October 27, 2013

Four month ordeal of US veteran held by Colombia's FARC comes to an end

A few weeks ago, we wrote this post about Kevin Scott Sutay, the former US soldier who has been in FARC custody since June 20. Today, Cuba and Norway announced that Sutay had been released in good condition. 

This was a win for President Juan Manuel Santos who was trying to keep Sutay's release from becoming a high-wattage media circus, despite the FARC's insistence that they would only free the young man to former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba or US Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ultimately, just as the government had been calling for, Sutay was handed over to the International Red Cross with little fanfare. He's now in US custody. It will be interesting to see if he speaks to the press.

Finally, I have to wonder if the timing of his release has anything to do with Alvaro Uribe's new party, Uribe Centro Democratico, picking its horse yesterday to face Santos in next year's election.

Oscar Ivan Zuloaga -- Uribe's former minister of finance -- got the nod and has vowed to stay true to his former boss and oppose ongoing peace talks. That cranks up the pressure on the FARC and the government to prove their getting results in Havana. 

October 09, 2013

US veteran kidnapped by Colombia's FARC "speaks" from captivity


US Army vet Kevin Scott Sutay was kidnapped by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in July as he wandered outside the city of San Jose de Guaviare – against local advice and, some would argue, common sense

The rebel group is in the process of hammering out a slow-motion peace agreement in Havana and kidnapping tourists – even if they are former soldiers – is bad PR.

 The FARC have repeatedly offered to set him free as long as the government sends the right emissary – first, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and now former US presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson. President Santos, not surprisingly, has rejected both ideas, saying the guerrillas should skip the fanfare and release Sutay to the Red Cross.

 Now, the guerrillas have put out a lengthy “interview” with Sutay.

 In the FARC’s telling, the young man sounds like he’s on a fabulous eco-adventure.

“Before I go I have to see a tiger,” they quote him as saying. “ I'm enjoying my time here in the jungle, it's a pity you tell me that I will not be able to stay here any longer, you are really good people, I would like to stay longer, but if you say that the best thing for me is to go, I believe you. Will you visit me?"

Before you read the full conversation, keep in mind that this is one-sided, unverifiable account put out by a group that has executed hostages in the recent past and held others for more than a decade. Also, the FARC are considered a terrorist organization by the US and Colombia, so clicking below is likely to  get you flagged.

See the full transcript on the FARC’s website here

July 24, 2013

Report: Colombia’s conflict has claimed 220,000 lives since 1958

BOGOTA, Colombia -- At least 220,000 people have been killed, more than 5,000 have disappeared and 4.7 million have been forced off their land during Colombia’s 54-year civil conflict. The chilling numbers, presented Wednesday by a government commission, are the most thorough accounting ever made of this nation’s ongoing struggles.

The report, which took six years to compile, comes as the country is in the midst of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, even as it engages the rebels in pitched battles.

Among the study’s findings: Civilians accounted for 82 percent of all conflict-related deaths, and one out of every three violent deaths can be blamed on the conflict. Of the 1,982 massacres — defined as the killing of four or more people — from 1980 to 2012, right-wing paramilitary groups were responsible for 59 percent of them. Of the 27,023 kidnappings from 1970 to 2010, guerrillas were to blame 91 percent of the time.

While the nation’s armed combatants took the bulk of the blame, the armed forces were also put in the spotlight. The military and police were responsible for 8 percent of all massacres, 42 percent of all forced disappearances and 6.5 percent of all selective killings, according to the report.

“The numbers force us to revise the true cost of the armed conflict,” the report states. While many believed the conflict caused one out of every 10 violent deaths, the true figure is triple that amount.

“Likewise, it’s possible to refute claims that there’s symmetry between the number of civilian and combatant casualties,” the report said. “On the contrary, civilians are more affected. For every combatant killed, four civilians died.”

Check out the full story here. 

Or you can download the 434-page report here.

November 12, 2012

Pets, Pinky and Dry Excrement - Colombian gangs and their silly aliases

Los Rastrojos is one of Colombia’s most feared criminal gangs and their top leader was recently arrested as he held a “Mafioso summit” at his farm, authorities said.

The man’s name is José Leonardo Hortúa Blandón, but he’s better known as Mascotas or Pets. Police also arrested the gang’s number-two man Picante or Hot, as in spicy. He had assumed the leadership position after his predecessor Pinky, sometimes spelled Pinkhy, had been arrested.

Colombia’s criminals and guerrillas are fond of absurd monikers. Among some of the most memorable are Gordolindo (Fat beauty), Vasodeleche (Glass of Milk) and Mierda Seca (Dry Excrement). Dry Excrement, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, earned his name due to his chronic halitosis, according to Semana Magazine.

The excellent periodical has a list of some of the more ridiculous monikers here.

July 16, 2012

In Colombia's troubled Cauca, sticks trump guns (sometimes)


Just got back from a fascinating trip to Toribío, Colombia, where I was writing this story.

In short, we got to see the the town’s Indigenous Guard tear apart an army base and chase away FARC roadblocks without a single drop of blood. That may seem unremarkable, but this is Colombia, where even casual confrontations seem to generate a body count.

Quite frankly, I didn’t know too much about the Indigenous Guard before I arrived in the beleaguered village, but the more I learned the more impressed I am. The guard was formed 11 years ago by the indigenous Nasa as an all-volunteer force that controls and patrols the territory.

They’re easy to recognize because they wear green and red bandanas and carry tasseled sticks. The sticks, they claim, are only used defensively, but they’ve managed to pull off some impressive feats with them.

In 2004, when Toribío Mayor Arquimedes Vitonas was kidnapped, some 400 members of the Indigenous Guard marched two days into the jungle to retrieve him from the FARC. Again, it was a bloodless operation and they had him back within 20 days; this in a country where hostages often spend years in the jungle and government rescue operations often include casualties.

The Indigenous Guard want both the army and the FARC to clear the area so they can exercise control.But it's unclear how this is going to shake out. It would be political suicide for President Santos to concede any ground, and the FARC aren't going to retreat from one of their historic strongholds.

Above: A solider gathers his belongings after villagers from Toribio, led by the Indigenous Guard, marched almost three hours uphill to dismantle the base.

Below: The regional head of the Indigenous Guard Luis Alberto Mensa, with his staff and green and red bandana. 


July 02, 2012

Coca as cash In Colombia’s drug-war backwaters


Don Antonio unscrewed a vitamin bottle and dumped a few chunks of coca base – a precursor to cocaine – in his hand. In this part of Colombia, along the Guayabero River that divides Meta and Guaviare, coca base, or mercancia, is as good as cash.  A gram is worth 2,000 pesos and might buy you a Coca-Cola.

I just got back from a trip to the region with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the decades-long war on drugs and routine fumigation flights in the area, locals said about 90 percent of the population depends on the shrub to make a living. Those who have tried to make the switch to legal crops say the costs of trying to get their yucca or corn harvests to the nearest town, where they might find buyers, make it unfeasible.

Coca base, on the other hand, is easy to transport and buyers will often visit the remote villages for pickup. It makes sense financially, but the farmers find themselves hounded by the law and caught between the crossfire of the military and the FARC guerrillas that roam the area.

While I was on the trip, and disconnected from the outside world, there were two interesting developments in regional drug policy. The small nation of Uruguay legalized marijuana and announced that the government would become a grower and seller. (Before you book your ticket, the new law also prohibits the sale to foreigners.)

Also, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld a Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to imprison people for carrying up to 22 grams of marijuana and one gram of cocaine. Civil rights groups said the move would help steer people toward rehab and take pressure off of overcrowded prisons. The Attorney General, however, said he would fight the ruling. 

Along the Guayabero River, Don Antonio will still be buying his Cokes with coca.  

March 30, 2012

Deadly education: literacy courses blamed for rebel commander deaths in Colombia

The 13 Colombian guerrilla commanders who were killed in a bombing earlier this week had gathered  in the community of El Silencio to receive literacy courses, a rebel defector told El Tiempo newspaper.

Monday’s bombing raid killed 38 members of Colombia’s Armed Revolutionary Forces, or FARC, including six commanders, three sub-commanders and four group leaders. The government has hailed the raid as the most devastating blow to the FARC's command structure in the five-decade history of the rebel band.

In a hospital-room interview, FARC member “Gilberto Castro” told the newspaper that the commanders had gathered in the village to take an eight-month reading comprehension course.

“That FARC doesn’t want its commanders to be illiterate, they want them to be people who can express themselves and write well,” he said. The course was being offered by university students, he said.

Castro said he managed to escape the bombing by throwing himself into a creek. But he suffered shrapnel wounds to his back and leg. When soldiers began searching the camp he turned himself in.

Castro said the killing of so many commanders was a blow to the organization, but he said the FARC had learned to deal with losses.

“The FARC has no lack of commanders,” he said. “If one dies they stick another one in to cover up the hole.”

February 10, 2012

Colombia seizes explosive mattresses destined for the FARC

MatresspicColombia's FARC guerrillas have been busted transporting explosive mattresses - well, really, explosives in mattresses.

In a statement, the police said they had recently stopped two such shipments. 

In one set of six mattresses they found 206 packages of pentolite, almost 800 meters of detonating cord, and a PKT machine gun.

In another mattress shipment, they found 177 kilos worth of explosives. This is the first time the police have detected Colombia's illegal groups making transfers inside "comfortable mattresses for sale in specialized stores." Read the full press release - with additional pictures - here. 

The seizure comes as the FARC is accused of stepping up its bombing campaign amid increased military presence along drug routes.

December 06, 2011

Colombians hit the streets to protest kidnapping - but how many hostages are there?


Tens of thousands of Colombians hit the streets today to protest the recent execution of four hostages who had been held by rebels for more than a decade. 

You can read about the march here, and you can read about the executions and one man's narrow escape here. 

Today's outpouring comes as many activists complain that the plight of the country's hostages is no longer on the national radar. That's probably a testament to how much safer Colombia has become. Take a look at the chart below to see just how grim things were in the1990s and early 2000s.

Even so, the government says there have been 146 kidnappings in the first five months of this year — that’s up 40 percent versus the same period in 2010. 

To complicate matters, the number of people still in captivity is a matter of debate.

In 2009, the department within the Ministry of Defense that tracks kidnapping cases said it had combed through more than 2,000 reports and determined that were 125 people still in captivity. Human rights groups and researchers at the time balked and accused the government of playing politics with the statistics. País Libre - a foundation dedicated to the issue - said the new administration has agreed to let it look through the reports again to come up with fresh figures. We'll keep you posted.

Kidnap data


November 28, 2011

Colombia FARC hostage: rebels unfazed by Alfonso Cano's death

When Colombian special forces tracked down and killed the FARC's top commander Alfonso Cano on Nov. 4, the government expected it to have a huge psychological impact on the rebel group. And there have been more than 50 FARC desertions since then.

But today, I had a chance to ask Police Sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo - who had been held captive by theFARC for almost 12 years - how the news about Cano's death was taken among the guerrilla ranks.

He said the FARC column guarding him, at least, didn't seem to care. 

“The guerrillas said that Alfonso Cano had died and that his replacement had been named; that one person went to his grave and another will lead the FARC,” Erazo said. Their attitude is “this is war. Today I die, tomorrow you die.”

That's pretty grim, and a stark reminder of how this rebel group has survived for almost 50 years. 

You can read about Erazo's narrow escape here. 


jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read Jim's stories at MiamiHerald.com.

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