Colombia Reacts With Alarm and Speculation as FARC Peace Talks Suspended

A Colombian army general was kidnapped over the weekend and the government has suspended negotiations with FARC. Citizens reacted with mixed emotions about what the future holds.

by Meredith Hoffman
Nov 18 2014, 12:01am

Image via Reuters

Colombia's president has suspended peace negotiations to end the 50-year civil war with FARC guerrilla fighters, saying that the rebels kidnapped army general Rubén Darío Alzate this weekend.

The decision by President Juan Manuel Santos — heralded as the leader most eager to forge a treaty with the group in Colombia's history — has prompted a flurry of support by politicians and leading newspapers, who criticized FARC's continued attacks during the past two years of peace talks.

"All of these [attacks] and the decision of Santos to suspend the negotiations should be a magnificent opportunity for FARC to begin to assume responsibility for the horror that people have lived in Colombia," the country's leading magazine Semana said in an editorial today.

"Surely if [FARC] rectify it, recognize it, ask for pardon and over all stop committing it, the peace process will gain confidence and it will be easier for both parties to advance," the article continued. "Then, truly, an enduring peace will be constructed."

Ana Teresa Bernal, high councilor for Bogota's Rights of Victims, Peace and Reconciliation office, used the suspension as a chance to emphasize the peace that must take place even during the talks. "FARC must liberate the victims. We must continue the talks with a ceasefire," she tweeted.

The lack of ceasefire helped prompt the kidnapping, University of Cartagena's director of peace and displacement studies Rosa Jimenez explained. "Situations like this... happen because the dialogues continue in the middle of the conflict without suspending hostilities of the actors," Jimenez told VICE News.

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She said Santos' decision was a way to test FARC's commitment to the treaty, which could fall apart if FARC does not return the missing general "unconditionally," Bogota think tank director Jorge Restrepo told the Economist.

And to some controversial peace opponents — like former President Alvaro Uribe — Santos' announcement came as a pleasant surprise. Uribe, who has argued that FARC is a "terrorist" group that must be defeated by force, heralded Santos' decision as evidence that the negotiations will fail.

"The facts show that for terrorists, gestures of peace by the state aren't generosity, but rather an opportunity to advance their criminal designs," Uribe proclaimed today on his website. "Colombia urgently needs to recuperate its path to security."

Meanwhile residents responded with emotions from skepticism, to alarm, to apathy — since many already see the negotiations as a political theater that has little power to end the conflict.

Many Colombians have doubted the potential for a treaty to effect change — two-thirds of residents supported the process in the most recent poll this month — particularly since FARC is a fragmented group whose members could keep attacking after a formal agreement.

"We have to make sure that this does not mean a cancelation of the process, but only a suspension of the talks that can begin again tomorrow," politics and journalism student Mariana Toro Nader told VICE News.

But her classmate Santiago Ruiz said he had already lost faith in his government's road to peace. "A peace process in which both parties talk in Havana and keep fighting in the jungle of their own country is not viable," Ruiz told VICE News.

Both Ruiz and Bogota native Paola Cifuentes told VICE News they were not even confident that FARC had actually kidnapped the general, since peace opponents have already made so many efforts to sabotage the talks — including sending out death threats to a record number of civilians this fall.

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And Cartagena businessman Marcelo Ramirez told VICE News he was not "worried" about the suspension, because he considered the talks a "farce."

Yet Santos has insisted FARC was the perpetrator and that the act was "unacceptable." The president announced that he would suspend the talks until FARC frees General Alzate, who was kidnapped while he was in civilian dress along with two other Colombians. Since the negotiations' inception FARC has promised they would only capture armed police or military as prisoners of war, La Nación reported.

FARC has remained silent about the incident, but plans to speak Tuesday morning at a press conference in Havana about the suspension. Meanwhile, determined peace advocates told VICE News that even a cease of the negotiations would not stop the road to reconciliation.

Marc DeBeaufort, leader of the campaign "Soy Capaz," a public relations campaign telling Colombians they are capaz (capable) of fostering peace, said society's peace was completely divorced from the political process.

"The negotiations do not affect the construction of peace," DeBeaufort told VICE News. "Peace doesn't depend on the state — it depends on the people." DeBeaufort said he would continue the Soy Capaz campaign, with the next step visiting rural communities to talk with them about creating their own peace.

"Whether the negotiations resume or not, we have millions of people affected by armed conflict in our country," he said. "The conflict is much bigger than the people representing guerrillas at the talks.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman