Negotiating with Terrorists: FARC Dissident Groups in Ecuador’s Northern Border
Peter Neumann at Kings College states that the argument against negotiating with terrorists is simple: Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorist must never be rewarded for using it. Negotiation gives legitimacy to terrorists and their strategies and undermine actors that pursue change through peaceful ways. Conversations with terrorists can destabilize political systems, interfere with international efforts against terrorism, and set a bad precedent. However, governments often negotiate with terrorists.
The British government had secret meetings with the IRA, the Spanish government held conversations with ETA, and Israel secretly participated in the Oslo Accords although it considered the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) a terrorist organization. However, what is important to highlight is that what these negotiations had in common was that they were secret.
On April 26, a dissident FARC group known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front led by a former FARC commander known as “El Guacho” kidnapped two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver. The journalists were in Ecuador’s northern province of Esmeraldas, covering the recent FARC-related violence in Mataje, a bordering area with Colombia, where a bomb explosion had destroyed a police station in previous weeks.
On April 3, the dissidents released a 22-second proof-of-life clip showing the kidnapped journalists in chains and telling Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno that their lives was in his hands. The terrorists requested the Ecuadorian government the release of three unidentified combatants and to end anti-narcotics cooperation with Colombia in exchange of the hostages. Last Wednesday, the terrorist group issued a statement announcing the journalists and their driver’s deaths. The reason for their deaths was military operations conducted by both Ecuador and Colombia near the area where the terrorists were holding the hostages.
Ecuadorian President Moreno had given the terrorists 12 hours to prove that the hostages were alive before launching a military response. Once it was confirmed through photos that the journalists were dead, Moreno said he was grieving the loss of the journalists and resumed military operations on the border.
The Ecuadorian government made a mistake opening a communication channel with the Oliver Sinisterra Front. By doing so, it gave political legitimacy to the group. Perhaps it was necessary to open a way to communicate with the terrorists to address the situation; however, as experience shows, a preferable method would have been through reserved, non-public communications with this group. Now, the terrorists know that they can get the Ecuadorian government’s attention through violent acts and kidnappings.
Yesterday, Ecuador’s Minister of Interior informed that an Ecuadorian couple has been kidnapped near the border with Colombia. Like the journalists, this couple is also requesting help from the Ecuadorian government in a proof-of-life video sent to the Ecuadorian government by the group led by “El Guacho.” In the video a man asks President Moreno for help, says that he and his wife do not have anything to do with the conflict, and that they do not want to have the same fate as the journalists. Two hooded men are in the video next to the couple, creating a scene that resembles videos by the Islamic State.
The Ecuadorian government needs to stop any open or public communication with the Oliver Sinisterra Front. The situation with the journalists generated extreme pressure on the Ecuadorian government from media outlets to provide answers to the public and this precipitated things. First, the Minister of Interior was not able to answer questions in a press conference. This showed lack of experience and a weak Ecuadorian state in terrorism matters. Second, President Moreno rushed back to Ecuador from the Summit of the Americas in Peru to address the journalist’s situation. This matter could have been designated to the vice president, and Moreno could have leveraged his presence at the summit to present the situation in Ecuador and seek assistance from countries in the region. Finally, the kidnapping of the Ecuadorian couple shows the weakness of the Ecuadorian state in protecting its citizens and projects an image of power for the terrorists.
The problem at the border goes beyond this dissident FARC group that is currently threatening Ecuador’s national security. The Oliver Sinisterra Front is only a small 80-member group that operates on the Ecuador-Colombia border. A larger issue that has not been discussed is the Mexican cartels that operate in this area, including the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels. Drug traffickers are interested in controlling drug routes, and the area where the kidnappings occurred has always been a transit route for drugs. When cartels are added to the equation, things are more complicated, and darker days may be in Ecuador’s future if a coherent strategy to counter these groups is not implemented in collaboration with Colombia and with the support of other regional partners, including the United States.