Colombia – A Nation Held to Ransom

REPORTER: Bentley Dean

WOMAN SPEAKING OVER RADIO (Translation: A message for my husband, Jose Maria.

上海性息

.. Hi, love. I hope you heave the background music. It expresses my feelings. It may not be the most appropriate song, but it reminds me of all the good times we`ve had. My love, I haven`t missed our appointment and here I am with all my love. Darling, I dream you`re by my side and hope this dream will soon become a reality.

Every week, these women come to Radio National to speak to their kidnapped loved ones. They don`t know if they are listening or even alive.

RADIO ANNOUNCER (Translation): For the first time we have a special message for Elizabeth Lopez Gonzalez kidnapped 21 days ago in Guavas, Cundinamarca. Here`s your mother, Blanca Gonzalez.

BLANCA GONZALEZ (Translation): Dorita, God bless you. We`re praying to God for your health and wellbeing. Your brothers Cesar Augusto and Jose Luis, your father, grandmother, uncles and aunts. We wait for your speedy return.

Colombia is the kidnapping capital of the world. Here, the army is rescuing a busload of people who were taken at a guerrilla roadblock, but such rescues are rare. The 680 people already kidnapped this year have earned millions of dollars in ransoms for guerrillas, paramilitaries and common criminals. But in the lead-up to this weekend`s presidential elections, the world`s oldest leftist guerrilla army – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – is increasingly targeting politicians.

When presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt spoke at a Greens conference in Australia last year, she knew how vulnerable she was.

INGRID BETANCOURT: All our big leaders have been killed in Colombia, all of them, they have been assassinated – so the challenge is to be alive till the end of the elections.

Ingrid is known more in Colombia for her brave anti-corruption crusades than for being an environmentalist, but she has links to activists from all walks of life.

INGRID BETANCOURT: We have to endorse the uniform of the new samurai, to defend our values, our principles, our ideals above everything, even above our own life.

Three months ago, Ingrid Betancourt and her running mate were kidnapped by the FARC.

BOB BROWN, AUSTRALIAN GREENS PARTY: Suddenly Ingrid is not there. Suddenly she`s been taken off into the jungles by the guerrillas and her life is obviously at risk and she`s become, rather than a candidate, a pawn in a power game between opposing groups of people in Colombia without any clear rationale to it.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Vote for me on 26 May. Viagra for Colombia. Let`s arouse the country together and stop corruption.

Ingrid Betancourt is the enfant terrible of Colombian politics.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Let`s make our people rise up. Viagra for the country.

Her mischievous electioneering and fearless pursuit of corrupt politicians struck a chord with a jaded public. In 1998, she was elected to the Colombian senate with the greatest amount of votes in history. This year, she decided to run for President.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Vote for me on 26 May. Viagra for Colombia! We have to arouse the country.

But Ingrid was kidnapped before she could even register.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Candidate for the presidency, Ingrid Betancourt Pulecio. Candidate for vice-president, Clara Rojas.

She now has the tragic distinction of being the only cardboard cut-out in the world running for President.

WOMAN ON LOUDSPEAKER (Translation): Due to the kidnapping of both candidates Yolanda Pulecio, mother of Dr Ingrid Betancourt, will sign.

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): These two brave women have been kidnapped. In fact, the whole country`s been kidnapped because two voices that came from its womb have been silenced. Their removal impedes a full political debate.

JOURNALIST: Have you heard anything from FARC?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): No, we haven`t received any proof that she`s alive.

Juan Carlos LeCompte is Ingrid`s husband and campaign manager.

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): We know they have her to do an exchange, but we want to know, why her? We want an explanation from FARC.

CLAUDIA GECHEM IN STUDIO (Translation): A message for Jorge Eduardo Gechem. Dad, how are you? I hope you`re well and in good spirits. Don`t lose hope and find refuge in God each day.

Three days before Ingrid`s kidnapping, Claudia Gechem`s father, the president of the senate`s Peace Commission, was also taken by the FARC. In a meticulously planned operation, the FARC hijacked the civilian plane Jorge Gechem was travelling on, forcing it to land on this road in their safe haven. Three years ago, the FARC was given this zone to lure them into peace talks. President Andres Pastrana staked his reputation on ending Colombia`s 38-year civil war. But after three years of fruitless negotiations, Gechem`s kidnapping was the last straw.

ANDRES PASTRANA (Translation) – 20 February 2002: It`s not possible to sign agreements with one hand and put a gun to the head of the innocent with the other. All of Colombia says “No more!” We`re tired of the hypocrisy of the guerrillas. Because of their stubbornness they`ve made too many serious mistakes over the years, which have hindered any chance of peace.

Pastrana immediately ordered the army to retake the FARC zone. San Vicente del Caguan was the first town occupied by the Colombian army. It was hit hard. Mayor Nestor Ramirez is a member of Ingrid Betancourt`s Oxygen Party.

NESTOR RAMIREZ, SAN VICENTE MAYOR (Translation): All this town has done is provide a platform for the dialogue between the government and the guerrillas and now, instead of being rewarded, we`re going to be punished, and that`s deplorable.

The bombing and FARC`s retaliation left the town without electricity and water and inundated with refugees. Ingrid Betancourt decided to come.

NESTOR RAMIREZ (Translation): She rang me the day before she came. She called at 5:30pm on 22 February. And told me she`d be arriving in San Vicente the next day – a Saturday – at about midday, and to wait for her. I told her there were problems on the road to San Vicente… people were being harassed by the guerrillas, there were confrontations with the army, and roadblocks had been set up. I warned her to think about it carefully to avoid any problems.

Ingrid was to be flown to San Vicente by army helicopter with President Pastrana. For reasons still not explained, he decided he didn`t want her to come. At this point, several of her entourage pulled out, but Ingrid was determined to continue.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): I promised to be with the people of San Vicente in the good and the bad times. We haven`t found a more direct route to get there. We have to go through Florencia and get on the highway. It`s also a way to tell those violent people to respect people`s lives.

One hour into the journey, her car was stopped on this road – a FARC roadblock of two buses packed with explosives. This picture, taken by the `Marie Claire` photographer travelling with her, was the last taken prior to her kidnapping. Adair Lamprea was at the wheel.

ADAIR LAMPREA, DRIVER: (Translation): I turned off the engine and we were waiting there… for them to tell us something, when suddenly… with the guerrilla in charge of communications next to me… there was an explosion. That`s when I realised that the place was mined. And what he had stepped on was a mine.

By radio, the guerrillas received orders to take only Ingrid.

ADAIR LAMPREA (Translation): She looked nervous then. When they told her to get in the van she didn`t want to. She refused to get in. But when they scream at you “Get in!”… you get in. When they tell you to get in, you get in…

Clara Rojas, her running mate, insisted on going with her.

ADAIR LAMPREA (Translation): The last thing I saw? When Ingrid got into the van. I just got a glimpse of her. She got in, then Clara got in, and they left.

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): Here she is with Christ. This Christ is miraculous… Christ, the miracle worker. And here`s Ingrid (photograph). This is Astrid, my other daughter, and this is me.

Raised in Paris, Ingrid had a privileged life. Her father was Colombia`s ambassador to UNESCO, which put her in contact with Colombia`s artistic elite like writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the artist Fernando Botero.

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): She was always very… She was in some way a rebel… but with intelligence. She wasn`t a rebel who threw tantrums She used her intelligence.

Ingrid`s mother, Yolanda, was a champion of social causes who had set up a famous outreach program for street children in Bogota. A lifelong liberal activist, she was a senator for her party and by 1989, was a senior member of the campaign team of liberal presidential candidate, Luis Galan. And was right by his side when he was assassinated.

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): We`re a family that`s always tried to fight for Colombia, but when you look at what`s happened to us and the response of the State… it hurts so much. Then you start wondering if it`s worth it. I hope it is.

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): This is the place where Ingrid was kidnapped. She must be around here somewhere now.

Ingrid`s husband Juan Carlos has not heard from her in three months.

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): This is a photo of Ingrid when she was in high school. When she was in high school… I`m very lonely, very lonely. Luckily, I have a lot of work to do. It`d be worse if I didn`t. But I`m very lonely. This is Ingrid with the guerrilla, giving them Viagra.

REPORTER: And how did they respond to that?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE: Very nice. Look at those faces, they are very happy. The violence, the guerrillas and the paramilitary aren`t the real problem. The guerrillas, the paramilitary, the violence in Colombia… are like the fever a person gets because of an infection. The infection is what causes the fever. The real infection Colombia has that must be cut out of the country is corruption. Corruption is the infection. If you get rid of the corruption, you get rid of the fever. You get rid of the violence.

For eight years, Ingrid has campaigned to rid Colombia of this corruption.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Was there or was there not drug trafficking money in President Samper`s campaign?

In 1996, Ingrid used a secretly recorded tape to allege that the then-president Ernesto Samper`s election campaign had received $15 million from major cocaine traffickers.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): Ernesto Samper authorised Joaquin Bernal to arrange through the banks, in the name of the Liberal Party, the credit guarantees needed by the Colombia Moderna Association. Can you please focus the camera here?

When Ingrid`s allegations were ignored, she and fellow congressmen went on a hunger strike to call for an independent inquiry. After two weeks encamped on the floor of Congress, she was rushed to the hospital unconscious. Eventually, several officials were jailed and President Samper was disgraced, but Ingrid`s persistence has come at personal cost. In 1996, after receiving death threats and a Polaroid of a dismembered teenager, she sent her children out of the country to live with her first husband in New Zealand. But Ingrid refuses to be intimidated. Only 10 days before her kidnapping, she and two other presidential candidates ventured into the FARC safe haven to meet with the guerrillas – a last-ditch attempt to rescue the faltering peace talks. Ingrid appealed to their humanity, but also took them to task for their failings.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): The new Colombia I dream about does not resemble in any way a Colombia where the guerrillas end up producing cocaine. Did you join the guerrillas to become wealthy? Was the reason behind your fight for the poor? I don`t think so! The spread of corruption within the FARC ranks will end up rotting that organisation, just as it has rotted the Colombian establishment.

NESTOR RAMIREZ (Translation): Ingrid Betancourt has said on many occasions that she would initiate talks with the Colombian guerrillas, not only FARC, but also ELN, and the rest of the outlawed armed groups. She talks of the possibility of solving the armed conflict through dialogue and negotiation. She still believes that the solution is political and not an all-out confrontation such as the one that`s bleeding the country dry today.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): I think that we need some gestures here. We need to make some gestures… in order to renew the faith in what`s being done. A gesture of humanity, a gesture of greatness… a chalice on the table. No more kidnappings. No more kidnappings. A commitment from FARC to stop kidnapping and to free those kidnapped. That`s a decision you can make here. No more kidnappings.

Now, as the presidential elections draw closer, no politician is safe. On April 11, the FARC audaciously kidnapped 12 lawmakers from the Cali state legislature.

WITNESS OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT (Translation): About ten minutes ago, the security guards told us to evacuate the San Luis Building. A suspicious-looking man left a bomb in the toilet.

FARC guerrillas posing as government soldiers stormed in, claiming there was a bomb in the building. They convinced 12 politicians to leave with them and haven`t been seen since. This policeman became suspicious, and paid for it with his life. The Cali state governor organised a peace march across the countryside, calling for the release of the kidnapped politicians.

CALI STATE GOVERNOR (Translation): It`s comforting to see the response of the community, their enthusiasm. When the community came out to welcome us… Seeing their enthusiasm and hope you forget you`re tired.

JOURNALIST: Are you getting some medical treatment?

CALI STATE GOVERNOR: Microsurgery! I`m not used to this, and I got some blisters. But that`s just minor discomfort.

The governor got as far as this hill before meeting a FARC patrol and being kidnapped himself.

FRANCISCO SANTOS, JOURNALIST: It generates so much hatred. It generates so much wanting for revenge. I think, as a nation, we are a sick nation, a psychologically sick nation. It generates so much distrust, and I think trust is what civilisation is all about.

Prominent journalist Francisco Santos was kidnapped by the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in the early `90s. Following his release, he organised the largest peace marches the country has ever seen. Like Ingrid, he called for peaceful negotiations to resolve Colombia`s violence.

FRANCISCO SANTOS ON MARCH (Translation): We`re saying that the time for guns is over. Let`s resolve things at the negotiating table, without a gun to our heads, particularly when civilians are involved.

But 10 years on, Santos has hardened. He now believes the only thing the guerrillas will listen to is violence.

ALVARO URIBE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (Translation): I announce to my compatriots the nomination of Francisco Santos as my candidate for Vice President of Colombia.

A few weeks ago, Santos accepted an invitation to be the tough-talking Alvaro Uribe`s running mate. Uribe himself has been linked to drug lords and to right-wing paramilitaries who oppose the FARC. But his promise of total war has put him way ahead in the polls.

FRANCISCO SANTOS: They think that they can scare people. What I think they don`t understand is that people are no longer scared, they`re sick and tired of it. If you look at things – and I think that`s really interesting – 10 years ago, when they put car bombs, people were so scared – when Pablo Escobar put car bombs. This year they put car bombs, and people are mad – they want to get at them, and that`s a huge change.

FRANCISCO SANTOS IN EMPANADA SHOP (Translation): Yes, I`ll take these now. My bodyguards eat in turns. Otherwise they`ll all be eating their empanadas and the assassins come…they`ll kill them!

Uribe and Santos aren`t just talking tough. Colombia receives $2 billion from Washington for the war on drugs, funding known as Plan Colombia. They`re asking for Washington`s permission to use this money for their war on the FARC.

NESTOR RAMIREZ (Translation): It`s easy to see things from the outside, from the big urban centres, from Bogota and other cities. But total war against the nation is terrible, particularly when the most vulnerable are the compesinos and the small villages in Colombia. That`s why, in the big cities in their big buildings they demand total war. But if only they had to suffer the consequences we must face…

ANDRES PARIS, FARC COMMANDER (Translation): I`d like to offer an actual example of how the aggressive aims of Plan Colombia can end up strengthening the guerrilla movement. This weapon was acquired with money from the Plan Colombia. It`s an American M-16 with grenade launcher, and with sufficient firepower to escalate the conflict. Don`t even dream of defeating militarily the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia.

When Ingrid met with the FARC, she warned them that any escalation in the fighting would only benefit hardliners like Uribe.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): You become the best excuse for brining no change. You are giving Uribe that excuse today. That excuse is what may allow… if, God forbid, Colombians decide to take that path… Colombia will end up in a situation where civil rights will not count, where justice will not operate, where Congress will be bought, and where the Government will be run by a circle of friends.

Three weeks ago, the FARC made their third attempt on Alvaro Uribe`s life. A bomb in the back of this bus exploded as he was passing, killing three market workers. The would-be-president remained resolute.

ALVARO URIBE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (Translation): This is what many Colombians experience daily. We have to be very patient, very careful, but very determined. Colombia needs to defeat violence. We`re alright, thank God.

If Uribe keeps his promise of all-out war, Colombia will descend into unprecedented violence. Ingrid Betancourt`s kidnapping has silenced its strongest voice for peace. Strangely, there has been no great outcry over her disappearance from the campaign.

REPORTER: The percentage of popular support she gets if very low. Why?

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): I think those polls are rigged. There are many people… many even in the media, who don`t want, at all to see Ingrid… shine out in all these elections. They don`t want that at all. They know that Ingrid is fighting against the many privileges they enjoy.

Ingrid has sacrificed everything for her country. Her family feels betrayed.

YOLANDA PULECIO (Translation): I told the President that he had no right to leave a presidential candidate, or any other Colombian citizen, in a war zone, in a place of extreme danger… Leave her without safe transport… when she had no option but to go to San Vicente.

Ingrid`s family`s greatest fear is that the government may attempt to rescue her. Juan Carlos is on his way to meet the Attorney-General – he has a good reason to believe he will be sympathetic.

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): The Attorney-General sent a letter to the military and to the government saying they shouldn`t take any rescue military action that could place Ingrid`s life in danger. Because his own wife was killed by the guerrillas in a rescue operation. That occurred six months ago, remember?

REPORTER: That means rescue operations are very dangerous?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE: Yes, because usually the hostage gets killed.

REPORTER: What have the military and government said about Ingrid`s kidnapping?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE: Nothing. They haven`t said anything.

REPORTER: Nothing about a military operation?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE: They`ve said nothing about anything. Absolutely nothing.

The only assurance Juan Carlos receives is that the military will not attempt a rescue. Bob Brown is just one of dozens of politicians and public figures from around the world descending on Colombia to pressure for Ingrid`s release.

BOB BROWN, AUSTRALIAN GREENS PARTY: A vote for Ingrid is a vote for social fairness and for democracy.

UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and the French and Venezuelan Presidents, have all called for her release, but the government has done nothing.

BOB BROWN: I can`t separate this from the power of Ingrid`s attack on the political establishment in Bogota. She has been unrelenting in her attack on the corruption, the connection, in some cases, with the narcotics trade in the country, and with the really grievous problems that go so deep to the heart of this beautiful country`s political tragedy.

One month to the day after her kidnap, Ingrid`s family was struck by another personal tragedy – Ingrid`s father died. Her first husband returned to Colombia with their children for the funeral.

ASTRID (Translation): Ingrid, wherever you are, I want to tell you, I love you. If for me, who was by his side until his last moment, the death of my father was so hard to take, I know you must have been hurt even more. But if this testimony reaches you somehow I want you to know that my father`s last intelligible words were “How long will Ingrid be away? How long will it take?

ADAIR (Translation): We hope that the guerrillas realise… that they`re holding someone who, unlike them, has been very good for this country. They could be destroying the future of our Colombia.

INGRID BETANCOURT (Translation): This war will lead to more unemployment, which will lead to more violence and will feed the ranks, not only of the guerrillas, but also of the paramilitary and the drug traffickers. This war will generate more violence and it`ll be terrible. It`s like jumping into the abyss, a collective suicide.

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE (Translation): She`s as straight as a die. She`s very straight, very honest. That`s what I love most about her.

REPORTER: And what does she love about you?

JUAN CARLOS LeCOMPTE: I don`t know. I don`t know… You should ask her when she`s released.