COLOMBIA: FARC Calls for Prisoner Swap After Releasing Moncayo

  • by Helda Martínez (bogotÁ)
  • Tuesday, March 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

After a helicopter flight delayed by bad weather, the 31-year-old Moncayo finally embraced his family and friends at the airport in Florencia, the capital of the southern province of Caquetá.

The sergeant was the last of 14 hostages freed in unilateral goodwill release operations by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) since 2006, the rebels announced in a statement made public by Senator Piedad Córdoba of the opposition Liberal Party.

The 13th, army soldier Josue Daniel Calvo, was released Sunday. He had been kidnapped a year ago, after he was wounded in combat. The FARC are still holding 22 police and soldiers.

Córdoba, who brokered the hostage releases and was in the Brazilian air force helicopters that picked them up, is the head of the non-governmental organisation Colombianos y colombianas por la paz (CCPP - Colombians for Peace).

When the humanitarian team reached the airport in Florencia, she read out a statement in which the FARC expressed their gratitude to the guarantors of the operation, including the Red Cross and especially the Brazilian government and military, which provided logistical support.

The FARC also issued a call 'to all countries interested in a political solution to Colombia's social and armed conflict, as well as to the CCPP, to join forces and focus their concentric efforts towards achieving a swap of prisoners of war,' referring to an exchange of hostages held by the rebels for imprisoned insurgents.

With the 'unilateral gesture' of releasing Calvo and Moncayo, 'the FARC believes the way is clear for the immediate exchange of prisoners of war as the only viable way for the prisoners in the jungle and the guerrillas imprisoned in the dungeons of Colombia and the United States to return to freedom without threatening their physical integrity,' the statement adds.

On Sunday, Córdoba said a humanitarian swap is more urgently needed than ever, addressing the presidential candidates for the May 30 elections, in which the successor to right-wing President Álvaro Uribe, whose second term ends Aug. 7, will be elected.

The president responded that same night, saying he was not opposed to a prisoner-hostage exchange, as long as the released guerrillas did not rejoin the FARC and continue to commit crimes.

To which Córdoba responded 'of course.'

Iván Cepeda, a member of the CCPP and legislator-elect for the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole, told IPS by telephone from Florencia that 'we have achieved a very important step: more flexible conditions, on the part of the FARC as well as the government.'

He was referring to the fact that the FARC have stopped insisting on the creation of a demilitarised area for the talks, and on the return of three insurgents who were extradited to the United States, Simón Trinidad, 'Sonia' and Iván Vargas, before they would negotiate an exchange, and to Uribe's agreement to consider a swap.

Besides kidnapping people for ransom, the FARC has taken hostages — politicians and members of the police and military - with the hope of swapping them for imprisoned guerrillas.

But up to now, Uribe had been staunchly opposed to an exchange, along the lines of operations carried out under previous governments.

The first swap of hostages for imprisoned rebels took place in June 2001, during the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), in the context of peace talks with the FARC in a 42,000 sq km demilitarised zone in the southern municipality of Caguán. On that occasion, 55 members of the military and police held by the insurgents were exchanged for 14 guerrillas.

After the operation, the rebels unilaterally freed another 304 soldiers, only holding onto officers and non-commissioned officers, including Moncayo.

But although Uribe has now stated a new willingness to negotiate a humanitarian agreement and the FARC have relaxed their conditions, 'there is nothing concrete yet,' said Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).

'A negotiating panel made up of representatives of the FARC and the government - hopefully the current administration - will be set up,' he said. 'But if we don't achieve this under President Uribe, we'll still go forward,' although that could delay the process, Cepeda added.

The prospect of a humanitarian agreement has revived the hopes of many Colombian families, who for years have been calling for a prisoner-hostage swap so they could be reunited with their loved ones.

The hostage released Tuesday is the son of high school teacher Gustavo Moncayo, known around the world as 'the peace walker.'

His son Pablo Emilio was a 19-year-old conscript when he was seized by the FARC in December 1997. After completing his compulsory military service he planned to attend the university. He was promoted to sergeant during his captivity.

Several years into his son's captivity, Moncayo began to engage in public protest activities, demanding that the government negotiate a prisoner-hostage exchange. He first chained himself to a tree in his hometown of Sandoná, in the southwestern province of Nariño, and later in Pasto, the provincial capital.

'No one paid any attention to me,' he told IPS in 2007. 'They looked at me as if I were a madman. I told them, we have to do something for our boys.'

'Until one day he decided to walk all the way to Bogotá,' Yury Tatiana Moncayo, the second of his three daughters, told IPS at the time. 'My mom and sisters and I were terrified, but he had made his decision. So I got ready to go with him.'

He walked 1,186 km to the capital, where he camped out in a tent in the central Bolívar square, which is surrounded by Congress, the Supreme Court, city hall and the cathedral. He later held other protest treks and visited Europe, where he met with presidents and Pope Benedict.

Moncayo, who admits that he tears up easily, wears chains around his wrists to demand his son's release - chains that were removed by his son when they were finally reunited Tuesday.

Sandoná declared Tuesday a holiday, and the release operation was followed on big screens in city squares in different cities, including Bolívar square in the capital.

At 14:00 local time (18:00 GMT), the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that Moncayo had been handed over. Shortly afterwards he talked with his family on a satellite phone. But before taking off for Florencia, the humanitarian team had to wait one hour, to give the guerrillas time to disappear back into the jungle.

It was also announced that Córdoba would be providing the coordinates for the handover of the remains of police officer Julián Ernesto Guevara, who died in captivity in the jungle in 2006 after almost eight years as a hostage.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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