(IPS) Colombian ambassador to China Guillermo Vélez had hoped to be the first to lead a march against the FARC rebels called for noon Monday in Colombia, which was still Sunday in Beijing.
Vélez fired off a volley of emails to his contacts in China to invite them to the local protest against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s main leftwing insurgent group), which is holding a number of hostages with the aim of swapping them for imprisoned insurgents.
But Brazil beat him. Because Monday is a Carnival holiday there, the protest in that country was moved ahead to Friday, Feb. 1.
According to the Colombian Foreign Ministry, expatriate Colombians took to the streets that day in Brazil along with diplomats from Mexico, Panama, Serbia, Spain and the European Commission, and the military attachés from Chile, Ecuador, France and the United States.
Through the active participation of Colombian embassies and consulates in 45 countries, the government has joined the march, which was born in the social networking web site Facebook.
The initial aim was to bring together "a million voices against FARC." Although so far less than 300,000 people have signed up for the marches, the organisers said they had to set up a special web site, www.colombiasoyyo.org, because of the flood of people who promised to take to the streets Monday.
The web site, which is in 11 languages, lists the event’s "official songs" and provides the content for printing out leaflets and banners.
The organisers describe themselves as "ordinary Colombians," "a group with no political affiliation," whose aim is "to build a Colombia without FARC."
They say they did not seek out government support, and that it was the administration of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe itself that decided to back the initiative.
The catalyst for the creation of the ad hoc group were videos and documents proving that FARC hostages are still alive, which were recently handed over by the guerrillas and that showed the harsh conditions in which the hostages are being held.
The documents were obtained as a result of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to broker a hostage-for-prisoner swap. Although his mediation role was abruptly cut short by Uribe in November, he achieved the release of two women hostages and put the issue, long ignored by Colombian society, in the international headlines.
The FARC recently announced that they would also release three former legislators, Luis Eladio Perez, Gloria Polanco and Orlando Beltran, who have been held for six years.
From prison, where they are awaiting generous legal benefits offered by the government in controversial negotiations for their demobilisation, 14 leaders of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), who are also drug lords, declared their support for the "great demonstration" — the same term used by the media in their all-out promotion of the event.
Also backing the march is a neo-Nazi group called Tercera Fuerza Bogotá (TFB), whose slogan is "Family, Race, Nation".
In a video on the Youtube web site, the TFB warns, with images of Chávez in the background, that "our nation is threatened by the small-minded interests of the internationalist left," before singing, to the rhythm of a rock song, that in Berlin "there was no mercy for the reds or the Jews."
"Communist pig, do you know what your fate is?…This night you will sign your final sentence," they say, against a background of photos of Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, who had originally invited Chávez to take part in the negotiations to broker a prisoner-hostage swap with the FARC.
To the soundtrack of a military song (the official "Anti-FARC March" song), the group announces that "It is time to take up the sword and defend the countryside and cities, stop the red tide and rebuild our future."
Córdoba has recently been the target of spontaneous aggression, in a shopping centre, from a taxi driver, and from fellow passengers on a flight to Caracas, while the local media have even gone so far as to ridicule her clothing.
But the protest against FARC does not enjoy unanimous support, as some have called for a demonstration against all of the violent groups involved in Colombia’s armed conflict, which annoyed the organisers.
They criticised the centre-left Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), which called its own demonstration an hour earlier in Plaza de Bolívar — the same square where the anti-FARC march is to end.
Rosa Parra, one of the organisers of the anti-FARC demonstration, pointed out that the PDA protest was a "counter-march" and urged the party not to "distort the message" by protesting against the paramilitaries and calling for a humanitarian hostage-prisoner exchange and an end to violence on both the right and the left.
Another member of the Facebook group of organisers, Óscar González, insisted that the demonstration "is against the FARC," while Pierre Gonzaga said "the message will be watered down" if the protest is expanded to include any other focus.
Former judge Carlos Gaviria, the president of the PDA and the president’s main rival in the elections in which Uribe was reelected in 2006, said he found it "strange" that the organisers of the demonstration would lash out at "those who do not think like they do."
"Some take into consideration one factor; we consider several factors," he said.
An anonymous poster warned Friday that if Gaviria went to the Plaza de Bolívar, "we will chop you up alive with machetes and axes," and that he is being watched by "our squad from Ciudad Bolívar," a huge shanty-town on the southern edge of Bogotá where some neighbourhoods are under paramilitary control.
"The main thing is not to be provoked into reacting," Amaury Padilla, a human rights activist who survived a paramilitary attack, told IPS. Padilla belongs to the PDA, which warned of "possible sabotage and attacks by neo-Nazi groups in the Plaza de Bolívar Monday."
Street vendors have been selling t-shirts with the "official" march banner, and the local authorities were considering banning the carrying of weapons and the drinking of alcohol during the protest.
The families of the hostages, meanwhile, expressed concern over the growing polarisation, and said they would not take part in the march. Instead, they will pray in different churches, for the lives, health and freedom of their loved ones.
Gustavo Moncayo, whose soldier son has been held by the FARC for a decade, has also received death threats. Moncayo, who has been dubbed the "peace walker", has walked from southern Colombia to Bogotá and from there to the Venezuelan capital to draw attention to the plight of the hostages and raise public support for a prisoner-hostage exchange.