Colombia Forced to Gamble With Hostages' Lives

By Miguel Perez

February 12, 2007 6 min read

When I first met her in New York five years ago, Ingrid Betancourt was campaigning to be president of Colombia.

She had been a strong critic of the leftist guerrillas who had caused so much bloodshed in her war-torn homeland, and she knew her life would be in danger upon returning there. But that was a risk she was willing to take.

"I'm very conscious of what I'm doing," she told me. "This is something over which one has to be willing to give up one's life for one's country."

And over the last five years, there have been times when many Colombians believed that is precisely what she had done.

Shortly after returning to Colombia, Betancourt was abducted and held hostage by the drug-trafficking rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group. And in the last five years, during long periods when nothing was known about her, many assumed she was dead.

That's until a Colombian government official recently told a radio station that, according to intelligence reports, Betancourt is still alive and in good health. The comments ignited a new national debate over whether the government should be stepping up efforts to rescue thousands of Colombians being held captive by Marxist rebels.

While the rebels are demanding the release of their 500 imprisoned comrades in exchange for some 60 prominent hostages, including Betancourt and three kidnapped U.S. defense contractors, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has ordered the military to find and rescue the hostages, including 3,000 others being held for ransom. Uribe's own father was killed during a botched FARC kidnapping attempt about 20 years ago.

An American government official recently told reporters that the United States would support a military effort to rescue the three Americans held captive.

"We have a lot of confidence in the government and the security services here in finding a way to free the hostages and we want to work together to achieve this," said Thomas Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, who was in Bogota to discuss American support for Colombia's five-decade war against cocaine and human trafficking insurgents.

And although the military rescue policy seems to be working, with two hostages managing to escape in separate army-launched attacks on the rebels recently, many of the hostages' relatives are opposed to the rescue offensive. They fear their loved ones will be killed by the rebels, which has happened in the past during unsuccessful rescue missions.

"What terrifies me is that the government may know where Ingrid is and will launch a rescue mission," Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, told The Associated Press.

But what choice does the government have?

Releasing hundreds of ruthless killers is out of the question. And taking no action to save at least some of the hostages seems is also unacceptable, especially since many of these people are held for years in brutal captivity.

"You face death every day," a recently rescued Colombian army captain told reporters. "Someone comes into the shack where you are and you think they are coming for you."

During nearly four years of captivity, Capt. Leonardo Nur actually carved his name and rank into the skin of his arms and legs to ensure he was identified if he was killed and his body was dismembered. Nur, whose family had assumed he was dead, was found tied to a tree after an army conflict with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second largest rebel group.

A Dec. 31 military attack on a FARC jungle camp enabled the escape of Fernando Araujo, a former Colombian government minister who had been held hostage for six years, including several months bound by a tether to a tree. After he slipped away from his captors, Araujo hid in the wilderness for five days until he was found.

More than 23,000 Colombians have been kidnapped in the last decade and more than 1,200 have died in captivity or during abortive rescue attempts, according to Pais Libre, an advocacy group formed by Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who is a former kidnapping victim.

Back in 2002, as Betancourt campaigned in New York among many Colombians who have fled from their homeland fearing rebel kidnappings and terrorist mayhem, she seemed to be very courageous.

But in retrospect, Betancourt's words now seem too naive and idealistic.

"If we are not afraid of death, imprisonment or anything else that can block our progress," she told me, "we are finally going to achieve our dream, which is to have the country we deserve, a new Colombia."

More than 42 million Colombians are still waiting for that dream to be realized.

To find out more about Miguel Perez, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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