Recruiting rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia — By executing a top guerrilla commander, hacking off his right hand as proof of the macabre deed, then turning himself in to the Colombian Army, rebel bodyguard Pedro Montoya figured he’d be hailed as a hero.

After all, the man he killed, Ivan Rios, was part of the ruling secretariat of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, known as the FARC. Rios was such a big fish that the Colombian government had offered about $2 million for information leading to his capture.

But rather than receiving amnesty and a fat check, Montoya sits in a dank Bogota prison cell under investigation for murder, kidnapping and other crimes. More than a year after killing Rios, he claims that he hasn’t gotten his hands on one peso of the reward money and says his shabby treatment will discourage other fighters from breaking with their rebel groups.

“Who will want to turn himself in only to rot in jail?” Montoya said in an interview at the sprawling La Picota prison, which sits in a south Bogota slum.

The Montoya controversy is one of several recent high-profile incidents that call into question the Colombian government’s handling of Marxist guerrillas who have given up the cause and switched sides.

Montoya claims he's been betrayed. But his protests come at a time when many critics are slamming the government for making what they say are too many concessions to guerrilla turncoats.

Then there is the controversial matter of offering cash rewards for turning in guerrilla leaders and the unstated — but implicit — message that these chieftains are wanted dead or alive. Some analysts believe the policy will lead to Old West-style vendettas or — as in the case of Pedro Montoya — mafia-style hit jobs.

"It's a perverse logic that promotes more criminal behavior," said Olga Lucia Gomez, who heads a Bogota foundation that counsels the relatives of FARC-held hostages.

Others contend that the government's strategy is paying off.

The FARC, a Marxist rebel army that has been fighting against the government since the mid-1960s, has suffered a series of defeats amid a five-year-long Colombian Army offensive. One of the government’s most effective weapons has been a campaign to convince guerrillas to desert and turn over information in exchange for cash and, in some cases, legal amnesty.

Last year, more than 3,000 rebels deserted.

Many of these former guerrillas were mid-level commanders who have provided key  intelligence that has paved the way for successful army operations. Two FARC deserters have guided rebel-held hostages to freedom.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos called the rebel demobilizations “one of the most important developments” in the war, adding: “It creates a snowball effect."

But some of the government’s incentives have sparked protests.

This month, two incarcerated FARC rebels — Raul Agudelo and a former female commander with a bloodthirsty reputation known as “Karina” — were temporarily released from prison to serve as government “peace envoys” in an effort to convince more guerrillas to disarm.

Critics accused the government of bending over backwards for criminals, ignoring the rights of their victims and trampling on the country’s judicial institutions.

Agudelo, for example, had already been captured, convicted and sentenced for kidnapping and other crimes. For her part, “Karina” failed to express any remorse for her alleged role in guerrilla attacks on towns in which scores of innocent civilians were killed.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said that providing judicial benefits to guerrillas convicted of grave crimes such as kidnappings would be “a total distortion.”

“You need clear rules,” he said. “Yet the whole principle of the rule of law becomes subject to chronic renegotiation.”

In the curious case of Pedro Montoya, many analysts believe that government intelligence agents convinced him to kill FARC commander Ivan Rios.

Montoya, 34, joined the FARC as a teenager and gradually worked his way up the ranks to become the main bodyguard for Rios, one of seven members of the rebel organization’s ruling secretariat. In the interview, Montoya said that his fellow Marxist rebels accused him of spying for the military and were about to execute him. So he decided to act first.

In late March 2008, Montoya snuck up on his sleeping boss in the dead of night and shot him in the forehead. He also executed the rebel leader’s girlfriend. Afterwards, Montoya pulled out a knife, hacked off Rios’ right hand, and wrapped the bloody paw in a piece of cloth.

Montoya and three fellow FARC members then hiked through the mountains for 24 hours and surrendered to an army patrol.

Stunned officers placed the severed hand in a Styrofoam cooler for transport back to Bogota, where Rios’ identity was confirmed. The news was a huge blow to the FARC. The rebel organization had lost high-ranking leaders on the battlefield, but this was an execution by an aide de camp.

The killing "shows that the government’s policy of offering rewards works," said Ariel Avila, a Bogota political analyst.

The Colombian government claimed that Montoya had acted out of desperation because his FARC unit was surrounded by army soldiers, food supplies were running low, and he feared he would be killed by the advancing troops.

But the Bogota newsweekly Cambio later reported that Montoya had cut a deal with army intelligence to kill Rios and collect the bounty.

Either way, the money has become a major bone of contention.

The Defense Ministry claimed that Montoya and his three fellow rebel deserters were each paid $320,000 for information they provided about the FARC, not for the actual killing of Rios.

But Montoya’s money, which was deposited in a Bogota bank account last year, has been frozen by the Attorney General’s office, which wants to use those funds as reparations for the victims of four kidnappings that the former rebel allegedly helped pull off.

Still, Montoya harbors plans to eventually cash in. He refuses to spell out the exact details of how he killed Rios because he is shopping around his story for a possible book or movie deal.

Read more about FARC:

Life as a FARC hostage

Colombian ex-captives consider politics