261. Telegram From the Embassy in Colombia to the Department of State1

3564. Subject: Bogota Hostage Situation

1. (Secret—Entire Text)

2. This cable outlines my interpretation and conclusions regarding the hostage situation.2

A. General Overview. GOC management of the crisis is controlled, careful and prudent. There seems to be no doubt that President Turbay is in complete charge. The GOC does not want to use force. It is trying to resolve the situation by negotiation. It is not deliberately stalling because it recognizes that the longer it takes the greater risk of something unpredictable happening that could lead to tragedy (and several people I talked to expressed that concern). On the other hand it knows that it will take time for the terrorists to come to realize what the real limits are and to rationalize a realistic agreement that could end the occupation. Hence the GOC will be calm, firm and patient in trying to convince the terrorists to leave.

The core problem is the prisoner issue3 which is discussed in greater detail below. No one believes that any of the other aspects present any obstacles. A good deal of agreement has already been reached on the question of safe exit, final destination, etc., and while further discussion will be necessary to reach understandings on all details such as who accompanies the captors when they leave, no one anticipates any basic difficulty in reaching them. No one here thinks money will be a problem. In fact no one even discusses it. The GOC will not discuss ransom, but some private circles have indicated that if this is the last element to resolve the situation something can be done. In any event, the pris [Page 751] oner issue blocks any further movement, because the captors say they will not commit themselves to anything else until that point is resolved.

B. The Prisoner Issue. The problem here is a fundamental conceptual gap between the two sides. The constitutional juridical system, and what it permits and does not permit, is held to be an absolute limit by the GOC. In this it is widely and deeply supported by virtually all sectors of the society; I found support on this issue surprisingly uniform. The system does not permit the President or the Executive to amnesty or pardon anyone. Therefore, the GOC reasons, it cannot negotiate the release of any given person. (The Constitution permits the Congress to pardon by a two-thirds vote, but it is generally agreed that even if it wanted to the government could not get a two-thirds vote in this case; and to convoke the Congress to debate it would create a debate that could center as well on objections to even talking to the terrorists; this is in short not a productive course of action). Everyone I have talked to agrees that the President would be impeached if he tried to free anyone by directive. It is important to recognize the depth of the feeling in Colombia that the principles of the system must not be violated at any cost. The specific feeling is particularly deep that if the M–19 achieved such a violation of the system the very authority-base of the country would be destroyed. It is this point even more than concern about specific persons being released that is the sticking point. While particularly in the military there is resistance to the idea of certain persons getting their freedom,4 the nation and the military establishment could probably cope with that. But none of this really touches the “system” problem. The point, in any case, is that the GOC really does feel it cannot go beyond the point it is at; it cannot deal in terms of the specific person and negotiate a release in return for the hostage. Only the functioning of the judicial system can free an accused person. I doubt that the President can be pressured into any change, even the ultimate blackmail threat. Nor do I think that the USG could—even if it wanted to—pressure the GOC into yielding on this point.

The terrorists on the other hand do not even think in these terms; the system has no meaning for them; their view is simply that how the GOC does it is its problem, and that the task is to create enough pressure or blackmail to get certain persons out. It would appear that they are not yet convinced that the GOC really will not go any further no matter what. Unfortunately, some of the other governments involved have the same mind set, and do not accept or understand the limitation the Colombians feel. Hence their representatives here [Page 752] seek to put pressure on the GOC to deal on the terrorists’ terms, i.e. to deal in terms of specific persons. This complicating dimension is discussed further below.

If the terrorists finally do become convinced that they can push the GOC no further along this line, what will they do? It is unlikely that they will bring down the temple and harm the hostages. It is more likely that they will rationalize a decision to terminate the occupation and leave. In that case the GOC is certain that the conditions of the departure can be worked out.

In this situation, what the GOC is trying to do is to take such steps—and cut such corners—as it can to permit enough movement to give the terrorists reasonable ground to terminating its adventure. Thus it explores speeding up the process, etc., which probably can and will in even “special” ways, result in the freeing of a number of people. In parallel fashion it has established the task of trying to convince the terrorists that they have really achieved a great deal or enough to claim a victory and leave the Embassy, and that in fact processes set in motion will speed up release of accused persons. In these circumstances, the question that arises is is it possible to establish some new focus or framework conceptually recasting the situation so as to facilitate some final agreement? To some degree, this is what Turbay has sought to do in suggesting the presence of the IAHRC or Amnesty as observers of the judicial process.5

C. The International Dimension. In these terms, Lopez Michelsen’s observation that enlarging the scope may help solve the problem becomes interesting.6 One needs to think about how the international dimension can help—or complicate—the problem. Turbay’s move to invite international observation of the judicial process as a guarantee of fair treatment under Colombian law is, I think, worth supporting. I am under no illusion that it changes things greatly, and it does not directly deal with the problem of the specific persons whom the M–19 wants to liberate. But it does present a framework that may make it easier for the M–19 to rationalize a disengagement. If the GOC proceeds along this line, we should support an invitation to the IAHRC etc.

Another aspect might be third party mediation or involvement in negotiations. The GOC will not for now at least, accept mediation in [Page 753] the classical sense both because it does not want to lose control of the negotiations and because it does not see that it can change its position on prisoners under international pressure either. In fact, the potential of international pressure trying to force the GOC to free prisoners in contravention of its judicial system’s process worries Turbay. He will not yield, but it is just that much more uncomfortable and complicating.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that the M–19 might find it easier to lower its demands and accede to an agreement with regard to a third negotiator. In other words the M–19 might find it difficult to back down vis-a-vis the GOC negotiators, but might do it for someone else. Thus a point may arise when the presence of a third party may facilitate the face-saving compromises. We should keep that in the back of our minds; it is a point I will be discussing with Turbay when I see him again Tuesday.7

D. The Diplomatic Corps and Reverse International Pressure. Previous reporting will have described how complicating has been the position of other Governments involved in this case and the activities of some of their representatives here, notably the Mexican, Brazilian and Papal delegate. The complications are:

—The captors bring the hostages in to the substance of negotiations and get their advice.

—Some of the hostages pass anxieties back to their colleagues on the outside, and

—Some of the outside representatives reinforce anxieties and seek to press the GOC to be more “flexible”

A second dimension of complications are some disturbing hints that some may seek to discuss directly with terrorists the release of their Ambassador. We have no firm indications in this regard, but frustrations may very well lead to all kinds of soundings like this.

The sum of this situation is that international pressure tends to be directed onto the GOC, and to some degree the terrorists can count on the effective seconding of their pressure by the anxieties and pressures of other governments.

I believe it would be important to try to reverse the current as well, and direct some pressure of international opinion on the terrorists, i.e. some way to tell them that their continued holding to present stances and positions is counterproductive in their own terms in world opinion and in the broader picture.

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We will attempt in the diplomatic corps meetings here8 to diffuse the question of pressure on the GOC, to highlight the need to denounce terrorism, and to suggest ways to convey to the terrorists the sense that international entities and other Governments want them to end the occupation (not unlike the Pope’s Holy Week appeal.) There are limits however to what we can do here, given the actions of the Papal delegate and the Mexican. I think we should consider demarches to the various governments ourselves suggesting some kind of unified appeal or position to be passed to the terrorists (and their representatives here in Bogota instructed accordingly). We will be suggesting in a septel something like this (perhaps the Secretary convening the pertinent Ambassadors to suggest it) for you to consider.9

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870117-2200. Secret; Niact Immediate; Nodis.
  2. In telegram 78713 to Bogota, March 25, Newsom informed Crigler that Vaky was traveling “to Bogota as my personal representative for a few days to provide me from his unique background with his assessment of the situation.” Newsom wrote: “There has been increasing public and congressional interest in Ambassador Asencio’s welfare and in the position we are taking. Many other governments have sent senior officials to Bogota. For these reasons it would be useful to have Pete’s assessment.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870117-2175)
  3. In telegram 2604 from Bogota, March 9, the Embassy reported: “Although the terrorists have presented a list of 200 prisoners they would like to see released, they are primarily interested in securing the liberty of about thirty prisoners whose release, they say, is non-negotiable.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800122-0031)
  4. In telegram 3520 from Bogota, March 29, the Embassy reported on Vaky’s meeting with Camacho Leyva regarding prisoners. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800158-0053)
  5. In telegram 3533 from Bogota, March 29, Vaky reported on his March 28 conversation with Turbay. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870117-2163)
  6. In telegram 3532 from Bogota, March 29, Vaky reported that Lopez Michelsen had told him that “it was unjust” for the countries affected “to put all the weight on Colombia and then sit back and hold it responsible for everything. If the nations could reach consensus as to how to handle this situation, it would help Colombia resolve it.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870117-2172)
  7. April 1. See telegram 3663 from Bogota, April 2. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870117-2157)
  8. See telegram 3596 from Bogota, April 1. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800163-0547)
  9. Not found.