FARC offIT WAS the first time Facebook, a social-networking website, has been used to organise what many have described as the largest demonstration in their country’s history. On February 4th more than a million people in Colombia, and smaller groups in dozens of cities across the world, took to the streets to repudiate the FARC guerrillas. In doing so they may have changed the terms of the debate about how to free the 750-odd hostages held by the guerrillas, some for a decade.
The FARC wants to swap 44 of its more prominent captives—politicians, including Ingrid Betancourt (who has French as well as Colombian citizenship), army and police officers and three American defence contractors—for its jailed prisoners. Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, has faced pressure, especially from France, to bow to the guerrillas’ demand to pull troops out of a large area to allow this swap to take place.
In November the FARC released harrowing images of emaciated captives, including Ms Betancourt, to prove they were still alive. They continued their macabre game with the country’s emotions by promising to release three hostages, lying about having one of them and then delaying the handover of the other two to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez.
That prompted Oscar Morales, a young engineer, to set up on Facebook a group called “One million voices against the FARC”. The media took up his call for a march. The government cleverly stayed out of its organisation, although it gave public workers time off to attend. The opposition was divided, with some calling for protests against abuses by the security forces too, but in the end many of its leaders marched.
The marches appear to mark a turning point in public sentiment. “Instead of blaming the government for the fact that the hostages are still in the jungles, people now blame the FARC,” says Gerson Arias of Ideas para la Paz, a Bogotá think-tank. The demonstrations were also a snub to Mr Chávez, who last month said that the FARC should be seen as a “true army” with a political project, rather than a terrorist organisation. Mr Uribe had briefly invited Mr Chávez to intercede for the hostages’ release before the two men quarrelled in November.
The day before the march the FARC said it would turn over another three of its captives to Mr Chávez because of their poor health. Ironically, Venezuela’s involvement has also taken some of the pressure off Mr Uribe. “The families keep their eyes on the only thing that has worked so far—Caracas,” says León Valencia, a former guerrilla who is now a political analyst. As for the FARC, this week has underlined yet again that the guerrillas survive by drug trafficking and other crimes, not through public support.