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BOGOTA, Colombia — Easter Week is the holiest — and quietest — time of year in Latin America. People hole up in churches or evacuate the cities to stake their sandy claims on crowded beaches. The end result for on-duty journalists is a news vacuum.
But this week, Colombian reporters have been scrambling.
Courtesy of the FARC guerrillas, the nation has been treated to a macabre spectacle on live television in which the rebels handed over two live hostages and one dead one.
The FARC has never been known for its PR savvy and this was the rebel organization’s twisted version of Easter compassion.
One of the released soldiers, Sgt. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, had been held in the jungle for more than 12 years.
He was 19 when he was captured and emerged as a stunned 32-year-old who’d been gone so long that as he stepped off a military helicopter he didn’t even recognize one of the people hugging him: his own sister.
The sergeant’s father, Gustavo Moncayo, became a national figure for walking across Colombia to call attention to his son’s plight.
But the elder Moncayo was also a fierce critic of the Colombian government and FARC commanders were more than happy to stonewall, hedge and delay the release of the son as the father publicly berated President Alvaro Uribe.
Equally cruel was the FARC’s handling of Colombian Police Lt. Col. Julian Guevara. He was taken hostage in 1998 and died of a mysterious tropical illness eight years later while still in captivity.
Not only did the rebels refuse to release the gravely ill Guevara on humanitarian grounds, but they took four long years just to give up his bones. And in a final act of cynicism, the FARC offered Guevara military “honors.”
“If they wanted to honor him, they should have released him rather than letting him die in captivity,” said Frank Pearl, the government peace commissioner.
The FARC was holding these government troops in an effort to trade them for imprisoned guerrillas. But the Uribe government has refused because many of the rebel jailbirds had been convicted for crimes such as kidnapping, extortion and murder.
Officials were loath to set them free so they could create more havoc. And they have a good point.
But the end result has been stalemate and a humanitarian crisis. More than 20 hostages have died in the jungle as the two sides wrangled while the FARC still holds about 20 government troops.
“Neither side is truly interested in a humanitarian gesture. They’re more concerned with calculations and strategy,” said an editorial in the Bogota daily El Espectador.
The FARC chose Easter Week to stage its prisoner release, knowing it would dominate the news and perhaps put more pressure on Uribe to OK a prisoner exchange. But the rebels miscalculated.
Uribe stands as the most beloved Colombian president in decades precisely because he has refused to give in to the guerrillas. What’s more, the front-runners in the May 30 presidential election are parroting Uribe’s hard-line, anti-FARC rhetoric.
It's more likely that turning over hostages and body bags during Easter Week will bolster support for the government’s hard-line policies — and remind Colombians of the FARC’s unholy practices.