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Kidnap of Liverpool soccer star's father puts harsh light on Colombian peace talks

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now to Colombia, where last month, leftist guerrillas kidnapped the father of Colombia's biggest soccer idol. As John Otis reports, the crime has cast a harsh light on the Colombian government's efforts to make peace with the rebels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Diaz in there.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Luis Diaz emerged from poverty in northern Colombia to become a star striker for Liverpool, which plays in England's Premier League, but he's drawn even more attention since his father's abduction.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: And in the most difficult of personal circumstances, it's the stoic figure of Luis Diaz who has rescued them.

OTIS: Diaz responded in Liverpool's next game by heading in a goal. He then lifted his jersey to reveal a message on his undershirt demanding freedom for father.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: A message to an absent father who is uppermost in his and so many other people's thoughts.

OTIS: His father, Luis Manuel Diaz, was taken hostage by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a Marxist group founded in the 1960s. It was a stark reminder that even though Colombia signed a 2016 peace treaty that disarmed the country's largest guerrilla army, the much smaller ELN and other criminal bands remain a menace. Instead of trying to topple the government, these days, they mainly fight among themselves over drug trafficking routes while extorting businesses and kidnapping people for ransom.

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: That's a fundamental change in the conflict. What they're interested in is controlling local areas. Why? In order to control illicit economies.

OTIS: That's Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group. She says the Diaz kidnapping was especially galling because it came amid peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government. President Gustavo Petro, himself a former guerrilla, has pledged to bring what he calls total peace to Colombia. But rather than attacking the outlaws, Petro is negotiating with them.

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DANILO RUEDA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: At a recent congressional hearing, Petro's peace commissioner, Danilo Rueda, defended this policy. Under the previous government, he said, military offensives backfired, allowing illegal armed groups to expand to 30,000 members. Since taking office last year, the Petro government has declared cease-fires and open peace talks with several of these groups, but Dickinson says the government has received little in return.

DICKINSON: Part of the problem has been that they have offered too much initially without receiving any reciprocal compromises from the armed groups to reduce violence, to stop recruiting, to improve their behavior.

OTIS: Another hitch, says Kyle Johnson of the Bogota-based Conflict Responses Foundation, is that Petro put inexperienced negotiators in charge of the peace talks.

KYLE JOHNSON: So yeah, you get a ton of missteps as they improvise and don't really have a clear strategy, and it kind of creates this perfect storm.

OTIS: The result is that security is getting worse in many parts of Colombia with a huge jump in kidnappings.

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DUVALIER SANCHEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: The rebels have no interest in making peace, declared Colombian lawmaker Duvalier Sanchez at the congressional hearing. Instead, it seems like our government, which is supposed to protect us, is on its knees. Now Petro's job approval rating is plummeting. In mayoral elections last month, candidates allied with the president lost in Bogota, Medellin and nearly every other big city.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: But on Thursday, Colombian TV finally announced some good news for the Petro government and for the Diaz family - offering no explanation - that ELN released Luis Diaz's father after 12 days in captivity. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: November 12, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous headline for this story incorrectly stated that Luis Diaz was the one kidnapped. It was his father, Luis Manuel Diaz. The headline has been updated.