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Colombia: Letter to Rebel Leader Demands Release of Kidnapped Political Figures

April 15, 2002

Commander Manuel Marulanda
General Secretariat
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP)

Commander Marulanda:

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I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge you to release immediately and unconditionally all civilians currently held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) under your command, as well as to take immediate action to cease further kidnapping by your forces.

Hostage-taking, commonly referred to as kidnapping in Colombia, is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. As the senior commander of the FARC-EP, it is your responsibility to ensure that all FARC-EP forces abide by the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians and combatants hors de combat.

The FARC-EP has established a pattern of chronic use of kidnapping. According to Fundación País Libre, an independent nongovernmental organization that studies kidnapping in Colombia, the FARC-EP kidnapped 840 persons in 2001 and 183 persons in the first three months of 2002.1 The vast majority of kidnappings by your forces are perpetrated against non-combatants who are not political figures. In many instances, the FARC-EP holds these hostages for ransom, forcing their families to provide large sums of money. Kidnappings of civilians by the FARC-EP have become so prevalent that ordinary, daily travel within many regions of Colombia has become extremely dangerous.

In the months leading up to the congressional elections of March 10, 2002, and the presidential elections of May 26, 2002, kidnappings of politicians and political candidates by your forces have, in particular, intensified. Over the last year, your forces have kidnapped a presidential candidate, two senators, two congressmen, a former state governor, twelve local lawmakers, and a government minister, demonstrating a disregard by your forces for the safety of civilians, for international humanitarian law, and for the free political process in Colombia. Most recently, in a shocking, mass kidnapping, your forces took twelve lawmakers hostage from a state legislature building in Cali, Valle, on April 11, 2002.

Although political kidnappings represent a small percentage of the total number of FARC-EP kidnappings, we are particularly concerned during this election period about the safety of Colombian politicians and about the disruption of the democratic election process caused by FARC-EP hostage-taking.

Applicable International Legal Standards

The taking of civilian hostages violates article 1(b) of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 (common Article 3), as well as article 4(2)(c) of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II).2 Further, the killing or harming of those hostages violates the prohibitions against the murder of and the use of violence against civilians in paragraph 1 of common Article 3 and article 4 of Protocol II.3

Hostages are defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross as persons who "find themselves, willingly or unwillingly, in the power of the enemy and who answer with their freedom or their life for compliance with [the enemy's orders]."4 The prohibitions against hostage-taking in common Article 3 and Protocol II apply to the kidnapping of politicians and elected officials, as they, too, are civilians. Under international humanitarian law, civilians are persons who do not actively participate in hostilities and are not parties to a conflict.5

Both common Article 3 and Protocol II apply to the conflict in Colombia, and are binding upon all parties to the conflict. The requirements of international humanitarian law prohibiting kidnapping are not open to negotiation. They impose legal obligations that must be respected by the FARC-EP as a party to the conflict in Colombia.

Incidents of Hostage-Taking of Political Figures

Kidnapping of politicians by the FARC-EP has reached staggering proportions. Your forces currently hold in captivity the presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and five legislators: Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem Turbay, Congresswoman Consuelo González de Perdomo, Congressman Orlando Beltrán Cuellar, Senator Luis Eladio Pérez Bonilla, and Congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano.

The events of April 11, 2002, in which your forces kidnapped an additional twelve lawmakers from a state legislature building in Cali, Valle, further illustrate the dramatic escalation in political kidnappings by the FARC-EP. Disguised in military uniforms, armed members of the FARC-EP ordered the assemblymen to evacuate from the state legislature building because of an alleged bomb threat, and then took thirteen lawmakers hostage. The Colombian authorities later rescued one of the legislators and several legislative aides. Those currently held hostage include Nacianceno Orozco, Carlos Alberto Charry, Sigifredo López, Rufino Varela, Alberto Quintero, Ramiro Echeverry, Edison Pérez, Francisco Javier Giraldo, Jairo Hoyos, Alberto Barragán, Héctor Fabio Arizmendi, and Juan Carlos Narváez. In addition, the FARC-EP reportedly killed one police officer during the incident.6

Even prior to this mass kidnapping, on December 11, 2001, the Colombian Congress found it necessary to address the escalating problem of guerrilla kidnappings of political candidates by approving a law that allows those held hostage to continue to run for office despite their absence. Several kidnapped legislative candidates were registered in the elections of March 10, 2002, and one presidential candidate will be registered in the election of May 26, 2002, under this new law.7

Statements by FARC-EP leaders suggest that political hostage-taking for the purposes of prisoner exchange has become FARC-EP policy. In a meeting of FARC-EP leaders in June 2001, at which Reuters was present, the FARC-EP stated that it would begin a campaign to kidnap lawmakers and governmental officials to exchange them for FARC-EP guerrilla fighters imprisoned by the Colombian authorities. Reuters reported that Commander Jorge Briceño, a member of the General Secretariat, stated, "People from the Senate, the House of Representatives, magistrates and ministers, those who make up the three powers, have to be seized and they will see how they yell."8 Similarly, in your letter to Camilo Gómez Alzate, High Commissioner for Peace, dated September 12, 2001, you referred to the kidnapped senators and representatives as "exchangeable."9

More recently, the FARC-EP has set a one-year deadline for negotiations with the Colombian authorities for the release of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and other congressional hostages, whom FARC-EP leaders seek to exchange for incarcerated members of the FARC-EP. In an interview with CNN on February 27, 2002, regarding such exchanges, Fabián Ramírez, a FARC-EP leader of the South Block (Bloque Sur), stated, "Ingrid Betancourt, Sen. Gechem Turbay and others who are in our power will join the list of those who can be exchanged [for incarcerated members of the FARC-EP] and ... there is one year and the year has already begun to run."10 Ramírez further threatened that "if, at the end of this year, the government hasn't taken action in this matter, then the FARC ... will make the decision most convenient to it."11

FARC-EP forces kidnapped former Senator Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate from the independent Oxygen Party, on February, 23, 2002. Betancourt was stopped at a roadblock in El Líbano between Montañita and Paujil, as she was driving to San Vicente del Caguán in the area formerly ceded to the FARC-EP as a safe haven for peace talks (the Zone). She was attempting to visit the region to reassure the local population following the Colombian government's decision to reenter the Zone. According to the newspaper El Tiempo, candidate Betancourt explained in response to warnings by Colombian authorities that her security would be at risk, "It's necessary to be in the good and the bad with the people of San Vicente."12

In his interview with CNN on February 27, 2002, Fabián Ramírez explained that the FARC-EP would have kidnapped any presidential candidate passing through the Zone. Ramírez stated, "If it had been Uribe Vélez or Serpa [other presidential candidates] that had arrived and fallen in our control checkpoints, then they would also be on the list of those that can be exchanged."13 This view that any candidate is a potential kidnapping target runs directly counter to the basic principles of international humanitarian law and appears intended to directly subvert the democratic process.

Candidate Betancourt's kidnapping followed on the heels of the FARC-EP's kidnapping of another prominent politician, Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem Turbay. On February 20, 2002, FARC-EP forces hijacked a Colombian domestic airliner on which Senator Gechem was traveling. They forced the plane to land near the town of El Hobo in Huila, and then took the senator hostage. This reckless act put at least twenty-nine other passengers and crew members at grave risk.14

On September 10, 2002, armed members of the FARC-EP forced Congresswoman Consuelo González de Perdomo of the Liberal Party and her driver Ramón Luna to stop in El Hobo, Huila, at a roadblock as they were driving from Pitalito to Nevia, Huila, to visit constituents. Members of the FARC-EP forced them out of their vehicle, and made them walk blindfolded to a guerrilla camp. Ramón Luna was soon released, but Senator Gonzálaz has been held in captivity for more than six months.15

Just a few weeks prior to Congresswoman González's kidnapping, armed members of the FARC-EP detained Congressman Orlando Beltrán Cuellar, a member of the Liberal Party, at a similar roadblock, forced him from his car, and kidnapped him as he was driving from his coffee farm in Gigante to Nevia, Huila, on August 28, 2001.16

On June 10, 2001, FARC-EP forces kidnapped Senator Luis Eladio Pérez Bonilla, president of the Exterior Relations and National Defense Commission, and Ipiales' Mayor Alfredo Almeida in the municipality of Ipiales in La Victoria, Nariño. Although the mayor was released the next day, Senator Pérez remains in captivity. Senator Pérez, a member of the Liberal Party, is the former governor of Nariño, and has been elected as a representative to the legislature twice and as a senator twice.17

The last lawmaker held hostage by members of the FARC-EP, Congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano of the Conservative Party, has been in captivity for over a year and a half. FARC-EP forces kidnapped him during a political tour on August 5, 2000, in Santa Bárbara, Caldas. Members of Congress have expressed concern about the congressman's health, as he suffers from a serious medical condition.18

That politicians or governmental officials no longer hold office has not deterred FARC-EP forces from kidnapping them. In one of the most shocking incidents of hostage-taking in 2001, FARC-EP forces kidnapped and killed Consuelo Araújo Noguera, the former cultural minister and wife of Attorney General Edgardo Maya. On September 24, 2001, Minister Araújo was returning from a religious procession when members of the FARC-EP stopped her caravan of vehicles on the highway between Patillal and Valledupar, César. In addition to holding Minister Araújo hostage, your forces also kidnapped at least ten other people in the caravan. They were soon released or rescued by the Colombian army. On September 29, 2001, authorities discovered Minister Araújo's body; she had been executed by gunshot at close range.19

In a similarly egregious case of kidnapping on July 15, 2001, by the FARC-EP, your forces kidnapped the former governor of Meta, Alan Jara Urzola, from a United Nations vehicle. Alan Jara was returning with the U.N. Development Program director and government officials from an inauguration ceremony for a bridge in Lejanías that had been built with U.N. sponsorship and was dedicated to local peace efforts. Armed members of the FARC-EP forced Alan Jara out of the van at a roadside checkpoint in the outskirts of the Planadas municipality, despite the fact that the vehicle clearly bore the markings of the United Nations, demonstrating a shocking lack of respect by your forces for members of an international organization undertaking humanitarian work in the region. A former two-term congressman of the Liberal Party, Alan Jara had been planning to run for Congress in the March elections.20

According to information Human Rights Watch has received, the FARC-EP has not made specific demands in exchange for Alan Jara's liberty.21 However, shortly after his kidnapping, the FARC-EP issued a statement, admitting responsibility for the kidnapping and accusing Alan Jara of being linked to paramilitary groups. The FARC-EP also accused Alan Jara of being responsible for murders and massacres in Meta, and stated its intention to subject Alan Jara to a so-called "popular trial."22 Human Rights Watch believes that these "trials" have no legitimacy, as the FARC-EP has in the past failed to provide even the most basic due process guarantees required by international humanitarian law in such "trials." In a disturbing number of cases, these procedures have been followed by the extrajudicial execution of the hostage, and, in several cases that Human Rights Watch has documented, the hostage's body has not even been returned to his grieving family.23


Commander Marulanda, it is imperative that you take immediate action to stop the kidnapping of all civilians in Colombia, including politicians and elected officials, by the FARC-EP forces under your command. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to order the unconditional release of all kidnapped persons currently held by FARC-EP forces, and to take all steps to ensure the safety of those held hostage by your forces.

The persistent hostage-taking by the FARC-EP is a serious violation of the fundamental protections of international humanitarian law. These protections may not be waived under any condition. As the senior commander of the FARC-EP, you are accountable for the ongoing pattern of human rights violations committed by FARC-EP forces in Colombia. You have the foremost responsibility to ensure that the requirements of international humanitarian laws meant to protect civilians from kidnapping are embraced fully by your forces without condition or further delay.

The FARC-EP's practice of hostage-taking is a serious violation of fundamental humanitarian law protections. We urge you, Commander Marulanda, to make a clear, public commitment to this effect.


José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director

1 "Boletín de Prensa Marzo 2002 sobre Secuestro en Colombia," Fundación País Libre, April 12, 2002; Fundación País Libre, statistical summary for 2001, available at

2 Colombia adopted Protocol II without reservation. República de Colombia, "Actividades del Gobierno de Colombia relativas a la aplicación del Derecho Internacional Humanitario," Santafé de Bogotá, December 1, 1995. It entered into force in Colombia on February 15, 1996.

3 For more information on FARC-EP violations of international humanitarian law, see Beyond Negotiation: International Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001); War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), pp. 131-60, 193-97.

4 Yves Sandoz and others, Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, p. 874.

5 Michael Bothe, Karl Josef Partsch, and Waldemar A. Solf, New Rules for Victims of Armed Conflicts: Commentary on the Two 1977 Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (The Hague/Boston/London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982), pp. 292-96.

6 "Militares prosiguen operativos de rescate de diputados," El Tiempo, April 11, 2002.

7 "Kidnapped Colombian presidential hopeful's candidacy to continue," BBC, February 27, 2002.

8 "El peligro de ser legislador en Colombia," Reuters, December 3, 2001.

9 Letter from Commander Manuel Marulanda to Camilo Gómez Alzate High Commission for Peace, Juan Gabriel Uribe, and Luis Fernando Críales, September 12, 2001.

10 "Dan FARC un plazo para canje de políticos," El Norte, February 28, 2002.

11 "Ultimátum de las Farc para canje de secuestrados; Ingrid y Gechem, canjeables," El Tiempo, February 27, 2002.

12 "Pastran rechazó secuestro de Betancourt y pidió respaldo internacional," El Tiempo, February 26, 2002.

13 "Ultimátum de las Farc para canje de secuestrados; Ingrid y Gechem, canjeables," El Tiempo, February 27, 2002.

14 "Nueva crisis en proceso de paz por secuestro de avión," El Tiempo, February 20, 2002.

15 "Van cuatro congresistas secuestrados," El Colombiano, September 10, 2001; "Colombian Congresswoman Kidnapped in South of Country," EFE News Service, September 12, 2001.

16 "El secuestro no deja de crecer," El Colombiano, August 30, 2001; "Rechazo por secuestro de congresista liberal en Huila," El Colombiano, August 29, 2001; "Gunmen snatch Colombia congressman near rebel zone," Reuters News, August 28, 2001.

17 "Las Farc volvieron por el senador Luis Eladio Pérez," El Colombiano, June 13, 2001; "Kidnapping of senator sparks tension in Senate," BBC, June 13, 2001; "Colombian FARC rebels kidnap senator," Reuters News, June 12, 2001.

18 "Colombian Congress Asks that Kidnapped Legislator Be Released," EFE News Service, May 31, 2001; "Oscar Lizcano, un año secuestrado," El Colombiano, August 7, 2001.

19 "Hallan cadáver baleado de ex ministra colombiana secuestrada por las Farc," El Colombiano, September 30, 2001; "Secuestrada la ex ministra de cultura, Consuelo Araújo," El Colombiano, September 25, 2001; "Ex ministra sigue en poder de las Farc tras la liberación de 20 rehenes," El Colombiano, September 25, 2001; "Liberan secuestrados junto a ex ministra colombiana," Associated Press, September 25, 2001.

20 "Rebels Admit Colombia Kidnapping," Associated Press, July 19, 2001; "NU reclama a las Farc por secuestro de ex gobernador," El Colombiano, July 17, 2001; "Plagian a un dirigente del Meta," El Colombiano, July 16, 2001.

21 Communication (e-mail) from Maria Cecilia Jaimes Amado, Special Prosecutor, National Human Rights Unit, Office of the Attorney General, to Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2002

22 Communiqué from the Bloque Oriental of the FARC-EP, July 19, 2001; "FARC issue statement on kidnap of ex-governor, question of UN neutrality," BBC, July 19, 2001; "Rebels Admit Colombia Kidnapping," Associated Press Online, July 19, 2001.

23 For a discussion of the guarantees for fair and impartial trials required under international humanitarian law and a discussion of abductions and extrajudicial executions perpetrated by the FARC-EP, see Beyond Negotiation: International Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001), pp. 6, 7-11.