Facebook Used to Mobilize Against FARC

The social-networking site Facebook is being used for more than socializing. In Colombia, a Facebook page dedicated to protesting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that country's largest rebel group, is helping organize thousands of people in cities around the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: And I'm Renee Montagne. When hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets yesterday to demonstrate against a big rebel group there, it wasn't a first. Colombians have protested before, demanding that the rebels release hundreds of hostages. But this time, organizers did do something different. They drummed up support using the social networking site Facebook.

NPR's Juan Forero reports.

(Soundbite of protest)

JUAN FORERO: Protesters chanted no more FARC, no more FARC, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group that's been kidnapping people for years. Here in the Venezuelan capital, more than 2,000 people, many of them Colombian, hit the streets. Among them was Alivio Cerna(ph), a Colombian who's been here since 1957.

Mr. ALIVIO CERNA: We want that all the people in Colombia can live in peace.

FORERO: Support was generated in recent weeks on Facebook and in the media. By Monday afternoon, police in Columbia said nearly five million people were protesting in that country, with many thousands more as far away as Tokyo, Washington and Paris. The FARC holds 750 hostages, many of them pawns the group uses to win the release of rebels in Colombian jails. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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Q&A: The FARC and the Colombia Hostage Situation

Map of Columbia i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Columbia
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

After several weeks of negotiations, Colombian guerrillas freed two women held hostage for more than five years on Jan. 10.

The women — Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez — were picked up by helicopter from an undisclosed location in Colombia's jungle and flown to freedom. Their release was brokered by Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, and raised hopes of freedom for others still held hostage by the rebels.

In addition to Betancourt, those still in captivity include three American security contractors who were captured in 2003. The Colombian government has renewed attempts to set up a prisoner exchange with a Marxist rebel group, but many such efforts have collapsed in the past.

Here is some background on the hostage situation:

Who are the hostages?

There are at least 750 people held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — known by its Spanish acronym FARC. Most are held for ransom to support the insurgent group's operations, but the FARC has offered around 60 as "exchangeable." They include police, soldiers and local government officials whom the FARC wants to exchange for about 500 of its own members now in Colombian jails.

Are any of the hostages well-known?

The most high-profile captive is Ingrid Betancourt, a former member of the Colombian Senate who was captured when she attempted to take her presidential campaign into rebel-occupied territory. Betancourt, now 45, has been held for nearly six years. Recent video captured by the Colombian government showed her sitting dejectedly in what appears to be a jungle setting. Relatives say that she appears to be extremely thin and weak. Because Betancourt holds dual Colombian and French citizenship, the French government has been active in efforts to gain her release.

Who are the American captives?

The recent videos show three Americans who were captured in February 2003, when their small plane went down in a rebel-held area. The men — Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsavles and Keith Stansell — were working for California Microwave Systems, a U.S. defense contractor. Company officials say they were searching for evidence of opium poppy and coca leaf crops in the jungle. The rebels killed two other men who were on the plane, an American and a Colombian, saying they were shot as they tried to escape.

When did we last hear about the hostages?

The most recent direct account of the hostages comes from a Colombian police officer, Jhon Frank Pinchao, who said he escaped from the FARC last May after being a captive for almost nine years. Pinchao said he was held for a time in the same camp as Betancourt and the three Americans.

Who are the hostage-takers?

The FARC is a guerrilla army that was organized in 1964. It was formed by rebels who had sprung up during the bloody Colombian civil war of the 1950s, a period known as "La Violencia." It's now thought to have more than 10,000 members, including many child soldiers. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 20 percent of FARC fighters are between the ages of 12 and 18, and says that many are kept in the army by threats of torture and death.

What do they want?

The group started as a pro-Communist guerrilla movement that said it was committed to relieving the country's poor from the oppression of wealthy landowners. It still claims those goals, but now supports itself with millions of dollars raised from extortion, kidnapping and protection of Colombia's huge trade in illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

How is the group viewed?

The Colombian government, the United States and the European Union all regard the FARC as a terrorist organization. They say the group's ruthless tactics have alienated the population, and that it now exists mainly as a criminal enterprise.

Have the government and the FARC tried negotiations?

After so many years of fighting, the two sides are deeply distrustful. In 1998, the government granted the FARC a haven as a confidence-building measure. As long as peace talks were going on, the government pledged not to attack the rebels within a designated area of more than 16,000 square miles. Reports by the BBC and other news sources indicated that the FARC used the time to rebuild and re-arm. After three years, the talks collapsed and the government re-took the area.

What do the two sides want now?

The FARC wants the government to establish another temporary safe zone, as well as a formal mechanism for exchanging prisoners. The group wants the government to release all 500 or more of its members from jails and to allow them to return to the rebel army.

The government of President Alvaro Uribe has said previously that it won't negotiate unless the rebels first agree to a cease-fire. The government also wants to make sure that any FARC prisoners who are freed will either leave the country or agree not to take up arms again.

In early December, the government pardoned 23 low-level FARC members, in what it said was a good-will gesture.

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