Hostages freed after 12 years in Colombian jungle
For decades, Colombia has been terrorised by FARC – revolutionaries who use kidnapping as a weapon of war. This week, they released their last political prisoners. Is peace on the horizon?
On Monday, a Brazilian helicopter touched down in the Colombian city of Villavicencio and an unusual group of passengers emerged: ten men in military uniform, accompanied by an exotic assortment of pets – jungle pigs, parakeets, monkeys. The men looked dazed, but joyful. They whooped and waved in celebration, while the crowd who had come to greet them responded in kind. ‘I shouted!’ said the mother of one arrival, ‘I jumped up and down!’
For more than twelve years the men had been held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), communists dedicated to overthrowing the government and levelling Colombia’s unequal society. Each was a policeman or soldier, captured in retaliation against the imprisonment of FARC fighters. They were the last FARC hostages of this kind; their release is a major step in efforts to end Colombia’s destructive civil conflict.
But President Juan Manuel Santos insists that FARC have not yet done enough to begin peace talks. Since 1964 they have terrorised the nation, attacking government forces and bombing civilians. Until 2008, leftist fighters controlled up to 40% of Colombia. They are funded by organised crime on a huge scale: a cocaine business worth billions of dollars, stolen natural resources and thousands of kidnappings.
Though today’s hostages are the last to be held for political reasons, campaigners say there are 400 still unaccounted for, captured purely for the ransom money they might raise. Until FARC leaders renounce violence and organised crime, Santos refuses to discuss a truce.
FARC is not Colombia’s only problem. Its power has declined in the last five years, but other less political armed bands are taking their place. Over 90% of cocaine sold in the USA comes from Colombia, and there are fortunes to be made in crime. The government is stronger now than it has been for years; but it still struggles to control the country’s huge, sparsely populated areas of mountain and jungle.
Nevertheless, the freeing of these hostages is good news, and a sign of real progress towards peace.
Some peace campaigners say President Santos should accept this as a gesture of goodwill. FARC have done terrible things in the past, they say, but clearly they now want peace. For the good of the country, the government should meet the rebels face to face and agree to end the terrible violence.
But Santos himself has pledged to fight until the revolutionaries have sworn, unconditionally, to give up all their violent and criminal activities. In the past, FARC have shown themselves to be uncompromising and untrustworthy opponents. Peace, Santos insists, will only come when they fully accept the government’s authority.
- Should we be prepared to forgive people who have committed terrible crimes if it will help to bring peace?
- Does it make a moral difference whether crimes are committed for ideological reasons, or just for money?
- Imagine a relative is being kept prisoner by revolutionaries. Write a letter persuading the leaders to release them.
- Research the effects of cocaine production on Colombia and list five ways in which it causes social and environmental damage.
Some People Say...
“Negotiating with violent criminals is a sign of weakness.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Good luck to Colombia – but there’s not much we can do, right?
- Well, there is one thing: don’t buy cocaine. The drugs trade is by far the biggest source of income for criminal groups in Colombia, and it funds civil conflicts that destroy lives and communities. Most of this money comes from users in North America and Europe – so developed countries are partly to blame. Of course, that is only one of many reasons not to take cocaine: it is also an illegal and highly addictive drug.
- Is it just Colombia?
- Twenty years ago Latin America was rife with such conflicts. Most of them have died down, leaving FARC as the most powerful revolutionary group still active. But there are still bitter ideological divides, and organised crime is a huge problem in the region.
- A ‘parakeet’ is not actually a distinctive type of bird, just the collective name for several species of medium-sized parrot. They are common in many places, from India to Brazil. They have strikingly bright colours and long tail feathers, and are often kept as pets for their flamboyant appearance.
- Communism is a political ideology, based on the writings of historian Karl Marx. Though there are several different forms – put into practice in Russia, China and Cuba, among other countries – the basic communist ideology demands an equal distribution of resources, common ownership of industry, and the end of social class. The word comes from the Latin communis, meaning shared; a communist is someone who believes in, and in many cases campaigns for, the communist ideology.
- Unequal society
- South America was colonised from the 16th Century onwards by Spanish and Portuguese invaders with vastly superior technology to the indigenous population. Many Europeans soon became rich on American gold. In much of the continent there is still a sharp divide between the descendents of European settlers and the much poorer descendents of the indigenous population – in spite of the fact that they have been mixing for hundreds of years.
- The coca plant has been cultivated in countries like Colombia and Bolivia for many centuries. Unrefined, it is a mild stimulant that is traditionally chewed or brewed like tea. But when it is mixed with chemicals and boiled, it produces cocaine – a far stronger and more dangerous drug.