On Sunday, the Colombian insurgent movement FARC released Kevin Scott Sutay, a former Marine who had been in captivity since June 20.
Sutay served with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan from November 2009 to March 2013. After leaving the service, he traveled throughout Latin America on his own, venturing to Mexico and Central America before arriving in Colombia. He reportedly reached Bogota on June 8, and by June 11 he was in the Guaviare department, which is known for still being a conflict area between the FARC and the Colombian military. A July report in the Colombian magazine Semana interviewed Colombian police officials, who apparently unsuccessfully warned the U.S. citizen not to travel through Guaviare. The ex-Marine was captured by the FARC in the municipality of El Retorno, close to the Barrancon military base.
The FARC’s justification for detaining Sutay was their belief that the U.S. citizen was an intelligence officer for the U.S. and Colombian governments. In July, FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda argued: “What would you think of a man who is in a war zone, who has a secret camera in his watch, who is carrying [global] positioning equipment … who has a military uniform in his suitcase?” According to the FARC, Sutay was apparently on his way to visit the aforementioned Barrancon military base (where the Colombian Army’s Special Forces training center is located). On the other hand, a Colombian military source told the Colombian daily El Colombiano that it was “nearly impossible” that Sutay could be on active duty, as American military advisors do not operate alone in the country, much less in an infamously violent area like the Guaviare department.
In July, a month into Sutay’s captivity, the FARC released a statement declaring that they had decided to free him “even though [they had] the right to retain the soldier Kevin Scott as a prisoner of war.” The insurgent movement also said it would free the U.S. citizen as a goodwill gesture to support the peace negotiations that are taking place in Havana, Cuba, between the rebel movement and the Colombian government. Ultimately, Sutay was not freed in July. On September 28, the FARC’s website published a declaration in which it accused the Colombian government of not inhibiting the liberation of the U.S. citizen because the FARC were “not requesting anything in return.”
From what is known, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos objected to the participation in Sutay’s liberation of a controversial former Colombian Congresswoman, Piedad Cordoba (widely accused of being sympathetic towards the FARC). The situation became more complicated as U.S. Reverend Jesse Jackson became part of the negotiations in September, as he travelled to Cuba in September to lobby for Sutay’s freedom to the FARC delegation.
The former U.S. Marine — after all this back-and-forth — quietly released over the weekend. Santos insisted in avoiding a “media show” of the American’s release, preventing the obtainment of photographic evidence. After the release was made public, the U.S. State Department’s website published a very brief press release, stating that it welcomed Sutay’s release from captivity and expressing gratitude towards the Colombian government, President Juan Manuel Santos, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and various other actors.
In February 2012, the FARC promised that it would cease the use of kidnapping as a tool for extortion, a technique which had become a staple of its “revolutionary” actions. Over the years, the FARC had held hostage hundreds of civilians and members of Colombia’s security forces. One of the most high-profile kidnappings in recent years was Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician who was running in the presidential elections of 2002. She was detained by the insurgents until 2008, when she and several other hostages were freed in a daring rescue operation by Colombian security forces.
Given the U.S. involvement in the Colombian conflict for the past decades, it makes some sense why the FARC would have regarded the presence of a U.S. citizen (a former Marine on top of all) deep in a conflict area as a potential threat. It may have been that the FARC were finally convinced that Sutay was not an intelligence operative and that it would improve their image at the negotiating table in Cuba if they freed him. Moreover, if the U.S. citizen had been kept in captivity, the Colombian insurgents risked a potential increased U.S. presence in the country to try to free him.
As a final point, it should be stressed that the Sutay incident is not the first time that the FARC breaks their promise to abandon kidnapping as a tactic. In May 2012, the same group freed French journalist Romeo Langlois, who had been in captivity for around a month. If nothing else, Sutay’s captivity highlights that (unsurprisingly) promises made by narco-insurgent groups are largely matters of expedience.