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A High-Profile Kidnapping in Colombia Halts Rebel Talks

4 MINS READNov 17, 2014 | 19:46 GMT
A member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia mans a checkpoint near the municipality of Toribio in Colombia on July 11, 2012.
(LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

The Colombian government has indefinitely suspended the next round of negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, because of the kidnapping of an army brigadier general. (The next round of talks was scheduled to begin Nov. 18.) The kidnapping comes at a crucial point in the talks, and the negotiations' future remains uncertain.

Suspected FARC militants seized Brig. Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate on Nov. 16 as he arrived at the settlement of Las Mercedes in Choco department, Colombia. Alzate is the commander of the Colombian armed forces' Titan Task Force, which is based in the department capital of Quibdo, less than 16 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of the site of the kidnapping. Alzate departed from Quibdo by boat, accompanied by two soldiers and a lawyer. The brigadier general apparently broke protocol by traveling on the river with inadequate protection and wearing civilian clothing instead of a military uniform.

The government blamed the FARC for the kidnapping, although the National Liberation Army, a smaller rebel group, is known to operate near Quibdo, along with several criminal groups such as Los Urabenos. According to the armed forces, intelligence obtained from a FARC spy enabled the militants to accurately plot Alzate's movements. A military report obtained by El Espectador said that the soldier driving Alzate's boat — the only escapee — told his superiors that the kidnappers were members of the FARC's 34th front. The front is organized under the FARC's Northwestern Bloc, commanded by Luis Carlos Usuga Restrepo. Restrepo is the first cousin of Dario Usuga David, the principal leader of Los Urabenos, and is among the field commanders assembled in Havana for talks with the Colombian government.

The FARC's high-level commanders have not openly admitted to the kidnapping. The only reaction from the FARC so far is a message posted on its propaganda site, ANNCOL. The message does not give an explicit reason for the kidnapping but suggests that the FARC did seize Alzate. An unconfirmed report indicates that FARC negotiators in Havana asked the 34th front for more information about the kidnapping. This raises the possibility that the abduction could be the action of a local unit, rather than the FARC as a whole.

The kidnapping comes at an important time for the peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government. Through August, the negotiating process split into two tracks: one track dealing with victims' rights, the other dealing with the more complicated agenda of the group's demobilization and disarmament. The main obstacle to a successful negotiation at this point is the potential criminal penalties FARC leaders could face.

According to the legal text permitting negotiations with the militants, transitional justice mechanisms will be established to try rebels accused of crimes. These transitional mechanisms are intended to achieve closure for the conflict. However, the text explicitly states that militants accused of crimes against humanity or genocide cannot be tried under the transitional justice mechanisms. The FARC leadership cannot reach a negotiated outcome in the peace talks without conclusively addressing this issue.

The FARC national leaders and field-level commanders are unlikely to agree to any proposed deal that leaves measures such as extradition to the United States or future arrest by Colombian authorities on the table.

However, the Colombian government intends to send any deal reached with the FARC in Havana to a nationwide referendum scheduled to coincide with municipal elections on Oct. 25, 2015. Because the final approval of any deal relies on public opinion, the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos cannot simply forgive all militant crimes, regardless of what the FARC leadership wants. Any transitional mechanisms must also be decided by statutory law, which requires congressional approval. Consequently, the issue of justice and accountability has been a sticking point between the two sides that so far has not been resolved.

Should the talks fail, an immediate consequence would be increased militant violence across the country. Over the long term, a collapse of the negotiations would raise the risk to Colombia's energy sector, keeping large swathes of the countryside underdeveloped and poverty-stricken as a result.

Alzate's kidnapping will not necessarily end the FARC peace talks, particularly if he is returned alive. If the FARC's national-level commanders had him seized as part of a strategy, his return could depend on the negotiation of criminal penalties or pending extraditions for the militant hierarchy. The general could also be exchanged for one or several jailed FARC leaders. If Alzate is killed, however, public backlash against the negotiations will increase and will likely complicate Santos' ability to offer the FARC a negotiated settlement. 

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