived over four decades and 11 presidencies in the jungle, seems to think he can wait a few more. However, as recent events show, Colombian public opinion is hardening even further against the FARC, just as it may be softening to the democratic Left.

Henry Mance

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