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Protests held against Colombian kidnappings

Liz Miller | Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A protest against violence and kidnappings committed by a guerrilla group that began as a Colombian Facebook group in January expanded into a day of protest marches in over 100 cities worldwide Monday. Notre Dame’s campus club Organizacion Latino Americana held a rosary in solidarity with the marches Monday night in the Cavanaugh chapel.

The largest guerrilla group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was established in 1964 by the Colombian Communist party. It is considered a terrorist group because of its kidnapping, narcotics trafficking and traditional military action against the Colombian military.

The Facebook group and worldwide protests were triggered in part by the delayed release of two political hostages, though popular sentiment against the kidnappings has been building for decades.

Organizacion Latino Americana (OLA) is trying to help students “become more aware of what’s going on in Latin America,” club president Carla Sanchez said.

Club member Santiago Garces, a sophomore from Colombia who heard about the protest marches through Facebook, suggested the rosary service.

“We have had 40 years of suffering and every story gets even worse,” Garces said. “I’ve heard people who were kidnapped tell their stories, there are no words.”

Garces lamented that class prevented Notre Dame students from attending the march in Chicago.

“Part of the responsibility I have as a Colombian is to do well in school so that when I go back I can be a better person,” he said.

One Notre Dame graduate student, Hubert George, has had personal experience with the kidnapping threats in Colombia.

George’s family moved from their home in Barranquilla, Colombia, to Miami five years ago after receiving increasing numbers of threats from the FARC.

In Colombia, George’s father had been a neurologist and mayor of the coastal city of Barranquilla from 1995 to 1997.

“In all that period, you always have threats,” George said. “I had my bodyguard wait for me after school. It’s not comfortable to deal with.”

After his brief political involvement, George’s father went back to his medical practice. He considered running for office again, at which point the threats increased.

“My father got scared whenever they mentioned his child,” George said. “They wanted to speak to him about his political agenda.

“These people, to get their goals, they do whatever they want, and kidnapping is one of the means that they use to put pressure on anyone they want. Kidnapping, and the way they treat hostages, is against humanitarian law.”

George compared the barbed wire-surrounded FARC hostage camps to the concentration camps of World War II.

In order to escape encountering members of FARC, George’s family moved to the United States in March 2003, when he was 20 years old.

The family arrived as tourists and was granted political asylum within three months.

“It was a very, very, very hard experience for me,” George said. “It’s not easy to deal with this big changes.”

The move was also difficult for George’s parents, who had established careers in Colombia. After 30 years of practicing in Colombia, where he had been president of the Colombian Neurological Association, George’s father is trying to enter residency in the United States.

“That’s something I admire,” George said. “My mother was a philosopher and a lawyer in Colombia, but here she has nothing to do.”

George’s brother is currently living in Sweden, where he helped to organize the protest march in Stockholm.

“This march is to let people know that Colombians are against FARC’s actions, against kidnappings, and it is to ask [FARC] to release those civilians that are not related with the war and government,” George said.

Scott Mainwaring, director of the Kellogg Institute, said FARC and other guerrilla groups were formed throughout Latin America in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

The formation of FARC was “nothing all that unusual,” he said.

“What is remarkable is how durable this group has been and how powerful it has become,” he said.

Not until the 1980s, with the group involved in illegal drug running, did “you get a gradual intensification of what had been an almost irrelevant, low-scale conflict,” Mainwaring said. “At one point it was a grotesquely misguided idealism. Today there is clearly a significant dose of opportunism, money making and cynicism as well.”

Mainwaring said there have been human rights violations by all the guerilla groups, but pressure from the United States has prompted the Colombian government to reduce state involvement in human rights abuses.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made “a great improvement in the security system of his country,” Mainwaring said.

OLA member Garces said guerilla groups have focused recently on improving their international appearance.

“That makes you sick,” Garces said. “Obviously it’s people who are not informed about what’s going on. They are misled in believing these people are freedom fighters.”

The groups may have some legitimacy behind their aims, but not their means, Garces said.

“The reasons the guerilla groups are formed – social injustice – are things that need to be combated, but what it has turned into is a business of death,” he said.

Both George and Garces emphasized the significance of a unified movement.

“If a lot of people are doing a march, it will be very clear to everyone that they are terrorists,” George said. “Maybe that’s not clear.”

Garces said the protests are “the first time that Colombia as a whole stands up and claims we’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

He emphasized the importance of the protests for national wellbeing.

“I think everyone in Colombia has been stained by the war and the guerilla,” he said.

Garces said his family had a narrow escape with the guerillas. At his family’s home city of Cali, guerilla fighters entered a church during the Sunday Mass and kidnapped all the parishioners.

“Fortunately, my uncles went to Mass on Saturday instead of Sunday,” he said.