Freeing Hands for Peace

How a new organization in Colombia is helping to rehabilitate former antigovernment rebels—and make the FARC history.

July marks the first anniversary of a little-known Colombian organization, Manos Por La Paz (Hands for Peace), and a very successful year it has been. Founded by imprisoned guerrillas of the country's two most vicious narco-trafficking terror organizations, the self-styled, ultra-left freedom-fighting groups FARC and ELN, Manos Por La Paz has a clear but complicated mission: permit imprisoned guerrillas to demobilize and apply for trial under the government's Justice and Peace law. Launched spontaneously by prisoners who did not wish to be exchanged for FARC hostages, the group has benefited from the sharply reduced popularity of the terrorist groups, become a major movement within Colombia's prisons and is now spreading to guerrilla groups in remote parts of the country.

The FARC, the largest of several guerrilla organizations, has terrorized Colombian citizens for more than four decades, but in recent years has seen popular opinion swing sharply against it, even as its membership has more than halved. In February, some 10 million citizens in cities and towns across Colombia demonstrated against the seemingly endless kidnappings and bombings of the FARC and other groups. March saw the deaths of three of the top seven FARC leaders, and two top comandantes voluntarily surrendered in April.

As FARC guerrilla numbers dropped from an estimated twenty thousand to eight thousand, Colombia's neighboring radical leaders, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, called for the guerrillas to stop their fight and negotiate with the Colombian government, reversing their previous support for the revolutionaries. Chavez and Correa had provided (and very possibly still condone) cross-border sanctuaries; Chavez undertook major financial dealings involving export of Colombian cocaine from Venezuela to Europe and the United States.

Then came the crowning achievement to date of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's administration: the freeing of fifteen high-profile FARC hostages on July 3, without a shot being fired. In short, events of the past year have given great impetus to Manos Por La Paz, as imprisoned guerrillas have realized they are on the losing side.

But there is more to the success of "Manos" than the sharp drop in the terror groups' fortunes. There has been a quiet revolution inside Colombia's unfriendly jails, as guerrillas understand that they oppose the will of the vast majority of Colombians and that their self-proclaimed Marxist idealist leaders are engaged in nothing more than enriching themselves while the troops languish in primitive conditions in remote parts of the country.

In just twelve months, seven hundred of some two thousand imprisoned terrorists have signed a Manos Por La Paz declaration that it took many government authorities nearly that long to realize was not a trick designed to secure their early release. Quite the contrary: neither the prisoners nor their organization are seeking special treatment, recognizing they must pay for their crimes.

Liduine Zumpolle, representing the Dutch NGO Foundation Support Reconciliation Colombia, has forty years' experience in Colombia and Latin America (she also represents an NGO devoted to Cuba, Fundacion Cuba Futuro). Zumpolle believes most terrorists "are victims themselves. They are not angels but were either forced by the FARC or by their very poor living circumstances, many sincerely believing armed struggle was the way to a more just society."

Fortunately, Colombia's Vice President, Francisco Santos, realized what motivated the founders of Manos Por La Paz and those who opted for prison rather than returning to terrorism. Senior military figures, moreover, understood that repentant prisoners could be excellent intelligence sources.

 General Freddy Padilla de Leon, commander of Colombia's armed forces, considers Manos' success to be directly correlated to the guerrillas' realization that "their leaders are enriching themselves while they live the most difficult lives imaginable. They come from the poorest rural areas of the country, in most cases conscripted against their families' will at ages usually ranging from 12 to 15. With little education, they are easily converted into idealistic revolutionaries."

The Vice President's special advisor in demobilizing terrorists, Mario Agudelo, notes that "about 200 imprisoned guerrillas decided to form a dissident group, and their work has led to a remarkable movement within Colombia's prisons. This is unprecedented."

Equally unprecedented is insufficient aid provided the innocent victims of the terrorists, which has driven thousands of families to beg on the streets of major cities. Although the government is working to provide assistance via Plan Colombia and other foreign-supported services, Agudelo observes there has been "no major effort to assist the victims of the guerrillas and paramilitary groups."

Numberless guerrillas, like their counterparts in the so-called right-wing paramilitary organizations, joined the outlaw groups in their preteens, in some cases when nine or ten years old. Once separated from their families, the boys learned the rudiments of soldiering and were forced to commit terrorist acts. Common assignments are laying land mines, kidnapping selected targets and burning villages-the more gruesome the better-so the forcefully recruited youngsters become hardened and simultaneously fearful of harsh treatment by Colombian security forces if captured.

The FARC has been mindful that they must keep a close eye on their terrorist troops. One of the seized laptop computers of the senior FARC leader known as Raul Reyes, killed by a Colombian Air Force missile strike on March 1, held thousands of incriminating data sheets, including photos of FARC fighters.