Colombians in South Florida protest against FARC rebels

Coral Gables, Fla. – Thousands of Colombian expatriates and their supporters gathered around South Florida and in cities throughout the world Monday to spread a simple message of hope and peace: No More FARC.

“We want to let those who are kidnapped know that we have not left them alone,” said Carola Hill, of Miami. “All we want is peace for Colombia.”

On her T-shirt, Hill wore the image of her brother-in-law, Jairo Hoyos, as she joined an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 marchers in Coral Gables. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC for their initials in Spanish, kidnapped Hoyos in 2001 and murdered him in 2007, part of the civil war they have waged for four decades.

Clad in white shirts and waving giant flags and banners with such slogans as “Free the hostages” and “No more kidnappings. No more terrorism. Only peace,” marchers in Coral Gables, West Palm Beach and Weston joined hundreds of thousands of protesters in many Colombian cities and around the world Monday to demand an end to the terror and fear.

In Coral Gables, several hundred marchers packed the parking lot of the Colombian consulate, and hundreds more poured onto Aragon Avenue, creating a sea of yellow, red and blue — the colors of the Colombian flag. Protesters marched in Latin American capitals, as well as Sweden, Hungary, France, Italy and India. In the Colombian capital, Bogota, the protest swelled to hundreds of thousands and was broadcast live around the country by anchors wearing white T-shirts, symbolizing peace.

In between reports, the channels aired videos of hostages who remain captive in the jungle — some for 10 years.

The fight for freedom for kidnapping victims gained new momentum with the high profile release on Jan. 10 of Clara Rojas, an aide to former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who is also held by the FARC.

Monday’s protests began with a call to mobilize on the social-networking Web site Facebook in January after an initial breakdown in efforts to win the release of Rojas and a former congresswoman, Consuelo Gonzalez, according to Adelaida Vengoechea, a Boca Raton resident who organized the rally in Coral Gables.

“We wanted to get together to yell to the world that we, the Colombian people, are tired of the FARC,” Vengoechea said. “We just wanted to be heard.”

Some of the marchers called for the rebels to immediately release Betancourt and the other hostages. The group also holds three American defense contractors and several Colombian military officers, whom they hope to swap for rebel prisoners.

Visiting South Florida last week, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who survived a 1990 kidnapping and later led massive protests against abductions, said the Colombian government had given the green light for representatives of the Catholic Church to try to broker further releases. A weekend report that three lawmakers in fragile health would be set free raised hopes.

In West Palm Beach, almost 300 Colombians rallied in front of the El Bodegon supermarket. They blasted folksy ballads from loudspeakers and observed a minute of silence for the victims of Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict.

“In the beginning, we kept quiet, for fear. But we can’t put up with it anymore,” said Hercilia Vergara, a school cafeteria worker in West Palm Beach. “We are coming out into the light of day.”

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