Monday, June 14, 2010

Hostage rescue is good news, but no excuse for impunity

Four FARC hostages were released over the weekend. While I rejoice for them and their families, I can't help feeling cynical about the timing of the release.

The rescue, code-named "Chameleon", occurred exactly two weeks before the country elects a new president. The front runner in the June 20th runoff, Juan Manuel Santos, is outgoing-president Uribe's heir apparent and served for several years as Uribe's Defense Minister, including presiding over another cinematic rescue, Operation Check, in 2008. He also presided, however, over the "false positives" scandal in which young men were captured from poor urban neighborhoods, taken to the countryside, killed, dressed up as guerrillas and claimed as combat kills. Could this latest rescue have been timed to divert attention from that macabre practice condoned under Santos' watch (and the wire-tapping scandal I wrote about recently) and generate support for his style of leadership?

This style of leadership certainly seems, after all, to seek out impunity for the military. Last week ex-Colonel Luis Alonso Plazas Vega was sentenced to thirty years in prison for his role in the disappearance of eleven people in the violent re-capture of the Justice Palace in 1985 from the now-defunct M-19 guerilla group. Now Uribe, Santos and the military leadership have been circling the wagons around Plazas Vega, claiming his sentence horrible affront to the military. Uribe made a public announcement after the sentencing claiming that the sentence "generates profound pain and disincentive among the members of the Armed Forces, responsible for protecting Colombians." The judge who handed down the sentence has since received death threats. So much for separation of judicial and executive powers, which Colombia's 1991 Constitution seeks to protect.

I do hope that I don't sound unfeeling or callous about the suffering of the FARC kidnapping victims or their families. That is an ordeal no one should have to endure, and the FARC should definitely be condemned for such a practice. In fact, for a heart-wrenching but insightful look into that experience, check out a recent episode of This American Life about being held hostage. I was on a walk listening to the podcast and nearly starting sobbing on the sidewalk during the section about the families of FARC kidnapping victims.

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