The war in Colombia between the army and an irregular paramilitary force, on one side, and various armed left-wing organizations on the other has claimed thousands of lives, and sown terror in the countryside for decades. During the last couple of years, however, the guerrillas have sought to have a greater impact by interrupting daily life in the cities. In Bogotá, for example, a few days before the end of December, a group of Colombian friends considered their holiday options—a trip to the countryside or a long drive to the coast for a few days of sunshine—and decided that the choice would depend on the road conditions. The country’s largest guerrilla organization, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, had declared a holiday truce as a gesture of commitment to the peace talks that have been fitfully underway since President Andrés Pastrana took office a year and a half ago. This meant, one friend said, that there would be no combat activity, and so the beach might not be a bad idea. But other members of the group were doubtful: the guerrillas had said that there would be no combat, but had they said anything about kidnappings?
Kidnappings are the worst danger for civilians who are traveling overland. At roadblocks set up by the guerrillas, which can last for hours, or even days, civilians will be allowed through only if a quick search through a computer database shows that their bank accounts are too small to qualify them as “kidnappable.” Combined with the large number of targeted abductions, these “fishing expeditions,” as they are known, have made Colombia the kidnap capital of the world: last year 2,945 abductions were reported to the police—eight a day. The guerrillas were responsible for most of them, all of which gave the friends’ discussion a certain urgency. If the guerrillas had not included kidnappings in the cease-fire, a long trip was out of the question.
There had been no recent reports of guerrilla roadblocks, and the idea of a trip seemed plausible, until one member of the vacationing party remembered something. The rival guerrilla group to the FARC, the ELN, whose initials stand for Ejército de Liberación Nacional, derives its income almost exclusively from kidnappings and extortion. It is still holding fourteen passengers who were on a commercial plane that was carrying forty-six people when the guerrillas hijacked it a year ago. Founded in 1965, and led by the Spanish priest Manuel Pérez until his death two years ago, the ELN is considered the most intransigent of the various armed left-wing associations that have prospered in Colombia during the last forty years. And indeed, the group of friends quickly realized, the ELN had not declared a truce for the holidays. All plans to spend the New Year somewhere other than Bogotá were immediately canceled.
Roadblocks and kidnappings that affect even the salaried middle class are only one aspect of the new fear in the cities. The ELN conducts …