Wednesday, November 26, 2014

FARC Release Captured Soldiers: 2 Down, 3 to Go

Colombia’s peace talk crisis cleared another hurdle yesterday as FARC guerrillas released two soldiers who had been taken as prisoners last month in the northern department of Arauca. The rebels have yet to release their three most controversial captives, a necessary precondition for negotiations to continue, but FARC leaders say they will likely be handed over by the coming weekend.

Semana reports that that the two were presented to an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team along the border with Venezuela. In addition to the head of the ICRC in Colombia, Christoph Harnisch, the team was accompanied by representatives of the Cuban and Norwegian governments, further illustrating the importance of their role as guarantor nations. According to El Espectador, the soldiers were then taken to a military hospital in Bogota where they were greeted by Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.

While the release of the two soldiers is a positive development, the government has been clear that the Havana talks won’t resume until the FARC turn over General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions, who were captured in the department of Choco on November 16.  

Fortunately, all signs indicate the rebels are moving forward with the release, despite issuing a warning on Sunday that military operations in Choco could jeopardize the operation. In a press conference yesterday, the FARC negotiator known by the alias Pablo Catatumbo told journalists: “If all goes well, I think this weekend we will be able to say the general has returned home.” Ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has helped facilitate FARC captive releases in the past, told El Colombiano that she had been told the release would take place either today or Thursday.

Even once the captives are freed and the talks resume, the toll of the recent weeks’ drama on the negotiating climate remains to be seen. President Juan Manuel Santos appears to be hopeful on this front, telling reporters that the release of the two soldiers shows the “maturity of the peace talks,” as Caracol Radio reports. However, FARC leader Timochenko has said that Santos “changed the rules of the game” by halting talks because of the general’s capture, and that moving forward the negotiations will have to take “diverse considerations” into account.

La Silla Vacia points out that while it is unclear what these new considerations may be, it is apparent that both sides’ faith in talks has been tested. Meanwhile, time is running out for both sides to put an eventual agreement to a vote, at least if they hope to hold it alongside 2015 regional elections.  As the news site has noted, a final accord would have to be signed by February 2015 in order for Congress to authorize holding a referendum in the October vote.

News Briefs
  • Building on previous statements by his interior minister, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto yesterday claimed to be preparing a plan to reform the rule of law in the country. As Reforma reports, the president said his plan would require a “collective effort” by lawmakers and society in general in order to “prevent the unfortunate events in Iguala from repeating themselves.”
  • Mexico’s main left-wing opposition party, the PRD, was dealt a major blow yesterday to its already tattered image in the wake of public criticism of the party’s ties to political corruption in Guerrero state. As El Universal reports, PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas -- who has played an important elder statesman role over the years -- renounced his ties to the party, criticizing current leadership’s decisions on based on “short-sightedness, opportunism and complacency.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on a proposed Brazilian law which would change the way the country calculates its national budget, which critics see as an attempt by the Rousseff administration to get around missing its budget target for the year.
  • Folha de S. Paulo has an update on the case of Amarildo de Souza, the Rio de Janeiro bricklayer whose disappearance and murder set off mass protests last year. According to the paper, the government of Rio state has been ordered by a judge to pay Souza’s family for overdue pension funds, as well as to subsidize medical and psychological treatment for their ordeal.
  • InSight Crime features a highly informative analysis of Venezuela’s “colectivos,” or militant leftist groups with various functions and structures that have both worked and clashed with state agents. While the government of President Nicolas Maduro has a mixed relationship with these groups, the author notes that it is clear that they have enough political capital to make the administration avoid direct confrontation with them.
  • In another look at growing alternatives to traditional state power in Venezuela, the Washington Post reports on government-supported communes, an initiative that some critics say is meant to help undermine opposition-controlled local governments.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has returned to her regular duties, making her first public appearance yesterday after being hospitalized three weeks ago for a colon infection.
  • Wrapping up a two-day visit to Cuba, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo took the opportunity to remark yesterday that the government of Spain “would like to see a more rapid pace to the economic reforms” on the island, with a view towards allowing more private initiative and foreign investment.
  • In a recent New York Times op-ed, journalist Tina Rosenberg profiles the epidemiological  law enforcement strategy of Cali Mayor Rodrigo Guerrero, who used rigorous statistical analysis to support policies aimed at mportant homicide reductions in his city.
  • Also on Colombia, the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program has a new report out this week on the FARC’s ties to Colombia's illegal drug trade. While author John Otis finds that there is little evidence the guerrillas are involved in high-level international retail of cocaine, he notes that the group’s control over coca-growing areas and drug smuggling corridors make it “far more powerful and influential than any of the country’s more traditional drug trafficking organizations.”