BOGOTA, Colombia — Latin America’s last major rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, announced Sunday it was giving up kidnappings in a policy reversal that could be a step toward peace talks after decades of conflict.
On its Web site, the FARC, as the group is known, said it would release 10 soldiers and policemen that have been held in jungle camps going back as far as the 1990s. The group also announced the end of a policy that has terrorized ordinary Colombians for decades — kidnapping for ransom to fund its war against the state.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reacted cautiously to the FARC’s message.
“We value the FARC’s announcement of renouncing kidnapping as an important and necessary step forward,” Santos said via his Twitter account. But Santos also said the shift was “not sufficient in the right direction,” meaning it fell short of renouncing the violence that has made the FARC a feared group in Colombia’s conflict.
The FARC has long sought a demilitarized zone in southwestern Colombia for talks it says it wants to end hostilities. But in previous negotiations, the FARC was ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of jungle for negotiations and instead used its control over that region to cultivate drug crops, hide kidnap victims and munitions, and plan military offensives. Those talks ended in acrimony in 2002.
Santos, a former defense minister, has pledged to never again cede territory to the group. He has instead demanded that the FARC abandon kidnapping and cease military operations against the state before his government will consider negotiations.
Aldo Civico, a conflict-resolution specialist at Rutgers University who studies Colombia’s conflict, said that if the FARC follows through with its pledge to give up kidnapping it will be “historic and creates a base, if not for peace talks, then to create a climate of confidence.”
“This raises questions about whether the FARC has the will to leave behind its arms and violence,” said Civico, “because if they do not, there will not be conditions to reach a negotiated peace.”
The government’s position has been strengthened in recent years as a reinvigorated army, which has over the past dozen years received billions of dollars in equipment and training from the United States, has killed many of the FARC’s top commanders. The guerrilla group, which once had close to 20,000 experienced fighters, has also lost thousands of its members in combat and to desertions.
Under its latest commander, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, who replaced a predecessor killed by the security forces, the FARC seems to have slightly softened its message. When Londoño was chosen to head the FARC in November, the group boldly announced that “the continuation of the strategic plan toward the people’s taking of power has been guaranteed.”
But soon after, in a letter to a university professor that was made public, Londoño said that the FARC was not interested in defeating the army on the road to taking power. Instead, he wrote, the FARC hoped to become a social movement. In his communiques, Londoño has also publicly reached out to Santos about the possibility of peace talks.
Maria Jimena Duzan, a columnist at Semana magazine, has written that she sees something different in Londoño’s letters: “a man pained by war, fatigued by war.”
Still, as is often the case with FARC pronouncements, the statement Sunday contained an air of defiance. It blamed the government for blocking a path to peace and said the government’s efforts to improve the army’s military capacity means “an indefinite prolonging of the war.”