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21 March 2018 20:28 (South Africa)

Colombia: Cautious optimism as FARC releases all remaining hostages

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Politics
Rebecca FARC

Monday saw the release of the last 10 military and police hostages held captive by Colombian rebel group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The move has sparked hopes that peace may be on the horizon for Latin America’s longest-running insurgency, but it’s certainly not all over yet. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It is largely thanks to the experiences of Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt that we know a little about what it is like to be kidnapped by FARC rebels.

Betancourt, from a distinguished Colombian political family, was running for the country’s presidency in 2002 when she decided to take a trip to the area of San Vincente. San Vincente had been a “DMZ”, a demilitarized zone – one of the Colombian government’s experiments in dealing with the FARC rebels. They referred to the DMZs as “peace laboratories” – areas where the insurgents would be safe from military prosecution – but in reality they were simply regions where the rebels ran wild. Shortly before Betancourt’s visit to the area, FARC rebels had hijacked a plane carrying a member of the Colombian Congress, and subsequently kidnapped the congressman. In retaliation, erstwhile President Andres Pastrana cancelled talks with FARC and revoked the DMZ.

However, it was in the government’s interests to appear in control of the situation, and consequently to claim that the area was safe to travel through. Betancourt was eager to make the trip because the mayor of San Vincente was a member of her political party, Oxygen Green, and she was on the campaign trail. Betancourt had originally been promised a military helicopter and a security escort, but both of these were withdrawn by the government at the last minute. She went ahead with the trip, unaccompanied, by car.

They were met with a roadblock. Betancourt knew this could be either good or bad news. If the men manning the roadblock wore leather boots, it was the army. If they wore rubber boots, for traipsing through the jungle, it was FARC. The boots were rubber.

Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped with her campaign manager, Clara Rojas, and held in the jungle for six years in total. In Even Silence Has an End, the book she published in 2010, two years after her release, she described the conditions in which they were kept captive.

For the first year, Betancourt and Rojas had only each other for company, in a 2m by 1.5m hut, sleeping under a single mosquito net. Their only form of diversion was a copy of a Harry Potter book that Rojas had in her bag when they were kidnapped. In later years they were held with three American military contractors. While you might think these companions would bring comfort and solace, one of the most fascinating aspects of Betancourt’s experience was how the strain of their captivity made them turn on one other.

Betancourt told the Guardian in 2010, “With my fellow hostages, the problems we had were little daily things that you can have with your family. ‘He took my chair; I wanted this piece of chicken and he had it.’ What I saw in the jungle was that we were able to forgive those guys who could kill us, but we could not forgive the person who was suffering with us."

According to Betancourt, her aide Rojas spent much of her time in captivity worrying about the ticking of her biological clock, and went on to have a baby with one of the guards. In childbirth the baby’s arm was broken due to the roughness with which it was delivered. At the hands of the rebel guards they suffered torture and sexual violence, sometimes being chained by the neck.

Betancourt said the guards adopted aliases that were often from TV shows: a short fat guard was dubbed “Betty”, after hit US drama Ugly Betty. Not all the guards were hostile, however: one taught her belt-weaving. On her daughter’s 17th birthday, the guards fried her absent daughter a cake – lacking the facilities to bake – decorated with the words “Happy birthday Melanie, From Farc”.

Betancourt was accused, by the Americans they were kidnapped with, of trying to use her high profile as leverage to obtain special privileges, and of endangering them all through persistent arguments with the guards. She was constantly voted out of her fellow prisoners’ huts, like a contestant on Survivor.

The three Americans went on to write a memoir called Out of Captivity, in which they claimed Betancourt stole their food and told the guards they were from the CIA. In 2009 one of them, former marine Keith Stansell, told Associated Press: “Some of the guards treated us better than she did”.

Betancourt denied these charges, saying she maintained the will to live by refusing to surrender her principles on certain issues. It was the guards’ command, for instance, that they answer daily roll-calls with a number they had been assigned. She refused to answer to anything but her name, arguing to her fellow prisoners that it would make it harder for the guards to kill them if they were appraising them as humans rather than numbers. She also once remonstrated with a rebel who was wearing a jaguar tooth around his neck, chiding him for killing an endangered animal.

This spirit, together with a strong faith and the flashes of hope given to the prisoners by messages from their family that they were able to pick up on stolen radios, kept them sane. On the outside, international pressure to rescue the group was maintained due to Betancourt’s high profile and her dual French citizenship – at one point French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to personally receive Betancourt from FARC.

In 2008, a helicopter landed with a team of Colombian soldiers posing as FARC fighters, who informed the guards that they had been sent by FARC top command to move the prisoners to a different location. It was only when the prisoners were safely aboard the helicopter that they revealed to them that they were safe and about to be flown to be reunited with their families.

Upon her release, Betancourt maintained anger with the Colombian government, believing they had sacrificed her safety to make a point. She consequently filed for compensation from them, despite the fact that they had secured her release, a move which prompted a storm of controversy and official accusations of ingratitude. Vice President Francisco Santos described the lawsuit as deserving a “world prize for greed, ungratefulness and gall”. In the face of this hostility, Betancourt withdrew her claim.

Ingrid Betancourt’s capture was able to mobilise international outrage over FARC partly, it’s safe to say, because she was an attractive and high-profile woman. Indeed, this is probably why she was kidnapped in the first place, because FARC hoped to use her as a high-stakes bargaining chip to have some of their guerrilla fighters released. Betancourt has said that she became “some sort of fetish object” for FARC.

But FARC failed to use Betancourt to achieve the goals they may have hoped for. When Betancourt was taken in 2002, kidnapping had already been a major strategy for the group for at least eight years. At the height of FARC’s power in the late 90s, they controlled almost half the Colombian countryside, and were undertaking two types of kidnapping: political and economic. The former type was aimed at swapping important hostages for captured insurgents, and the latter was a money-making scheme, running in combination with FARC’s other income sources of bank robberies and “taxing” the Colombian drug trade. In 2001, FARC commander Simon Trinidad said FARC did not undertake kidnappings. Instead, he said, the organisation “retains [individuals] in order to obtain resources needed for our struggle”.

FARC’s “struggle” is the longest-running in Latin America, now approaching 50 years in duration. The rebel group styles itself as fighting a class battle, opposing US and corporate involvement in Colombia, but while they may once have had the support of Latin American lefties, in recent years their violent tactics have proved too alienating. Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez has denounced the group. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez condemned them in 2008, saying: “At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place”. Even the ultimate lefty, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has described the kidnappings as “cruel”. Most Western governments classify FARC as a terrorist group.

FARC is no longer the force it once was. A series of military setbacks in recent years, the deaths of prominent commanders (including leader Alfonso Cano last year), and the negative international PR caused by the kidnappings, have all weakened the group. Colombian media last Sunday quoted the commander of the country’s Air Force, General Tito Saul Pinilla, as saying that ongoing military pressure had forced FARC top command into operating in tiny cells away from the majority of their estimated 9,000 remaining fighters. "One cannot lead an organization through email, radio or phone. There is no visible leadership," Pinilla was quoted as saying.

FARC have now announced that they are giving up kidnapping, with this week’s hostage release marking that affirmation. We don’t yet know whether they are taking this step as a way of improving their image without doing much else, or whether it signals that they are ready for serious peace talks, all of which have broken down in the past. Colombian President Juan Manel Santos cautiously welcomed the hostage release as a “step in the right direction, a very important step” on Twitter, but warned that rumours that this would lead to peace talks were “pure speculation”. As the New York Times pointed out, the rebels have renounced kidnapping, but not violence – last month they killed 11 government soldiers in an attack, though they paid dearly for it: two retaliatory attacks killed 69 insurgents.

There’s also the matter of the civilian hostages who remain in FARC captivity. While they have said that the 10 men released this week are the last military and police prisoners in their custody, it’s not yet known how many civilians still languish in the jungle. A Colombian watchdog called Fundacion Pais Libre says 405 people have been kidnapped since 1996. These people have neither been released nor accounted for in any other way, though government figures only estimate about 100 are currently being held.

It remains to be seen whether any of the 10 hostages released by FARC this week will secure lucrative book deals or have Hollywood snap up the rights to the story of their captivity, as happened with Betancourt. But some of the newly released hostages have been held by FARC for over 14 years, and they surely have a story to tell. The Guardian reported that one of them had never seen a mobile phone before his release on Monday. Some of the hostages said they did not recognise children they left behind as toddlers, now in their late teens. In pictures sent around the globe of the hostages walking to freedom, animals accompany some of them them along the airport runway – a pet pig, a monkey, two birds – jungle companions from which the men couldn’t bear parting.

FARC turns 50 in 2014. Coincidentally, this is also the date of the next Colombian presidential elections. How current President Santos chooses to handle this next delicate stage in negotiations with the rebels may well have an impact on the outcome of that poll, in a country sick of violence. DM

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Photo: Assistant Police Director Jose Roberto Leon embraces one of the policemen, who was part of group of hostages freed after being held for more than a decade by FARC rebels, during a news conference in Bogota, on 3 April 2012. Colombia's FARC rebels freed 10 members of the armed forces held hostage in jungle prison camps for more than a decade on Monday, the last of a group the drug-funded group had used as bargaining chips to pressure the government. REUTERS/Fredy Builes.

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Politics

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