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Long-Held Hostages Rescued in Colombia

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Peter DeShazo
Americas Program Director, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Thursday, July 3, 2008; 11:00 AM

CSIS Americas Program Director Peter DeShazo, who earlier this year published " Back From the Brink: Evaluating Progress in Colombia, 2000-2007" (.pdf file), was online Thursday, July 3 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the rescue of 15 hostages -- including three American contractors and a former Colombian presidential candidate -- from leftist guerillas after years of captivity.

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Colombia Rescues Hostages Held by Guerrilla Group for Years (Post, July 2)

The transcript follows.

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Peter DeShazo: Good morning. My name is Peter DeShazo. I'm Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. I look forward to answering your questions.

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Washington: Can this operation serve as an example validating the years of American training and aid to Colombia's government and military? Does this event show a maturity and sophistication by Colombia's military and political leaders not seen before?

Peter DeShazo: The United States has provided Colombia with more than $6 billion in assistance since the late 1990s, a considerable part of which has strengthened Colombia's abilities to combat drug trafficking and improved the capabilities of the armed forces and police. The professionalism of this operation reflects some of those improvements. Overall, U.S. support for Colombia constitutes a success story -- but the success of the operation is owed to the capabilities of the Colombians themselves.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. DeShazo, was this release timed to coincide with Sen. McCain's visit to Colombia?

Peter DeShazo: This appears to have been an operation that the Colombian authorities had planned for some time, but its execution probably would depend on a confluence of factors beyond the control of the Colombian government. I therefore don't see the timing of the event as being related to Sen. McCain's visit.

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Omaha, Neb.: Thanks for taking my question. Why is the FARC in decline? Can we and other national governments learn anything from the FARC's decline that we can apply to other militias or cartels? I'm thinking specifically of Mexico.

Peter DeShazo: The FARC is in decline because it has nothing to offer the Colombian people. Support for the FARC within Colombia was always low, but it is now almost nonexistent. The FARC finances its operations through kidnapping, extortion and drug production and trafficking, which further undercuts any ideological appeal they once might have had. Their military power has been reduced greatly since the Colombian government rebuilt the capabilities of the armed forces and police and began to establish legitimate state authority over many more parts of the country. With its support base low, its ability to maneuver limited, its finances disrupted, its popular support almost nil and its military power sapped, the FARC is entirely on the defensive. The lesson is that it is essential for legitimate state authority to prevail, and that means not just further strengthening of security but also improvements in the rule of law and in providing other government services.

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Santiago, Chile: Though the most high-profile hostages were released, what are the odds that the rest of the FARC hostages will be retrieved in a timely manner?

Peter DeShazo: The FARC still has more than 700 hostages under its control. Many of these were taken for economic purposes -- for ransom. Others are considered "political" hostages. The FARC will continue to try to use them to bargain for the release of their members held by the Colombian government or for other negotiating purposes. One only can hope that some sort of mechanism for hostage release can be arrived at, but the release of all hostages probably only will come as part of a larger peace process that will result in the FARC abandoning the armed struggle.

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Arlington, Va.: So where does this leave Hugo Chavez? If I am not mistaken, for some time now he has been trying to give the impression that FARC would release its prisoners as soon as he said the word.

Peter DeShazo: President Chavez had attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate a hostage release. The FARC holds him in high esteem, but in the end was unable or unwilling to respond to his efforts. Now the FARC has lost its most important political hostages -- captives they were holding as their most valuable bargaining tool with the Colombian government.

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Bogota, Colombia: Last night the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, spoke about the military operation, the situation of the three American contractors, and it seemed that he was proud about it. That's okay, but my question is, can this situation be a tool to get the "free trade" agreement between Colombia and the U.S.? Thanks.

Peter DeShazo: Colombia's stronger economic situation is an important component of its recovery across the board from the very unstable point the country was in the late 1990s. The free trade agreement would further consolidate these economic improvements. It also would be a positive factor for the U.S. as well -- mutually beneficial. The free trade agreement -- if it were approved -- would provide an important underpinning for sustaining the security gains in Colombia as well, and symbolize U.S.-Colombian friendship. Those are important arguments in favor of approval of the trade agreement.

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Arlington, Va.: I know that no organizations or entities are monolithic, but as you are an expert on the region I would like to know just how unified FARC is. Is this a coherent political actor, or more like an umbrella grouping united only by hostility to the Colombian government?

Peter DeShazo: The FARC increasingly is demonstrating its lack of coherence and operational capability. While its new top leader, Alfonso Cano is an old-line Marxist of the 1960s, revolutionary ideology has become more of a veneer than a norm for rank-and-file. The FARC is organized by fronts spread over a wide geographic area. Their command and control has been broadly disrupted by Colombian intelligence and therefore coordination of FARC activities is more difficult. The successful rescue of the hostages yesterday is evidence of the FARC's coordination weaknesses. It is very weak politically, with almost no urban base of support. The FARC increasingly is fragmented across the board.

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Washington: How will these events affect the current internal political situation of Colombia, where there is a direct confrontation between the president and the supreme court? Has this granted a new re-election for Uribe?

Peter DeShazo: President Uribe's popularity was over 80 percent positive before the hostage rescue and so it will go higher still -- despite the recent confrontation between him and the supreme court. Even though his popularity ratings are extraordinarily high for a president in his sixth year in office, that does not translate into a third term for Uribe. He would have to amend the constitution once more to achieve this and has not indicated that he seeks a third term.

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Rockville, Md.: I apologize for the unusual nature of this question, but I saw a very weird-looking animal on TV last night (resembling a long/narrow-snouted racoon) on the shoulder and back of one of the rescued persons. I wonder if you saw the TV footage and could identify what animal that might have been. Thank you very much.

Peter DeShazo: Looked like a coati.

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Peter DeShazo: Many thanks for your questions.

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