The U.K. release of “My Kidnapper,” a documentary film about a British former hostage’s meeting with his captors, ex-members of Colombian rebel group ELN, draws attention to the declining role of guerrilla organizations in the country’s kidnapping industry.
Mark Henderson was kidnapped in northern Colombia in 2003 and held prisoner for more than three months before being released. Some months later he was contacted by one of the guerrillas who had held him prisoner, alias “Antonio”, who had since deserted and started a new life away from his former comrades. The two decided to meet.
Antonio is one of thousands of guerrillas who have deserted Colombia’s guerrilla groups in recent years, with more than 2,800 demobilizing in 2010 alone, according to official figures. The government claims that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) have declined in membership to a combined total of less than 10,000, down from some 19,000 in 2002, due to increased pressure from the security forces. The guerrillas’ ability to kidnap with impunity has diminished along with their membership, hitting a major source of revenue. As well as kidnapping to exert political pressure, as in the case of Henderson, Colombia’s guerrilla groups derived a large part of their income from kidnapping for ransom.
The film’s opening comes days after Colombian NGO Pais Libre, citing government statistics, revealed that Colombia saw a rise in kidnapping in 2010 for the first time in eight years. The organization reported a 32% jump from the previous year, to 282 cases.
But behind these discouraging figures, one of the developments illustrated by Pais Libre’s report is the increasing number of kidnappings carried out by “common criminals,” or emerging criminal groups (‘bandas criminales’, called ‘BACRIMS’ by the government) as opposed to guerrillas.
In the years 1996 to 2006 the ELN and FARC combined were responsible for more than 50% of all kidnapping cases, according to government figures, while only around 15% of kidnappings were carried out by ordinary criminals. The latest statistics illustrate a dramatic increase in the proportion of kidnappings ascribed to common criminals, who were held responsible for 57% of cases last year compared to the guerrilla groups’ 34%. The rise in kidnapping in 2010, according to Pais Libre’s figures, is driven more by the rise in abductions by these criminals than by any single group.
This phenomenon could to be attributed to the mis-reporting of kidnappings, with unsolved cases blamed on common criminals rather than on the guerrillas. Also relevant is that these groups sometimes abduct people in order to sell them to guerrillas, but overall it is an indication of the decline of the reach and power of guerrilla organizations.
Harried by the armed forces and pushed into more remote regions by the government security drive over the last decade, both the FARC and the ELN have seen a decline in their capacity to hold hostages for a long period. Government attacks have pushed the guerrillas into increasingly remote areas and forced them to keep on the move. The rebels used to be able to seize and hold hostages with impunity, but in the last decade tightened security in urban areas has made it harder to seize wealthy captives, while government air raids have made large, permanent camps more risky to maintain and have disrupted rebel communications and supply lines. Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the FARC, have seen their leadership depleted, with three members of the seven-man Secretariat killed since 2008, two by government forces and one by a bounty-seeking guerrilla deserter.
At the peak of the FARC’s kidnapping binge, in 1998, the group carried out more than 1,000 kidnappings in a year. The figure underwent a steady decline from 2002, falling to 44 cases in 2009. Kidnappings by the ELN rebel group followed a similar pattern, falling from over 900 hostages a year in both 2000 and 2001 to 16 in 2009.
The decreased power of the guerrillas to hold people for long periods means that kidnappings have become shorter, with less money demanded in ransom. The head of the armed forces’ elite anti-kidnapping unit General Humberto Guatibonza said in December 2010 that kidnappings now last an average of 11 days, while ransoms tend to range from $15,000 to $80,000. “With this the criminals seek to get a quick financial gain and not to risk much, as opposed to what was happening before, when a person could spend many years in captivity until their family paid multi-million figures,” said the general.
Government security gains also forced the guerrillas to end the practice of mass kidnapping, pioneered in the late 1990s by the ELN. In 1999 the group hijacked a plane, taking everyone on board hostage, and some months later interrupted a church service in Cali, kidnapping 140 members of the congregation. These were followed by other random mass abductions, in which both the FARC and ELN guerrillas would set up roadblocks on major highways and take prisoner any driver who appeared able to pay a ransom. This tactic destroyed much of the popularity base of both guerrilla groups, as it involved a move away from kidnapping a small number of rich people, who would pay a large sum in ransom, and towards kidnapping large numbers of middle class and even poor people. This over-reliance on kidnapping led to widespread resentment from the population, which in turn helped create an environment in which Alvaro Uribe’s government could muster support for its massive drive against the rebel groups.
In “My Kidnapper” former guerrilla Antonio discusses the failings of the policy of kidnapping, reports the Daily Telegraph. “While politically [the kidnapping] had been a success,” Antonio says, “and the press in Europe and Colombia had been focused on the Sierra Nevada, in real terms it was a total failure. It was the beginning of the end of the ELN there. We were never prepared for the military attacks.”