International Papers

Distress of Colombia

The killing of 10 hostages in a botched rescue attempt Monday sent the shell-shocked Colombian press into an even deeper slough of despond. When the left-wing guerrilla group FARC heard government helicopters approaching, the cell leader gave orders to kill all 13 hostages being held in the jungle 40 miles east of Medellín. Only three survived. Among those killed were a provincial governor, Guillermo Gaviria; a former defense minister, Gilberto Echeverri; and eight soldiers. Gaviria and Echeverri were snatched in April 2002 as they led a peace march, circumstances described by Bogotá’s El Tiempo as “a paradox as sad as it is macabre.”

El Tiempo said that although FARC is ultimately responsible for the deaths, the government should consider “the cost of an operation that had exactly the opposite effect than was intended.” It called the hostage killings “an atrocious crime that will have unforeseen consequences for the armed conflict.” (“Armed conflict” is the term Colombians use to describe the virtual civil war involving left-wing groups such as FARC, right-wing paramilitaries, and government forces.) In recent weeks, President Álvaro Uribe was considering freeing jailed guerrillas in exchange for the release of hostages in FARC’s hands. Among the thousands in captivity are former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, snatched in February 2002, six members of congress, 12 provincial legislators, and three U.S. defense contractors. Although the president has assured hostages’ families that negotiations are still possible, compromise seems less likely in the current climate of anti-guerrilla outrage.

An editorial in Cali’s El País said, “Colombia cannot let these kidnappings continue. The nation must stop this blackmail. … We must support President Uribe in the requirements for negotiations with FARC. It isn’t just the government’s prestige that is in play. What’s on the line is the dignity of the people who are submitted to the savage aberrations of kidnapping, killing, and terrorism.”

El Universal of Cartagena declared, “The political harvest for FARC will be more of the same—more loss of national and international prestige and surely a wider split inside the organization, where there must be sensitive people who oppose the degenerative path the leaders have chosen for the organization.” Spain’s El País said the atrocity revealed

the true face of an organization that long ago was committed to social justice but is now just one more terrorist gang. … Like many other groups that over time abandoned their revolutionary aims, FARC has become a band of criminals with no other object but to perpetuate itself using the same tools (blackmail, assassination, drugs, kidnapping) as any other armed gang. … Peace is expensive, and Colombia needs it desperately, because democracy can never raise its head in an era of assassinations.

Several papers noted that the hostages’ families oppose rescue attempts—Betancourt’s daughter told Cali’s El País the government’s efforts amounted to playing “Russian roulette with the lives of the hostages”—but Vice President Francisco Santos told El Tiempo that the government “has a constitutional and legal responsibility to return to freedom any Colombian whose rights are restricted illegally. … When it has a chance to rescue a hostage, the government will do so.” A visibly shaken President Uribe, who has survived several assassination attempts and whose father was killed by guerrillas, gave a press conference Monday night in which he announced, “In this moment of pain, Colombia cannot surrender. Now we have to fortify our decision to defeat terrorism.”