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Colombians just say no to kidnappings, war violence

Colombia is known as the world's kidnap capital. Some five people per day were abducted last year.

Public revulsion to a recent wave of kidnappings - the crime of choice for rebels here - is fueling a growing clamor for peace.

More than 1.5 million Colombians have joined a nationwide series of demonstrations against kidnapping and civil war violence.

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The message is simple. "No More" reads the slogan on banners, posters, T-shirts, and buttons.

"Everyone is rejecting violence. We have had enough," says Gina Moreni, whose husband is one of more than 70 civilian hostages held by leftist rebels.

Many feel that the ongoing demonstrations are the first signs of a growing civic awareness that could help lead Colombia out of more than 35 years of civil conflict.

"This is the start of a democratic struggle. People are very angry. The challenge now is to give political direction to this anger," says Sen. Juan Manuel Ospina, who is also president of the Senate's Peace Committee.

COLOMBIA has long been the kidnap capital of the world: 1998 saw an average of five kidnappings every day. Most were carried out by leftist rebels to finance their insurgency or to use as bargaining chips in negotiations with the government. But right wing paramilitaries and purely criminal gangs also regularly carry out abductions.

"In the history of war, kidnapping has never had such importance as it does in Colombia, as an economic instrument and as a weapon of terror," Senator Ospina says.

As a weapon of war, the crime has proved highly effective. The two main rebel groups have tripled their numbers over the past decade, funding much of their growing military strength with the proceeds of kidnapping.

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But where once the rebels targeted wealthy elites and foreign businessmen, they now cast their nets wider. Increasingly, the guerrillas snatch members of the country's urban middle classes, in mass-abductions known as "miracle fishing."

In 1998, around 70 people were taken captive at rebel roadblocks. Now on holiday weekends the Colombian police regularly issue instructions on which routes to follow in order avoid the guerrilla checkpoints.

The most dramatic proofs of the rebel's ability to strike at the heart of urban society came earlier this year. In April, gunmen from the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Cuban-inspired insurgency founded in 1964, hijacked an internal flight with 46 people on board, forcing it to land at an isolated jungle airstrip. Days later, the same group snatched 11 day-trippers on the Magdalena river.

Then on May 30, ELN gunmen burst into a Roman Catholic mass at the church of La Mara in Cali, and carted away more than 100 worshippers. Many were soon freed, but seven weeks later, some 40 others are still missing.

Observers believe that the ELN is angered by the priority President Andres Pastrana has given to peace talks with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which in some ways served as a model for ELN with its success with kidnappings. (For example, FARC still holds some 450 policemen it kidnapped to use as bargaining chips in its negotiations with the government.) In November, Mr. Pastrana withdrew government troops from a vast swath of territory in the south of the country to allow talks with the FARC. But he has refused to create a similar demilitarized zone for negotiations with the ELN.

The group has won little respect with its actions. One group of hostages was freed live on national TV, provoking accusations that the abduction was nothing but a crude publicity stunt.

Pastrana has said that there can be no negotiations with the group until they free all the hostages - without charging ransoms. On July 31, the Catholic archbishop of Cali excommunicated the guerrillas who planned and participated in the church assault.

But the mass-abductions have had a profound effect on the way Colombians think of the guerrilla war, which for many years was confined to the country's remote interior.

"Before, people thought of the war in the same way they thought of fighting in Central America. Now violence has spilled into everyday life," Ospina says.

"We always thought that as long as it doesn't affect me it's not important. What happened in La Mara made people realize that anyone can be touched," says Mrs. Moreni, whose husband is among the ELN's remaining hostages.

The hostages' families have formed a tight circle of mutual support. "You feel a deep emptiness inside.... But you never lose hope," Moreni says.

That hope has fueled the growing campaign against kidnapping. On July 20, the families pitched a tent in the center of Cali as a space for protest and prayer, and in a direct challenge to the kidnappers, they have publicly sworn not to pay any ransom. More than 5,000 people have signed an Internet petition stating that should they be kidnapped, their families won't pay a cent. "Something has to change the way people think. We've been killing each other for years, and what has it achieved?" asks Moreni.

The families of the Cali hostages have called on Pastrana to reopen talks with the ELN, but one antikidnapping activist warns they may be playing into the rebels' hands.

"When the state starts making concessions, we all become hostage," says Juan Francisco Mesa, of the Free Country Foundation, an antikidnapping group.

According to Mr. Mesa, politically inspired kidnappings will continue as the armed factions jockey for position in the peace process. In May, rightist militiamen kidnapped a popular opposition senator for several days to publicize their demand to be included in negotiations.

But dialogue is essential, argues Felipe Iragorra, whose brother Luis Adolfo is also still in rebel hands. "The guerrillas are the product of corruption and the government's neglect. Now we're all paying for that failure," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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