Prospects for peace negotiations with Latin America’s last major rebel army have all but disappeared after Colombia tricked the guerrillas into handing over their most prized captives without firing a shot.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe promised after the triumphant recovery of 15 hostages including kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US citizens that he seeks “a path to peace, total peace.”
On Monday, Uribe said that “at whatever moment FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] rebels want dialogue, we’re disposed.”
But that doesn’t mean Uribe is ready to swap rebel prisoners for the 29 remaining high-value hostages, or make any other concessions to end a conflict that has claimed well over 100,000 lives over the last 44 years. His actions — and the pronouncements of his top aides — suggest he seeks nothing short of complete surrender.
“If they want peace, [they should] demobilize and disarm,” Uribe’s closest advisor, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said in an interview.
Uribe’s domestic approval rating is above 80 percent and, thanks in large measure to billions of dollars in US military cooperation, the leftist FARC have never been weaker.
In part because the rebels no longer hold Betancourt — a cause celebre in Europe — or any other foreigners, Uribe apparently no longer feels the political pressure to keep Europe involved in trying to end Colombia’s class-based conflict. So he has frozen international mediation efforts, accusing the Swiss and French envoys at its forefront of overstepping their mandate in dealing with the FARC.
Since the July 2 raid, Uribe’s conservative government has leaked rebel-penned documents supporting its claim that the envoys — Swiss emissary Jean-Pierre Gontard in particular — were sympathetic to the rebels.
“Generally speaking, they had always been a nuisance,” Gaviria said.
Such language indicates government officials “aren’t interested in establishing serious contact” with the rebels, independent political analyst Leon Valencia said.
“Without mediation and without an international presence, there is no possibility of arriving at any accords,’’ he said.
Colombia’s chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran said on Tuesday that he would likely open a preliminary criminal probe into Gontard’s activities based on the documents, which are among thousands the government says it found in a laptop belonging to FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes after killing him in a March 1 raid on his jungle camp in Ecuador.
One 2004 message from Reyes quotes Gontard as calling Uribe “a fascist cowboy” and stressing that Switzerland had no intention of joining the US and EU in branding the FARC a terrorist organization.
The Swiss envoy also personally carried US$2,000 in June last year from Reyes to the FARC’s representative in Switzerland, two documents show.
Still other laptop documents detail French efforts to buy Betancourt’s freedom by offering asylum to the family of Reyes’ daughter and the rebels’ entire seven-man leadership, the Colombian TV network RCN reported on Tuesday.
Gontard, a 67-year-old university professor, did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment. But his government stood firmly by him, saying it had instructed its ambassador to “stop the attacks on the Swiss mediator,” who it said had pursued “only humanitarian aims” under “sometimes life-threatening conditions.”
Thomas Greminger, the senior Swiss Foreign Ministry official to whom Gontard reports, said that Gontard had been under contract for eight years — earning at least 100,000 Swiss francs (US$98,500) a year — with “a clear mandate” but some room for maneuvering.
Uribe’s preference for military options had frustrated recent efforts by the French and Swiss emissaries — as well as Colombia’s leftist neighbors — to make any headway with the rebels.
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