The rebel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have escalated their attacks against the security forces while seeking to raise their political profile by promising to release several hostages.
A rebel attack on Saturday in San Vicente de Caguan, Caqueta, left nine people dead, including an 11-year-od girl who died in the crossfire. The rebels were reportedly attempting to take over a police station. Considering that throughout 2010, the most common rebel attacks consisted of planting anti-personnel mines or hit-and-run sniper attacks, this all-out assault was atypical for the FARC. This is the kind of bold tactic not seen since the peak of the guerrillas' strength in southeastern Caqueta, when the government granted them a rebel "safezone" here between 1998 and 2002. The attack was unsuccessful and five rebels were killed by soliders.
In separate actions in the same region, the FARC set off three bombs last week in Neiva, Huila, in attacks linked to extortion demands. All this seems to back up declarations made by top FARC commander Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias "Alfonso Cano," that the FARC plan to "double" their activity in 2011.
The FARC have stepped up their military actions just as former liberal senator Piedad Cordoba is finalizing the logistics of an upcoming hostage release by the guerrillas. The rebels announced on December 8 that they would release five hostages as a "humanitarian gesture" to Cordoba, who was suspended from office in September for allegedly "promoting and collaborating" with the FARC.
The timing of the San Vicente de Caguan attack indicates that when it comes to hostage releases, these are not merely humanitarian gestures by the FARC. These liberations are opportunities for the FARC to dominate media headlines, sometimes for months, and promote their stated desire for a negotiated, political solution, even as their continued military actions suggest otherwise. Hostage releases are also opportunities for the FARC to try and discredit the government, by making President Santos look uncompromising by refusing to cede to the guerrillas' demands for a prisoner exchange.
During last year's much publicized release of Corporal Pablo Moncayo, held hostage by the guerrilla since 1997, the FARC again accompanied the negotiations with an increase in offensive actions. The weeks preceding Moncayo's release on March 31, 2010, saw a car bombing in the Pacific port of Buenaventura, a road bomb in Cauca and the death of a 12-year-old boy carrying explosives, all actions attributed to the FARC.
Similarly, not long after Alfonso Cano appeared in a video message in late July asking the government to "sit down and talk," the FARC followed the announcement with more military activity. This included the bombing of Caracol Radio on August 12, and the deaths of 14 police officers during a guerrilla ambush in Caqueta, events which quickly led the government to declare that dialogue was not an option.
The FARC's refusal to cease its military activity has complicated the position of groups like Colombians for Peace (CPP), led by Cordoba, who promote negotiated solutions to the conflict and who have proven key in facilitating humanitarian exchanges.
The FARC are currently holding 15 police and military personnel as political hostages and an unknown number of Colombian civilians for ransom.