Colombia: A Make-Over for Stumbling Rebels

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Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty

Former FARC hostage Sigifredo Lopez smiles amidst relatives and friends after being released.

Colombia's Marxist guerrillas probably rue the day they kidnapped state legislator Sigifredo Lopez and his colleagues. Disguised as police agents, the rebels stormed a government building in the southern city of Cali in 2002, announced a bomb threat and then herded a dozen lawmakers, including Lopez, aboard a bus and drove them into the mountains. But the operation ended up in one of the ghastliest blunders of Colombia's four-decade-long civil war. In June 2007, guerrilla guards mistakenly thought they were under attack by the army and, in a panic, executed 11 of the hostages. Lopez alone survived the massacre because he was being held in solitary confinement in another part of the rebel camp.

Lopez, 45, was finally freed on Thursday, almost seven years after his abduction. All told, the guerrillas, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), got nothing out of the Cali operation — and they finally seem to have come to the conclusion that their decade-long orgy of political hostage-taking has gotten them nowhere. (See pictures of FARC guerrillas in their jungle stronghold.)

In 2000, the FARC, then one of the world's largest and fiercest insurgencies, started targeting Colombian senators, governors and other power brokers, hoping to swap them for imprisoned guerrillas. The rebels also demanded a demilitarized zone to negotiate prisoner exchanges with government envoys. But conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, refused to play along. With strong U.S. backing, he beefed up Colombia's once dysfunctional military and started delivering body blows to the FARC. Last year was the guerrillas' most disastrous year ever. The rebels lost three of their top seven commanders (two were killed, one died of old age); but the most stunning coup was last summer's Entebbe-style army raid that outwitted the FARC and rescued 15 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Lopez was the last of the remaining high-profile political prisoners to be liberated, and the FARC by most accounts has sworn off taking any others. That doesn't necessarily mean the rebels will stop nabbing military and police prisoners, as well as non-political civilian hostages, of which they still have hundreds in their clutches. But war-weary Colombians are cautiously hoping that their long national kidnapping nightmare is in its final throes. "In the best case," the Colombian newsmagazine Semana wrote this week, "the liberations could be the first step toward negotiations to bring an end to the war."

The FARC's global image has suffered badly as well. "All of this had very high political [as well as] military cost for the guerrillas," says Leon Valencia, a Bogota political analyst. The United Nations and every other international organization deem the kidnapping of civilians, even political leaders, as a crime against humanity. The practice seemed to complete the rebels' gradual makeover from peasant warriors fighting for a Marxist utopia to ruthless narco-terrorists. When Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen and a cause celebre in Europe, was whisked to freedom during last July's commando raid, much of the world lost interest in the FARC. Most analysts said the group, whose membership has been halved from as many as 20,000 members a decade ago, was a spent force.

With an eye to repair the damage, the guerrillas last year began releasing its remaining political hostages in dribs and drabs. The aim of the new policy is to sow the seeds for future peace talks and eventually to help the FARC regain the status of legitimate war combatants, which the international community still refuses to confer on it. The strategy is partly the doing of Alfonso Cano, who was named the FARC's maximum leader last March following the death, at the age of 78, of Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the guerrillas' cunning but stubborn founding father. Though a hard-line Marxist, Cano, 60, who grew up in Bogota and attended a university there, "sees the world differently than Marulanda," says Carlos Jaramillo, a former government peace negotiator. "He has to make some changes. He can't let the FARC die and that's his big challenge."

Yet the release of the politicians was less moral reawakening than practical compromise. Keeping prisoners for years on end requires territorial control, supply lines and a large number of rebel guards. The FARC maintains those things in some areas. Alan Jara, a kidnapped former governor who was released on Feb. 3, recalls pulling into a rebel camp that lacked kitchen gear. Though they were deep in the Amazon forest, the rebels overnight procured a gasoline stove and a 13-quart pressure cooker to prepare their beans and lentils. But even so, holding hostages has become increasingly difficult. The FARC is losing ground to the army's steady advances, legions of rebels have been killed or captured, and throngs more have disarmed and started collaborating with the government.

Some journalists and high-level Colombian politicians who are close to the FARC say the group is moving toward ending kidnappings. But even as the number of abductions drops, authorities say the FARC is turning to extortion as an easier way to raise cash. An explosion that killed two people and damaged a Blockbuster outlet in north Bogota last month was one of several recent bombings that security officials have linked to the FARC. Meanwhile, the rebels continue to traffic cocaine, a lucrative business that provides the guerrillas some 70% of their income. In addition, the guerrillas still hold 23 police and army NCOs as bargaining chips for a prisoner swap, and are still kidnapping regular civilians for ransom. "The fact that they released a few prisoners is welcome," says Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C. "But I don't see any fundamental change in the FARC. I'm very skeptical about all this."

But at least for a few days, Colombians could celebrate amid the homecomings. After a Brazilian army helicopter carrying Red Cross officials plucked Lopez from the jungle and delivered him to Cali's international airport, his two sons, aged 18 and 20, nearly knocked him to the ground as they embrace him on the tarmac. The haggard but smiling former lawmaker later suggested that the guerrillas, not Uribe nor the army, have become their own worst enemies.