Yesterday Colombia's FARC rebels released the last of their security force hostages, a group of ten police officers and soldiers who have been held for more than 12 years. Although initially it was believed that only five would be released yesterday, all ten were handed over in the joint operation orchestrated by the Colombian and Brazilian governments, the ICRC, and Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz.
The men were picked up in a Brazilian military helicopter, and taken from the jungle to the city of Villavicencio, where they were reunited with relatives and appeared before television cameras waving Colombian flags and punching the air. Afterwards they were flown to Bogota, where President Juan Manuel Santos gave a speech welcoming their return.
While the release has been widely seen as a sign that negotiations between the government and the guerrilla group are not far off, Santos tempered these hopes somewhat by declaring that the incident was “not enough” to start direct peace talks, according to El Tiempo. Santos then called on the rebels to also free the hundreds of civilian hostages they possess, saying “You must release the kidnapped civilians still held, and must account to the families of each and every one of them.” According to the Fundacion Pais Libre, a Colombian NGO, there are some 405 civilians currently held by the FARC.
If there are to be negotiations in the near future, there is much speculation over what the next step should be in the process. Semana Magazine has a roundup of several ex-officials’ and commentators’ opinions on the matter. La Silla Vacia claims that the FARC will now expect the government to show some good will towards the group’s imprisoned members, allowing peace group to visit them and monitor their conditions. Former Justice Minister Jaime Castro told El Tiempo that the government will want to negotiate privately and outside the country with the rebels, likely without declaring a ceasefire.
While the status of peace negotiations is unclear, unless the FARC offer a major gesture of peace (like freeing its civilian hostages) it is highly improbable that talks will occur before 2014, when President Santos is expected to run for re-election. In a second term, he would not be so concerned about his political image and thus have much more elbow room to broker peace.
· State newspaper El Ciudadano reports that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas in protest against the exclusion of Cuba. BBC notes that he is the first state leader to do so, despite talk of an ALBA-wide boycott.
· Cuba has apparently fulfilled a request by Pope Benedict to make Good Friday an official holiday on the island, reports the AP. The government claims the decision was made after Benedict's "transcendental visit,” but it has not yet made a verdict on whether the holiday will be permanent or not.
· The LA Times profiles drug violence in the industrial Mexican city of Monterrey, which has caused residents to adopt a “culture of fear” and initiated an exodus of skilled workers, entrepreneurs, and artists.
· InSight Crime’s Patrick Corcoran takes a look at a series of Mexico-related gaffes made by US officials in recent weeks, which he claims show a lack of understanding of the violence in Mexico and its causes.
· A moderate 6.3 earthquake hit southwestern Mexico yesterday, which experts claimed was likely an aftershock of last month’s larger 7.4 quake. No injuries were reported, and the Wall Street Journal offers a humorous take on the incident by relating it to rumors of the upcoming Mayan apocalypse. One Mexico City cell phone salesman dismisses the prophecy, saying "They couldn't keep their own civilization going. How much did they know?”
· The truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs seems to be holding. According to national police, homicides in March were down by 40 percent compared to the number of homicides in February. El Faro has an interview with Raul Mijango, who was allegedly the key figure in negotiating the truce.
· On Monday, Argentina and Britain commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War. The LA Times has more on the Argentine commemoration of the conflict, and its World Now blog highlights the public anger still felt by some in the country, illustrated by a remarkable photo of protestors burning Prince William in effigy yesterday.
· Security Analyst James Bosworth takes a look at a long-term public opinion poll of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, noting that support for the president has been steadily rising since the announcement of his cancer diagnosis.
· An ex-governor in Venezuela and former Chavez ally has died after being attacked by gunmen in a restaurant in central Aragua state. AP notes that the governor was a supporter of Chavez but resigned in the wake of criticism from the president.
· The Miami Herald reports that a Haitian senator and political ally of both President Michel Martelly and Dominican President Leonel Fernandez is under investigation for allegedly using his position to gain lucrative reconstruction contracts after the earthquake.