Two days after the kidnapping of a Colombian general threw the country’s two-year-long peace dialogues into uncertainty, questions continue to swirl around the circumstances of his disappearance, even as many in Colombia are using the incident to call for a bilateral cease-fire.
On Sunday, Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate was taken captive outside the city of Quibdó, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. According to witnesses, his captors were identified as members of the 34th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla group that is currently engaged in peace dialogues with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba.
In response to the incident — the first kidnapping of such a high-ranking military official in the history of Colombia’s more than five-decade conflict — President Juan Manuel Santos immediately called a halt to the proceedings in Cuba, canceling a delegation that was supposed to arrive on Monday. In a nationally televised address to the nation on Monday night, the president continued to press for the immediate release of the general and two other people taken with him, Corporal Jorge Contreras and lawyer Gloria Urrego.
However, the situation is not exactly black and white. Many Colombians have asked what such an important member of the military was doing out on a river in the middle of one of the country’s most notorious guerrilla-controlled hot zones, and in particular why he was dressed in civilian clothing at the time. Even the president himself has demanded an explanation from the military for Alzate’s presence in the area, out of uniform and without a military escort.
In a confusing series of events, this morning, the guerrilla group could not seem to come up with a consistent story about what took place on Sunday.
Representatives of the FARC in Havana — a group that includes a leader of the 34th Front — had announced they would hold a press conference on the kidnapping at 9 a.m. local time. When the hour came, representatives said they had no information, but promised they would have something two hours later. When asked if the organization had Alzate in custody, FARC spokesman Félix Antonio Muñoz, also known as Pastor Alape, simply said they “didn’t know.”
Just minutes later, however, a message posted on the FARC’s official Twitter account and a longer statement published on the group’s website said the general and the two other hostages had in fact been kidnapped and were in the custody of the guerrilla group’s Iván Ríos bloc, which operates in the western Chocó province. According to the comunicado, the three, who were dressed in civilian clothing at the time, were captured by FARC patrols along the Atrato River, a major transportation route in the rural jungle region. The statement referred to them as “prisoners of war.”
After the media took notice of the announcement, FARC representatives attempted to backtrack, saying their site and account had been “hacked,” but few believed them, and the negotiating team eventually admitted that the general was in fact in custody of the 34th Front.
Suspending the fighting, not the talks
While President Santos has vowed to continue military operations throughout the negotiations, many on the Colombian left are framing the situation as an argument for a bilateral ceasefire, saying that it would avoid incidents such as this that could potentially throw the entire process into jeopardy.
The FARC has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, saying it disagrees with the government’s continued insistence on negotiating without a pause in official hostilities, and has announced several unilateral ceasefires since the dialogues began.
This position has received a mixed reaction, with some pointing out that ceasefires in negotiation scenarios typically only come when the two sides are about to sign a agreement (a reality that is still quite far off for the Colombian process), but these latest developments may swing more national sympathy toward the side of those supporting a stop to military operations. Those people include former senator and leftist leader Piedad Córdoba, who urged both sides to pause hostilities during the Christmas season as “a gift to the Colombian people,” and many on social media, who have rallied behind the slogan “Suspend the war, not the peace process.”
Though Colombians are generally skeptical about the effectiveness and potential outcome of the dialogues, the sentiment in the country is one of disappointment that the process has been sidelined and many view the entire situation as little more than political posturing on the part of both sides.
Given the FARC’s disorganized response to the crisis and the pressure on Santos, particularly from the country’s political right, to take a hard-line stance against the guerrillas, it is unlikely that there will be a bilateral ceasefire anytime soon. However, this incident, which poses what may be the most significant threat to dissolving the dialogues in the two years the negotiations have been going on, requires a very diplomatic, cautious response, and will necessitate the rebuilding of trust on both sides of the table if the parties truly intend to reach an agreement.