Colombia-FARC Peace Talks on Hold After Kidnapping of Army General

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos holds a press conference on November 16, 2014. (Javier Casella/SIG)

Just after midnight on November 17, as the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP were preparing to resume their 31st round of conversations in Havana, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiators not to travel to Havana today as planned, and announced the temporary suspension of the peace talks.

On Sunday, November 16, an Army major in the municipality of Quibdó in the Chocó department had reported the kidnapping late that afternoon of Army Commander General Rubén Darío Alzáte Mora. The details are still unfolding, but it appears that the general was retained in Quibdó with two companions– Gloria Urrego (advisor for Army Special Projects in the Department of Chocó), and Captain Jorge Rodríguez Contreras.

The general appears to have violated a number of protocols–the group was traveling in civilian garb, they were unescorted by bodyguards at the apparent insistence of General Alzáte, and the general acted against the advice of the military man piloting their boat who had cautioned him against traveling so far down on the Atrato River into a red zone known to be occupied by armed groups. (For more details, see report here.) The whereabouts of the three is unknown at this time.

In his official Twitter account, President Juan Manuel Santos called on Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Garzón for an explanation. “I want you to explain to me why BG Alzate broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone,” tweeted the president.

The governor of the department of Chocó, Efrén Palacios, called a security council meeting to analyze the situation, but military leaders postponed it until Monday morning in order to gather more information first. The governor declined to assign responsibility to either the FARC or the ELN, both of whom are active in the Chocó.  (See related article here.) Some believe the action was the work of the 34th Front of the FARC, but there are other groups operating in that zone, including criminal/paramilitary bands known as bacrimand ELN forces.

Presidential Press Conference

Late Sunday evening, President Santos met with the military leadership, including Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón, and they consulted with general Jaime Lasprilla, who was on site in Quibdó. In a midnight press conference, President Santos classified the action as a kidnapping, which he attributed to the FARC. “We already have information that makes us certain that it was the FARC,” he announced. Santos called the kidnapping “totally unacceptable,” charged the FARC with responsibility for the lives and security of the three retained persons, and demanded their immediate release. (Read the press statement here.) He announced the suspension of peace talks until the situation was clarified and the individuals released. He is also seeking to clarify the general’s apparent breaches of protocol.

Santos announced that military rescue operations are now underway in the Chocó, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has been called on to assist. Military rescue operations are also underway in the department of Arauca, on the border of Venezuela, where two other soldiers were captured earlier this month. There the FARC has claimed responsibility for the soldiers’ detention. They consider the two soldiers they hold in Arauca as “prisoners of war,” not “kidnap” victims, and are legitimate targets in the conflict. The FARC have nonetheless expressed a willingness to negotiate the soldiers’ release. (See more here.)

The president is wise to investigate, and a pause in the process should give him the means to do so, but he would also be wise to ensure that it is only a symbolic pause to ensure a careful evaluation of the events and the development of a proportionate response. The pause will allow the FARC, if they are indeed responsible, the opportunity to rectify their error. The chain of command is undoubtedly weaker than usual, given that much of the FARC military regional leadership is currently in Havana for the talks, and the kidnappings could well be the actions of renegade FARC seeking to undermine the peace process. It will be important to consider the FARC’s official response before making judgments, and not to jump to conclusions, given that the region is inhabited by a variety of armed actors.

For the peace process to move forward, it will also be important to manage other spoilers and potential spoilers to the process. The ELN, which has been in exploratory talks with the government, has been ratcheting up its activities, undoubtedly seeking to get a peace table of its own. The failure to launch formal talks with the government could well slow down the process with the FARC.

Likewise, within the Army itself there are also potential spoilers. In recent weeks there have been revelations about new efforts to sabotage the peace process through hacking and interfering with the communications of the negotiating team. A debate scheduled to be held in the Colombian Congress last week on the “chuzadas,” as the hacking is known, had to be rescheduled for this week when the Ministers of Defense and the Interior failed to show. (See related article here.)

It will be telling if this week’s debate is postponed once again and will be important that Santos hold the military accountable for any actions its members have taken to undermine peace efforts, especially when those actions are illegal. Finally, former president Álvaro Uribe continues to use his Twitter account to generate opposition to the talks. Last month, he once again publicized confidential information about the location of guerrillas preparing to join the peace talks–in a move whose legality was challenged by some in Congress.

President Santos should exercise particular prudence in coming days and weeks and seek to manage these potential efforts to undermine the peace process. Regardless of the outcome of his investigation of the missing general and his companions, Santos would do well to remember that there are saboteurs on all sides. It would be foolhardy to let this incident, as important as it might be, derail the peace process. It would be much wiser to use the incident to push the process forward and end the war once and for all.