Three weeks ago, breaking news announced the killing of Alfonso Cano, commander of the FARC, during a military operation in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia. Questions were raised about the effects this could have on the possibility of peace negotiations with the FARC, a scenario considered by some as the only possible way to end Colombia’s enduring conflict.
Then, a few days later, the FARC announced the appointment of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry (a.k.a. “Timochenko”)—a somewhat gray personality—as successor of Cano in the FARC’s top command position. Analysts approached the news from many points of view: among these, they wondered what would be the effect of such designation in the possibility of peace negotiations with the FARC. Oddly enough, only a few days later we are forced to raise the question again; this time, however, due to horrific news.
On the morning of Saturday, November 27, news media reported that in Caquetá (in the southern region of Colombia) the FARC had shot and killed four members of the Army and the police who they had kidnapped more than 10 years ago. An army sergeant and three members of the police (a colonel, a major and an agent) were shot at close range—in the head and in the back—when the FARC members sensed the proximity of an Army patrol. The Colombian Army had been searching the area, trying to establish the precise place where the FARC kept hostages. Apparently, the purpose was to provide Special Forces with this information so that they could execute a commando raid similar to the one they performed on June 13, 2010, which resulted in the liberation of four hostages in a similar area.
Incredibly, one of the hostages in the group, Police Sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo, managed to escape the massacre. As soon as he heard the first shots, he instinctively ran into the jungle. According to Erazo, FARC members had told them to stick by their side in the case of combat, promising not to hurt them and to release them if they could no longer keep them. This turned out to be a cruel scam: had Erazo followed those directions―as his fellow hostages apparently did―he wouldn’t be alive today.
Running into the jungle with no direction, Erazo was chased by FARC members who shot at him with automatic rifles and tossed grenades in his direction. Finally he managed to hide under a collapsed tree. Eight hours later he heard voices, and saw the blurry shapes of men in uniform but did not know whether they were FARC or Army members. But then he saw a man wearing a helmet equipped with night-vision goggles, like the ones used by the Army, and knew the group was not members of the FARC. Soldiers reached for their rifles when they saw him emerge from the ground, but quickly realized he was one of the hostages, and, according to Erazo’s own recollection, greeted and embraced him.
Condemnation was quick and general. The political effects of the FARC’s cruel action will be felt years from now. And the question of peace talks will have a slight change in focus: from the possibility of peace talks, it will shift to their acceptability.
Peace with the FARC is a complicated subject in itself, mostly because the FARC view peace talks as a tactic in their military strategy. This was candidly revealed by “Tirofijo” himself―the FARC’s founder and top commander for 40 years―to Fidel Castro’s envoy during the 1998–2002 peace talks. But a new obstacle to peace talks has emerged in response to the FARC’s massive hostage-taking, kidnappings, recruitment of children, the use of landmines, and all sorts of horrific acts against civilians. Add to this the killing of hostages. Something they had done before—in the case of a former governor and a peace counselor and in the case of a group of members of a departmental assembly—but not in this current phase of the conflict.
Peace with a group that commits such acts will be hard to swallow in Colombia and abroad, especially if, as FARC leaders have made it clear, they will not accept convictions or prison terms. Growing international demands for the prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes make blanket pardons impossible; something that Colombians would hardly accept, in any case.
The effects are already being felt. A bill that was introduced in Congress by the government, and which seeks to create a legal framework for peace talks, will very likely face substantial modifications by members of Congress. But more broadly, President Santos may be force to acknowledge that peace talks are not a short-term possibility as rumors indicated he may have desired.