Armed ‘Rescues’ as the Abortion of Dialogue: The Colombian State’s Continuity of Failure

On November 26, the administration of Juan Manuel Santos Calderón [2010-2014] sanctioned an armed ‘rescue’ of retained politico-military prisoners under FARC-EP confinement close to Curillo in the department of Caquetá.

On November 26, the administration of Juan Manuel Santos Calderón [2010-2014] sanctioned an armed ‘rescue’ of retained politico-military prisoners under FARC-EP confinement close to Curillo in the department of Caquetá. With the intention of liberating a handful of soldiers/officers the operation proved more than unsuccessful with several of the detained being killed directly or indirectly from a firefight that quickly ensued between state-forces and the guerrilla.1 The deaths of Elkin Hernandez Rivas, Libio Jose Martinez, Alvaro Moreno, and Edgar Yesid Duarte have again sparked a great deal of discussion toward the FARC-EP’s incarceration of prisoners with which the following will too engage. There is a need to address the characterization of those incarcerated by the guerrilla so as to put into context why the above events transpired. Rather than regurgitating the simplified terminology of prisoner – or, worse yet, inappropriately simplifying their internment as kidnapping, which is often the case in the dominant (and social) media – the following contests the oversimplification of what is, in fact, the FARC-EP’s practice of retention. While many have abridged the action outside the milieu of Colombia’s civil war, retention is quite complex with roots dating back to the mid 1970s. For sake of brevity, however, it is a strategy adopted by the FARC-EP where members from, or representatives of, the dominant politico-economic elite, perceived to be legitimate targets within a class conflict, are retained as prisoners of war where all attempts are made to insure they are incarcerated in concurrence with the Geneva Convention.2 

Predominantly presented as unsophisticated, the practice of retention is quite intricate with a clear class target and political motive. Directed toward those associated with the state apparatus; of relative wealth; with military ranking/personnel; foreign and domestic MNCs; large landholders; etc. the intention is to satisfy specific political and financial goals. While the vast majority of those retained stem from sectors of the Colombian security forces defeated in battle, two of the most well known figures associated with retention are Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and Don Jesús Castaño. (A politician herself) Betancourt’s mother, Yolando Pulecio, was a congressional representative and assistant to President Barco [1986-1990], while her father, Gabriel Betancourt, was a minister under the Gustavo Rojas Pinilla dictatorship [1953-1957] and became head of the education commission during the Alliance for Progress. Don Jesús Castaño was a staunch far-right Conservative, and dominant capitalist from Segovia, Antioquia. In addition to his class position and political ideology so too was Don Jesús the patriarch of Fidel and Carlos Castaño, the founders of the Peasant Self-Defence Units of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU), which later, under the leadership of Carlos, became the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC); the most powerful and well funded paramilitary force in Colombian history.

For those retained outside the context of conflict, the process itself has the guerrilla collect intelligence on persons who they view represent the interests of the dominant class.3 After the insurgency conducts a ‘study’ of the individual’s political-economic status there is discussion on whether to ‘retain’ said person(s) against their will. With few exceptions over these past forty years, the individual remains in custody as a prisoner of war until a monetary fee has been acquired; a humanitarian prisoner exchange has taken place; or those retained are killed as a consequence of the state’s failed effort to have those incarcerated freed via armed ‘rescue’. In reference to the latter – where state-based negotiations of dialogue for securing the safe return of retained prisoners are overruled in favour of a military intervention – repetitions of the events realized this November 26 have been witnessed.

In 2003, also believing a firm-fist could hinder an insurgency with over a half-century of (clandestine) politico-military experience, the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez [2002-2010] authorized the deployment of an armed mission to release a series of high-ranking politicians and military officers retained by the guerrilla. On May 5, an elite Special Forces unit of Colombia’s counterinsurgency rapid-reaction force FUDRA (Fuerza de Despliegue Rapido) engaged a FARC-EP encampment near Urrao in the department of Antioquia in a fierce firefight.4 Not only did one of the state’s most prominent military squadrons fail in their trajectory of having the prisoners released by force but they proved incapable of securing a victory over the guerrilla. Within hours of the operation, rather than viewing a dozen resurrected prisoners embracing their loved ones as they came out of the jungle hand-in-hand, ten lifeless bodies (including Guillermo Gaviria Correa, the governor of Antioquia at the time, and former defence minister Gilberto Echeverri Mejia) were pulled from the wreckage.5

One of the interesting reactions to these botched operations has not been of Colombians – or even family members of those killed – lashing out at the FARC-EP per-se but rather directing their rage at the state. Both civilians, sectors of the Church, and those related to the slain soldiers/politicians have displayed upset toward Bogotá’s consistent incapacity to acknowledge the devastation of Colombia’s civil war and the most assured probability that those retained would be killed if the state attempted to have the prisoners of war released through any solution other than a negotiated dialogue with the FARC-EP. In the days that followed the 2003 failure, Yolanda Pinto placed absolute blame on then President Uribe for ‘provoking’ a military strategy that resulted in the death of her husband [Gaviria].6 Similarly, today, numerous relatives of those killed in the botched operation of this past November, alongside various peace groups and religious officials, “criticized the armed attempts to rescue captives and have called for negotiated releases”.7 Most disturbing still has been the state’s proclamation that the strategy of non-negotiated armed ‘rescues’ will continue, as heralded by Vice-President Angelino Garzón.8

One of the arguments as to why such angst has been voiced against the state is due to the intimate consciousness of many Colombians knowing the FARC-EP are engaged in a violent political conflict with the economic and political elite and, in turn, an understanding that this is also a fight of – and for – self-preservation. Following the 2003 failed ‘rescue’, Raúl Reyes – a former, now deceased, member of the insurgency’s Secretariat – stated

Guerrilla units have the moral obligation to save their own lives, and protect, as far as possible, the lives and physical well-being of the prisoners in their command. But in no case can rebels allow their prisoners to be taken away by enemy forces without a guerrilla military response.9

When referring to the state’s failure to release (and cause the imminent death of) Hernandez, Martinez, Moreno, and Yesid Duarte, the FARC-EP issued a statement on November 28 that condemned the state for opting to forgo negotiations that had been put in place for the release of said prisoners of war.10 In a joint statement from the Secretariat, the guerrilla presented how, instead of seeking resolve, the Santos administration has decidedly sustained a policy that would sooner “prevent the imminent unilateral liberation” of those retained rather than have them freed.11

Not only do the above actions demonstrate the absence of democratic recognition toward the significant number of Colombians who bravely remain in support of a negotiated humanitarian prisoner exchange12(rather than applauding mistakes that repeatedly result in the loss of lives) but it suppresses the substantive evidence that such actions have worked incredibly well in the past. For instance, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the administration of Andrés Pastrana Arango [1998-2002] and the FARC-EP were able to establish a demilitarized zone that assured peaceful stability for negotiations, which resulted in a series of guerrilla-based concessions in Bogotá’s favour. On February 9 2001, Los Pozos Accord established a successful “humanitarian accord” where both sides engaged in the conflict released retained combatants. The FARC-EP was the first to act. June 2 saw the guerrilla release fifty-five soldiers and police followed by the state freeing fifteen guerrillas. In a further sign of good faith, the FARC-EP proceeded to release an additional 300 prisoners in the “interests of peace and social justice”.13 During the short-lived twelve-month accord, the FARC-EP allocated the unprecedented release of over 400 militia troops, officers, military, and political detainees.

Over the past decade, the FARC-EP have remained open – and continually tried – to establish new rounds of negotiation. A silence, however, has prevailed. Not due to an absence of the guerrilla wishing to address and potentially resolve the issues related to the civil war but rather that the invitation(s) repeatedly falls on deaf ears.

 James J. Brittain is an Associate Professor within the Department of Sociology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He can be reached at james.brittain(at)


[1] Adriaan Alsema. 2011. “’FARC executes 4 hostages in botched rescue attempt’ ,” November 26 On-Line Accessed November 28, 2011. 

[2] See Jorge Enrique Botero. 2006. Últimas Noticias de la Guerra. Bogotá: Testimonio. 

[3] James J. Brittain. 2010. Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The origin and direction of the FARC-EP. London: Pluto Press. pp.118-119; William Avilés. 2001. “Institutions, Military Policy, and Human Rights in Colombia,” Latin American Perspectives, 28(1): 50n.16. 

[4] Maria Engqvist. 2003. “President blamed for the killing of 10 prisoners,” May 26 On-Line  Accessed October 21, 2006. 

[5] Bill Weinberg. 2004. “Youth Activism,” NACLA Report on the Americas. 37(4): 48. 

[6] See Engqvist, 2003. 

[7] Alsema, 2011; see also Tim Hinchliffe. 2011. “Archbishop of Cali criticizes Colombia’s anti-guerrilla tactics,” November 29 On-Line Accessed November 29, 2011. 

[8] Miriam Wells. 2011. “Military rescues of FARC hostages will continue: Colombian VP,” November 28 On-Line Accessed November 29, 2011. 

[9] As quoted in Engqvist, 2003. 

[10] FARC-EP. 2011. “Declaración Pública: 28 de noviembre de 2011,” Montañas de Colombia: Secretariado del Estado Mayor Central de las FARC-EP; see also Tom Hinchliffe. 2011. “FARC was willing to release hostages: Piedad Cordoba,” November 29 On-Line Accessed November 29, 2011. 

[11] FARC-EP, 2011. 

[12] Angus Reid Consultants. 2006. “Colombians Divided on Prisoner Exchange,” September 19 On-Line Accessed September 19, 2006; see also Engqvist, 2003. 

[13] Brittain, 2010. p. 218.