Walking from Bogota to Caracas for Peace

(IPS) – After walking 800 km from Bogota, Colombian teacher Gustavo Moncayo, known as the "peace walker", crossed into Venezuela on his way to Caracas. Escorted by hundreds of supporters, the 55-year-old Moncayo was handed a torch, and a Venezuelan flag was draped around his shoulders.

"We will be walking nearly 700 km across the ‘llanos’ (plains) and will possibly be knocking on the doors of Caracas, and the government Palace of Miraflores, in mid-January," he told IPS by telephone late Thursday from the outskirts of San Antonio del Táchira, the first city on the Venezuelan side of the border.

Ten years ago, on Dec. 21, 1997, his son, army corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, who is now 29 years old, and corporal José Libio Martínez, 30, were captured by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas during an assault on the Patascoy military base in southwestern Colombia.

They are among the longest-held of the FARC hostages, who include 31 other members of the security forces, three U.S. military contractors, and 10 civilians. The highest profile captive is former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen, who will have spent six years in captivity as of February.

Never before has the plight of the FARC hostages drawn so much international attention.

"Mr. President, with all due respect, I ask you, just as you are able to embrace your children, to allow us through a humanitarian accord to come out alive and embrace our parents," says a message from Pablo Emilio delivered by the guerrillas on Jul. 3.

The FARC are holding the hostages with the aim of exchanging them for around 500 imprisoned guerrillas, who are serving sentences of up to 80 years in prison even though life imprisonment does not exist in the Colombian justice system.

Through a communiqué sent to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, the FARC leadership announced Tuesday that they would release Betancourt’s former running-mate, lawyer Clara Rojas, her four-year-old son Emmanuel, who was born in captivity, and Consuelo González, a former legislator who has been held captive since September 2001.

"I receive this announcement with all the joy that can fit in my heart, a heart that has been aggrieved for so long," said Clara de Rojas, Emmanuel’s grandmother.

The rebels said the release of the three hostages was an act of "compensation" for the frustrated efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, whose role as official facilitators of a prisoner-hostage exchange was abruptly cut short by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe on Nov. 21, triggering a diplomatic crisis between the two governments.

"This gesture of willingness by the FARC awakens in us a ray of hope that the release of the rest of the hostages can be achieved," said Moncayo.

He said he has no doubts that the FARC reached its decision "thanks to the huge efforts and the combined work" of Chávez and Córdoba.

Córdoba said Wednesday during a visit to Washington that she and Chávez had actually secured a commitment from the FARC to unilaterally release 25, not just three, hostages, before the negotiations were cut off.

The group could have included Moncayo’s son, because Chávez specifically asked for the inclusion of Emmanuel, any hostages who are sick, and the hostages who have spent the longest time in captivity.

For Moncayo and the rest of his family, the unexpected news that Chávez’s role as facilitator had been cut short "was enormously frustrating. Everything that was happening, that we had been working so hard for, was brought to an end because of the arrogance of people who, in one way or another, are determining the fate of our loved ones," he said.

When Uribe’s sudden decision was announced, Moncayo was on the second day of his peace trek towards Caracas, from Bogota.

From mid-June to Aug. 1, he walked 1,308 km from his town, Sandoná, at the southwestern tip of Colombia, to the capital. Wherever he went, thousands of people came out to greet him and cheer him on.

He then headed to Europe, visiting 15 French cities, as well as Italy and Spain, in a mobile home as part of his campaign for a prisoner-hostage swap.

Moncayo said he was making this effort "with great love, patience and perseverance, from the grassroots, touching the hearts of Colombians, seeking to sensitise governments and the people of other countries, of Europeans, of people around the world."

But for Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist weekly publication Voz and a close follower of the hostage negotiations, the imminent release of the two women and young boy is "a gesture of goodwill" that "will not affect the rest of the hostages."

"This will not speed up the negotiations, nor will it generate a favourable atmosphere for continued talks," said Lozano.

"That’s the negative aspect. This move does not mean that either side is budging" in its position, he added.

The FARC have rejected the creation of a 150 square km demilitarised "meeting zone" for a hostage-prisoner exchange, as suggested by the Catholic Church and accepted by Uribe on Dec. 7, in the midst of heavy international pressure.

Instead, they are standing firm by their demand — which Uribe refuses — for the withdrawal of security forces from two southern Colombian municipalities, Pradera and Florida, which have a total combined territory of 760 square km.

Thus, "the only way for this to move forward is for the FARC to give up their demand for the demilitarisation of those areas or for Uribe to approve it," which is not "a possible scenario," said Lozano.

Representatives of the Church "have not even been able to make contact with the FARC to give them a letter asking to meet with them," he said.

The guerrillas "are full of mistrust after the capture of the three messengers," he added, referring to the Nov. 29 arrest of two women and a man carrying documents showing that at least 17 of the hostages are still alive. The videos and letters gathered by the FARC at the request of the facilitators were to be delivered to Chávez.

"No one wants to be the messenger who carries that letter, to be arrested and then sent to the United States," said Lozano. The two women who were captured are facing the risk of extradition to the United States.

"Nobody dares to do it," Bishop Luis Augusto Castro, president of the Colombian bishops’ conference, told Lozano.

Nevertheless, in Moncayo’s view, "we have to continue forward, continue providing our support, with a lot of trust, patience and passion."

"The important thing is to gain the support of the public," he stressed.

The main thing is "not for us — because we are buried in tears, entreaties and suffering — but for the people, the entire world, to demand that the president and the FARC negotiate a solution to this. We are tired of the violence," said Moncayo.