The Return of Betancourt: Hostage-taking in Focus

After five months of waiting, Colombians received news last week that former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was indeed alive, at least as of May 15. The news came through a televised video apparently recorded on that date at an undisclosed jungle location. The video featured an exhausted Betancourt still at the hands of the FARC, the largest rebel group in the country. Betancourt’s abduction and that of her campaign manager, Clara Rojas, took place on February 23 as they traveled by car to San Vicente de Caguan. Her purpose in San Vicente, newly returned to government control, was to meet with the mayor, a member of her reform-oriented “Oxygen” party, and hold a human rights rally to reassure frightened villagers in the region.

Emaciated in faded fatigues with Rojas at her side, Betancourt sharply criticized Pastrana and the military forces for “abandoning” the kidnapped hostages. “I am not asking to be exchanged nor that other hostages be… what I can not accept as a Colombian is the abandonment of the government.” With this, she called on the government to formulate a policy for addressing the kidnappings–over 3,000 of which now take place yearly, the highest rate in the world. Further, Betancourt criticized Pastrana for cutting off the three-year peace process between the government and rebel forces, a decision made shortly after Pastrana had secured promises of greatly increased military aid from Washington.

On a more personal note, Betancourt also accused Pastrana of refusing her a seat in the helicopters traveling to San Vicente while at the same time making room for journalists. She referred to his accusations that she was responsible for her own abduction as “cruel and ignorant” and called upon attorney general, Edgardo Maya, to investigate the circumstances of the kidnapping.

Shortly after her capture, FARC leaders stated that Betancourt would be held for at least a year. During this time, she would be offered along with other “political” hostages including governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria, five former members of Congress, and two former government ministers, in exchange for imprisoned rebel guerrillas. After that time, they would take no responsibility for her fate. The current FARC proposal is to exchange twenty political hostages and forty-five police and army officials for an undetermined number of jailed guerrillas.

Until now Pastrana has rejected all such agreements with the exception of the one made last year in which three hundred hostages were freed. Peace Commissioner, Camilo Gomez, responded to Betancourt’s accusations by claiming that the government has always sought the release of the hostages. Referring to the leaders of FARC he asserted, “the doors are always open to obtain an agreement with the goal of liberating the hostages and ending the takeover of our soil.” Betancourt’s husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, called these offers “empty” gestures, noting that Pastrana and his cabinet have but a few days left in office before the inauguration of President-elect Alvaro Uribe. Like Lecompte, many believe that Pastrana is only too ready to wash his hands of the issue.

In an attempt to revise government policy, several prominent Colombians–including former presidents Alfonso López (1974-78) and Ernesto Samper (1994-98), and Public Defender Eduardo Cifuentes–have called for a “humanitarian accord” with regard to the hostages. Such an accord would allow the freeing of FARC-held hostages along with jailed rebels who are not accused of human rights violations. Additionally, the proponents argue that the accord would lead to a renewal of peace talks with the rebels. In mid-July, López proposed that the hostages be exchanged for jailed guerrillas not accused of human rights violations. These guerrillas would be released on the condition that they “promise not to take up arms with the insurgency in the future.” The proposal has received the support of many prominent relatives of hostages who have become discouraged with the government’s seeming lack of interest in the kidnappings.

The reappearance of Ingrid Betancourt has revived the debate on kidnapping in Colombia. After years of inactivity, the Pastrana administration now has an opportunity to pull off some sort of resolution at the last minute. With his failure on the human rights agenda, it could be Pastrana’s finest moment. On the other hand, the mutual commitment of Uribe and the Bush administration to increasing the strength of the Colombian military bodes less well for the fate of the thousands still being held by the FARC.

In any case, a strategy for the safe return of kidnapping victims should certainly be added to the ever-growing list of human rights concerns in Colombia.