Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos unilaterally suspended ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrillas on Sunday just hours after an army general and two aides were kidnapped in a jungle area of Chocó department, in the western part of the country.
“These negotiations are suspended until this is cleared up and these people are freed,” Santos announced following news that General Rubén Darío Alzate, a corporal and a military lawyer, had been abducted on an estate known as Las Mercedes. “Tomorrow the negotiators will not be traveling to Havana,” he said.
Santos was re-elected to a second presidential term in June, largely on the promise of taking the negotiations with the guerrilla group to good term after two years of discussions in Havana.
The talks, which were taking place despite the fact that the FARC never called a formal truce, have deeply divided Colombian society. However, the international community has been highly supportive of the project and Santos undertook a European tour earlier this month to drum up support and discuss financial backing for a post-conflict Colombia.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said all preliminary evidence suggested that the FARC was behind the abductions. “According to the intelligence information in our power, to the operations underway in a nearby area, and to testimony from someone who was there but avoided getting kidnapped, it is believed that the kidnappers are members of FARC’s Front 34, one of the criminal units in that area,” said Pinzón.
General Alzate went missing while he was inspecting an energy project underway in what is one of Colombia’s poorest areas.
Local dailies, which had access to a military report, published that the officer was traveling on a boat down Atrato River and decided to make a stop in Las Mercedes, a spot with a significant guerrilla presence, despite warnings not to do so.
“When they were within the community, the military men and the lawyer were caught by guerrilla members of FARC’s Front 34, who immediately took the general hostage even though he was wearing civilian clothes,” wrote El Espectador in its digital edition, citing military sources.
President Santos has asked to know why the general was in a “red zone” in breach of all security protocols.
The hostage-taking comes two days after the FARC admitted that it had two other soldiers who were captured on November 9 during fighting between the army and the guerrilla group. The latter considers them “prisoners of war” and claims that it has not violated a 2012 order to stop kidnapping people for ransom.
The Titan Task Force under General Alzate’s command was created early this year and includes a contingent of nearly 2,500 servicemen whose mission is to combat two FARC fronts as well as the western front of ELN, Colombia’s other guerrilla group, both of which operate in the department of Chocó.