Petro “insists on unilateral release” of 79 Colombian police hostage in Caguán

Photo of the hostages in Caguán with the body of slain policeman Ricardo Monroy.

More than 24 hours after 79 members of Colombia’s National Police were taken hostage by the Indigenous Guard in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, President Petro announced that he will visit the region on Friday to personally oversee efforts to secure the release of the hostages.

In one of the worst security situations this country has witnessed since the mass kidnappings by FARC during the height of the internal conflict, the violence that flared up on Thursday in this rural community, some 500 km southeast of the Colombian capital, claimed the life of a police superintendent and a farmer.

The rioting resulted after farmers blockaded a road near the compound of Emerald Energy, a Chinese oil and petroleum exploration company. When the National Police’s anti-riot squad ESMAD began clearing the area to protect workers inside the compound, protesters set fire to several buildings and began looting. Nine oilfield workers of Emerald Energy were also detained by the Indigenous Guard, before taken hostage.

President Petro stated Thursday on social media that he would dispatch a commission from the Ministries of Defense and Interior “to detain the acts of violence,”  but no senior government official, including Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez, arrived to demand the release of the policemen and oil workers.

The humiliation many Colombians felt as they watched footage of policemen being hauled away in trucks turned to anger with a photograph in which the kidnappers placed the body of superintendent Ricardo Monroy, father to two children, in the middle of a room with the hostages sitting in chairs and on the floor.

On Friday morning, Petro issued a three-line statement on Twitter in which he “insists on the unilaterial liberation of the policemen, and protection of their integrity”. The President’s statement was one of few given since the violence erupted on Thursday morning. Petro also called on the Red Cross to attend to the hostages’ humanitarian needs.

According to news reports, the policemen called for help from Bogotá after Monroy was killed by a machete. The farmer died from a gun shot wound during the confrontation.

President Petro is expected in San Vicente del Caguán on Friday afternoon to direct operations from a Unified Command Post along with Minister of Defense Velásquez, and the Commander of Colombia’s Armed Forces, General Helder Giraldo.