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."
Proponents of the government policy say that the rebels, though jailed, have never renounced their FARC ties and, in some cases, continue to collaborate with the guerrilla group. They say that rewarding those rebels for renouncing their FARC membership -- and then providing information about the group and its operations to the military -- is a smart move and one that will help further isolate a waning guerrilla movement.
Liduine Zumpolle, a Dutch human rights worker who helped create Hands for Peace and is the group's most visible representative in Bogota, said the dissident guerrillas are the most effective spokesmen against the FARC because they have intimate knowledge of how it works. Hundreds of jailed rebels have signed a statement renouncing their FARC ties.
"It's very threatening to the FARC, because it's a movement that's absolutely peaceful, without spending a bullet, without spending one human life," Zumpolle said. "And it's eating the rebel movement from within."
Agudelo, the jailed guerrilla, said that he and other rebels are ready to "reveal very confidential information" about the internal structure of the FARC, its ties to businessmen and politicians and even officials in other Latin American governments.
He and other dissident rebels held at La Picota do not sugarcoat their lives in the FARC.
Omar Mosquera was an explosives expert and military strategist. Wilson Barragan worked in logistics and intelligence. Sergio Luis Oviedo trained for the FARC's most elite units.
Mosquera, 35, recalled how necessity prompted him to join the FARC at age 12, and how he later took classes in Marxism and advanced explosives, with a Vietnamese trainer. "They taught us all the tactics that they used in Vietnam," he said.
The guerrillas, interviewed on a recent day, said that even before they were captured they had concluded that the FARC had failed to offer an alternative vision for how Colombia should be governed. They said they were disillusioned by the group's descent into crime and drug trafficking.
Agudelo said that once jailed rebels are given lenient terms in exchange for information, other, more hard-line FARC members in prison will join Hands for Peace. That could further hurt the FARC, which is losing hundreds of guerrillas each month in combat and to desertions.
"This war has to end," Agudelo said. "If there are no men in arms, the war has to end."