FARC Dissidents Assist Colombia

Raúl Agudelo is a leader of the prison group Hands for Peace.
Raúl Agudelo is a leader of the prison group Hands for Peace. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 2, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Raúl Agudelo was a fearsome commander of Colombia's largest rebel group, carrying out killings, kidnappings and extortions for more than 20 years. It was the only life he really knew. But going back to that life is now the last thing he wants to do.

Agudelo, who has a military-style haircut and speaks in loud, effusive bursts, is instead part of a growing movement of former rebels speaking out against the group from jail. In doing so, these dissidents are posing yet another challenge to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has long relied on its imprisoned members to help plan kidnappings, killings and arms smuggling operations on the outside.

"The FARC wants combatants because they are qualified, structured people who have major knowledge in explosives and technical know-how about combat and urban work," said Agudelo, sitting on a patio at Bogota's La Picota prison with four other veteran guerrillas. "The FARC has a great investment in the jails, and the FARC wants to reactivate 1,000 qualified combatants."

He added: "We are saying, 'We don't want to go.' "

More than 1,700 rebel foot soldiers and commanders are being held in Colombian jails. Many of them, adhering to the group's dictum of "once a member, always a member," await their release to rejoin the rebel group. Indeed, the hermetic guerrilla organization's biggest obsession has been to trade some of the hostages it holds for those rebels, many of whom are seasoned commanders well versed in the art of war.

But as a military campaign by the government of President Álvaro Uribe increasingly weakens the 44-year-old rebel movement, the FARC has little leverage in negotiations for trades.

The group now faces a movement of up to 1,000 jailed dissidents. Instead of remaining true to the FARC, Agudelo and the other jailed rebels want to use their upstart movement, called Hands for Peace, to help the state weaken the rebel group further.

In exchange, they are being permitted by the government to enter into special judicial proceedings that were designed to spur their mortal enemies, right-wing paramilitary groups, to disarm. Under a recent government decree, the rebels could be freed from jail or have their long prison terms reduced if they outline their involvement in unsolved crimes while making amends to their victims.

Attorney General Mario Iguarán said that jailed FARC members have to help investigators dismantle operational rebel units, as well as locate hostages and identify the FARC's ill-gotten gains. "Even if they have been convicted, they can demonstrate their desire to demobilize," Iguarán explained in an interview. "We have to see how much they say, how much they admit to, how much they turn in." So far, the Justice Ministry has processed 244 requests from jailed rebels, and 168 have been approved.

The government's new policy, though, has generated confusion and, in some cases, ire among some Colombians and rights groups who question why benefits would be bestowed on guerrillas captured in combat. Many of the rebels, like Agudelo, received prison terms of three decades or more for having participated in heinous crimes, including assassinations, mass kidnappings and bombings.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, says that granting leniency to rebels who have already been convicted of crimes against humanity is a travesty of justice.

"The key point is they were never part of any process of demobilization, where they decided to give up their arms," said José Miguel Vivanco, the group's Americas director. "They are not defectors, after being captured by the security forces. They have to serve the penalty. That is the essence of the rule of law."

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