An Advanced Peace Process Demanded a General’s Release

Las Mercedes, Chocó, where the FARC captured Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate on Sunday.

On their second anniversary, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas are frozen. The impasse may soon be over, though: the peace process “guarantor” states, Cuba and Norway, announced a breakthrough on Wednesday evening.

A new round of talks was to begin in Cuba yesterday (November 18), but government negotiators refused to go to Havana until the FARC releases Gen. Ruben Darío Alzate, the chief of the Colombian military’s “Joint Task Force Titan” in the northwestern department (province) of Chocó. Guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate the afternoon of Sunday, November 16. It was the first time in 50 years of conflict that a general has fallen into guerrilla hands.

After several days of behind-the-scenes discussions involving Cuban and Norwegian diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the FARC appears to have agreed to release Gen. Alzate, along with a civilian lawyer and a corporal who were traveling with him, plus two soldiers captured a week earlier in the department of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. “The liberations will be carried out as soon as possible,” pending logistical arrangements, announced Cuban and Norwegian diplomats.

The Gen. Alzate affair shows us that as the peace talks have advanced, the ground rules governing them have tacitly changed. Taking a general prisoner did not violate the pre-conditions that FARC agreed for the talks. The guerrillas agreed to stop kidnapping civilians, not military personnel—and in warfare, adversaries capture and imprison the other side’s combatants all the time.

But the ground has shifted, in a positive direction. Ultimately, even if the FARC followed the peace process “rules,” its action left Colombian government negotiators with no choice. There is no way that Colombian public opinion, Colombia’s political class (including center-left politicians), and especially Colombia’s military would have allowed talks to go on while the FARC held an army general. Not because of rules, but because of a shifting political climate, the FARC had to choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight. The government now faces similar informal constraints on its actions against top FARC leaders while talks continue.

This episode is also a consequence of negotiating amid war. As the Colombian government refused to declare a cease-fire, incidents like Gen. Alzate’s abduction were a foreseeable, and even probable, risk. On the other hand, negotiating amid a cease-fire has practical disadvantages: the parties could end up wasting time at the table disputing alleged cease-fire violations instead of attending to the points on the talks’ agenda.

Gen. Alzate’s eventual release will still probably have to occur in a way that allows the FARC to save face. The guerrillas will want to avoid the appearance of unconditional surrender. We can expect them to maximize an opportunity to bask in the media’s attention. Speculation in Colombia’s press includes the possibility of incremental steps toward the FARC’s demand for a cessation of hostilities or, in President Santos’s words on Tuesday, “the first steps to de-escalate the conflict, as we have already been discussing with the FARC for a while.”

It is not yet clear whether the parties have agreed to any new standards for the prosecution of the conflict. But the whole episode makes clear that standards are already taking shape on their own.

Postscript: Observers, including President Santos, remain mystified about why Gen. Alzate docked his boat in the riverside town of Las Mercedes on a Sunday afternoon, only to fall right into the FARC’s hands. Why was an army general traveling without a security detail, dressed as a civilian, in a zone of guerrilla influence? Possible explanations vary.

First, Las Mercedes is on the main river of Chocó department, the Atrato, which is Chocó’s equivalent of a superhighway with boats passing constantly. It is only a half-hour boat ride from the departmental capital, and Gen. Alzate visited during broad daylight. Perhaps he thought it was safe.

Second, as was evident when WOLA staff interviewed him in Quibdó in March, Gen. Alzate is a proponent of the current wave of counter-insurgency theory (see his 2010 U.S. Army War College thesis), which includes a big community relations, or “hearts and minds,” component. The “strategic concept” of his Joint Task Force Titan states that 60 percent of the unit’s efforts are devoted to “leading processes of relations with the civilian population.” This may explain why he may have embarked on a low-profile, impromptu visit to a development project in Las Mercedes.

There may be other explanations. Sen. Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former leader of the M–19 guerrilla group (1972–1990), speculated that members of the FARC’s 34th Front may have tricked the General with an offer to arrange a surrender of deserters. (If that is true, then the FARC violated international humanitarian law as well as the peace process ground rules.)

We won’t know what really motivated Gen. Alzate’s risky trip, though, until he is free and able to explain it himself. Let’s hope that is very soon.

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