FARC Leader’s Killing Sabotages Prisoner Exchange

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has done everything possible over the past six months to sabotage any possibility of a prisoner exchange between his government and the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With the killing of FARC leader Raúl Reyes on March 1, he has likely finally succeeded. According to Colombian intelligence officials, it was a satellite telephone call from Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez to Reyes that revealed the FARC commander’s whereabouts. Chávez made the call to Reyes to thank the rebel commander for releasing the four congresspersons that the FARC had turned over to representatives of the Venezuelan government earlier that day. The fact that Colombia’s President Uribe decided to exploit a unilateral humanitarian gesture by the FARC and kill the rebel group’s second-in-command likely ensures that the guerrillas will no longer consider a prisoner exchange.

Ever since he assumed the presidency, Uribe has been reluctant to engage in any negotiations with the FARC, even prisoner exchange talks, for fear of lending political legitimacy to the guerrilla group. However, Chávez’s successes in obtaining the unilateral release of six FARC captives in little more than a month had left many Colombians — particularly the loved ones of those being held by the rebels — feeling cautiously optimistic that a prisoner exchange could in fact be negotiated. Following the latest handover of captives, according to a senior Colombian military officer, “Chávez was thrilled by the release of the hostages and called Reyes to tell him that everything went well.” That phone call provided the Colombian president with the opportunity he needed to sabotage any possibility of a prisoner exchange once and for all.

In July 2007, Uribe had reluctantly bowed to increasing public pressure demanding that his government negotiate the release of those held captive by the FARC. He asked Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba and Chávez to act as mediators between his Colombian government and the FARC. The Colombian right quickly began criticizing Uribe for providing Chávez with a platform to increase his visibility and legitimacy among Colombians.

Uribe responded to the pressure being placed on him by his own supporters and began making unilateral declarations that clearly illustrated his unwillingness to allow any serious talks to even get off the ground. Uribe made it clear that he was going to do everything possible to ensure that Chávez and FARC negotiators could not meet face to face. The Colombian president refused to guarantee safe passage to FARC leaders so they could meet with Chávez in Venezuela.

When it was initially rumored that the FARC’s second-in-command Reyes, would travel to Caracas to meet with Chávez, Uribe make it clear that the guerrilla leader would have to find his own way to Venezuela and that he would be arrested by Colombia’s security forces if they were to encounter him. When Chávez then said that he would be willing to travel to the jungles of Colombia to meet with the FARC’s supreme commander Manuel Marulanda, Uribe immediately ruled out any such meeting on Colombian soil.

The Venezuelan president then suggested that Marulanda come to Caracas to discuss a prisoner exchange, and perhaps even lay the foundation for future peace talks. Uribe again blocked a meeting between the two people best positioned to reach an agreement by announcing, “Manuel Marulanda sends messages that he can’t attend meetings because if he comes out of hiding he’ll be killed. Well, he guesses correctly.” The Colombian president then declared that the only people Marulanda “has to meet with are the judges and police, to respond for 40 years of killing and other crimes.”

Nevertheless, despite Uribe’s clumsy attempts to prevent Chávez and the FARC from meeting face-to-face, Ivan Marquez of the rebel group’s central command made it to Caracas and met with both the Venezuelan president and Córdoba. Not long afterwards, Uribe announced that he was terminating Chávez’s role as mediator and ended talks that had shown more promise of success in three months than Colombia’s peace commissioner had achieved in the previous five years.

Despite being “fired” by Uribe, Chávez continued his efforts to convince the FARC to unilaterally release some of its captives. In January 2008, the FARC released two Colombian lawmakers to representatives of the Venezuelan government. On February 27, the guerrillas handed over four more captives to Venezuela and that afternoon Chávez made the fatal call to Reyes that was intercepted by Colombian intelligence.

Not only did the Uribe government succeed in killing the FARC’s principal negotiator, it also ensured that the efforts of the Ecuadorian government to secure the release of FARC captives would also be terminated. Following the Colombian military’s cross-border strike against Reyes’s camp, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa announced that his government had been in talks with the FARC to obtain the release of some of the captives. However, the killing of the FARC commander had ruined any chance of freeing those captives. “I’m sorry to inform you that the talks were rather advanced to liberate 12 hostages, among them Ingrid Betancourt, in Ecuador,” said Correa.

By cynically taking military advantage of a satellite phone call directly related to a process that had liberated six Colombians held captive by the FARC for years, Uribe has likely ensured that the guerrilla group will not re-engage in talks anytime soon. After all, the FARC has little reason to trust the Colombian president given that he has made clear his willingness to exploit humanitarian efforts in order to assassinate FARC leaders. Sadly, Uribe’s decision to kill a FARC commander who has already been replaced has ensured that the relatives of those Colombians still being held captive by the guerrillas will not see their loved ones for a very, very long time — if ever.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of the online publication Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared, which analyzes US foreign policy in Colombia. He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read other articles by Garry, or visit Garry's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lamberto Coccioli said on March 11th, 2008 at 5:06pm #

    This is a slightly distorted version of the current situation in Colombia. To give a more balanced account you should mention the role of Chávez in supporting the FARC. It is easy to negotiate the release of the hostages if the negotiator is at the same time secretly bankrolling the kidnappers and providing them with weapons. In terms of foreign interference, this is at least as bad as the military operation carried out by Uribe in Ecuador.

  2. brian said on March 12th, 2008 at 2:59pm #

    Lamberto: Chavez has not supported the FARC. But the US HAS supported the narco- paramilitaries . And FARC is at least a home grown guerilla movement seeking social justice…The paramilitaries are backed by the Uribe govt.

  3. PEDRO said on April 8th, 2008 at 8:20pm #

    How a person who does not know the truth about the situation in Colombia, provide us with a totally distorted reality. I am Colombian, and I really know the reality of my country. Please, LEARN AND TEACH YOURSELF TO BE IMPARTIAL!!!!! If you are supporting Chavez and the Colombian Guerrilla, please join them, and stop criticizing and talking garbage.

  4. JUANPA said on July 29th, 2008 at 10:27am #

    I agree with Pedro, Mind your own business, Colombias ARMY did not Assassinates FARC Commander Raul Reyes that was not an assassination if was a contribution to society. That monster is finally dead, he will not rape any more children and women and kill innocent people.

    Are you Colombian? How will you fill if your wife and children were rape and kill and then someone like you put that person that kill your family in a pedestal.

    Now someone needs to kill Hugo Chavez to have tranquility in this region of the world.