Juan Forero / Christopher Toothaker
July 21, 2008
Protests Condemn Kidnappings By FARC Rebels
BOGOTA, Colombia, July 20 -- In the letters María Teresa de Mendieta received from her husband, he spoke of a jungle-borne disease that had so infected his legs that he had to drag himself through the mud to go to the bathroom. He wrote of being chained at the neck with other hostages held by Colombian guerrillas, and of losing track of time after a decade trudging through the rain forest.
The letters from Luis Mendieta, a police colonel, painted a picture of savagery at the hands of Latin America's last major rebel group -- powerful imagery that rebel commanders made public this year. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia calculated that releasing the proof-of-life letters, as well as liberating six hostages in carefully choreographed events, would give it the international relevance it craved after four decades of fruitless armed struggle.
Instead, the strategy backfired with a vengeance. It whipped up the wrath of millions of Colombians, who on Sunday participated in hundreds of anti-rebel protests in this country and dozens more as far away as New York, Washington, Paris and other cities around the world.
The worldwide condemnation of the rebels' tactics has helped solidify President Álvaro Uribe's hard-line position against the group. Even Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro, who once backed rebel movements in Colombia, recently lashed out at the guerrillas and said their kidnappings served no revolutionary purpose.
The FARC, as the group is known, is now more isolated than ever.
A 44-year-old organization that just a few years ago was at the gates of Bogota is now in a political and ideological crisis that comes as Colombia's increasingly competent army fences guerrilla units into the country's far fringes.
Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who, until her rescue July 2, was the rebels' most prominent hostage, said at a rally in Paris that it was time for the FARC to stop fighting. Directing her words at the group's top commander, Alfonso Cano, she said, "Understand that now is not the hour to shed more blood. It's time to lay down those weapons and exchange them for roses."
Betancourt's rescue, and that of 14 others, including three Americans, only brought more attention to the horrors of kidnapping as the former prisoners recounted their years in captivity. The Free Country Foundation in Bogota, a policy analysis group that studies kidnapping and lobbies for the families of hostages, says nearly 700 hostages remain under FARC control.
"There is repudiation of an organization that causes pain and suffering, when there's no justified reason or cause," said de Mendieta, sitting in the dining room of her Bogota apartment, which is decorated with pictures of her husband in his police uniform. Her husband, now 51, was kidnapped in 1998 when the FARC leveled the jungle town of Mitu, killing or capturing the police defenders.
"The ideal would be for the FARC to liberate the hostages unconditionally," she said. "That would be logical, but their thinking is counterintuitive. I believe that. They do not have the same logic as we do."
This year, the FARC has lost three of its top seven commanders and seen its once-vigorous efforts at diplomacy fail to stem government efforts designed to isolate it. Meanwhile, Uribe, whose popularity rating shot past 85 percent in polls, has recently signaled that the government's negotiating position -- should FARC commanders decide to talk -- has hardened considerably, leaving the guerrillas with little chance of demanding concessions.
The possibility of a demilitarized zone, a longtime rebel stipulation for talks, is now unlikely, as is international mediation by such figures as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whom the guerrillas considered an ideological partner.
The government has also shown that it is willing to violate international norms if it means delivering an important strike against the FARC.
On March 1, Uribe authorized Colombian fighter planes to bomb a rebel camp just inside Ecuador, killing a top FARC commander. And in the rescue this month, Colombian army commandos deceived the FARC into simply handing over the hostages by posing as relief workers. One commando even wore a Red Cross logo, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
"The Colombian government has never been stronger in military and, I would even say, in political terms than it is now," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The Uribe administration, criticized internationally for the attack inside Ecuador, has mounted an aggressive diplomatic effort that has paid off.
On Saturday, Uribe signed a defense pact in Bogota with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that calls for closer cooperation between the two countries to defend their long, porous border, a stretch of wilderness FARC guerrillas have frequently crossed.
In Venezuela, Chávez, who this year praised FARC commanders and expressed his sympathy for their struggle, recently called on the group to unconditionally release all of its hostages. The populist leader also welcomed Uribe to Venezuela, calling a man he had likened to a Mafia chieftain "a brother."
The new political realities have helped suffocate the FARC's diplomatic efforts, closing its space to maneuver. Communist Party leaders in Bogota have taken to calling for the FARC to negotiate, and small support groups in Europe have been under pressure to stop venerating the rebel group.
"The FARC has never had less political space than now," Arnson said. "The fact that even President Chávez has called on them to end the war has added to the pressure for them to negotiate a settlement, to come to terms that there is no such thing as a military victory."
Colombia remains a country of widespread poverty and social inequality, but few Colombians see the FARC as an alternative -- or of even having the legitimacy to highlight the country's problems.
"How ideologically isolated are they? Totally," said Liduine Zumpolle, a onetime critic of the government who now leads a group of former FARC rebels critical of the group.
"They're completely irrelevant," she said. "I think today the FARC has totally lost moral support."
Indeed, in February, after the FARC released two hostages to Venezuela's government, Colombians held international protests that helped direct a critical spotlight on the group.
On Sunday, Colombia's Independence Day, marchers once again took to the streets wearing white T-shirts, waving the country's tri-colored flag and demanding, "Free them now."
In Bogota, John Bermudez, an economist whose father was seized by the group in 1993, said he has never voted for Uribe. But he called the FARC "anachronistic" and said the guerrillas now have scant political support.
"I'm here because we're against people who hold other people against their will in order to further their own political objectives," Bermudez said. "That's wrong."
In Paris, demonstrators heard speeches and swayed to songs by the Colombian rocker Juanes and Spain's Miguel Bosé. In Leticia, a town in the southern tip of Colombia, marchers cheered the pop star Shakira, and in Bogota, the Philharmonic played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which celebrates brotherhood.
"This time, Colombia is united for the same purpose," said Valeriano Lanchas, an opera singer who performed before tens of thousands in Bogota's largest park. "We want the people who are kidnapped in the jungle freed. And now."
Those who most yearn to see the hostages freed include de Mendieta. Her two children were small when their father was captured. Both are now university students.
In his letters, he thanks her for waiting for him.
"He tells me that he still loves me," she said. "That he hopes that one day his captivity will end and we'll be reunited as a family, and that we'll continue with our dreams."