Ingrid could be a Joan of Arc for the modern age
After six years as their prize hostage, will Ingrid Betancourt now take on Colombia's Farc rebels? Jeremy McDermott reports from Medellin
Former hostage gets to hug her children after six years
Betancourt hails her 'miracle' rescue after six years in captivity
South America Home
Sunday July 06 2008
IT was a serene Ingrid Betancourt who was treated to a hero's welcome in Paris last Friday, just two days after being dramatically delivered from six years in the hands of Marxist guerrillas deep in the Colombian jungle.
In 2002, Betancourt had approached a rebel roadblock with that same serenity. She was one of the fiercest critics of the terrorist organisation Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), but she was also a skilled politician. She could never have imagined that she was about to spend several years as their captive, frequently chained to a tree in a verdant prison: a time that, as she wrote later to her mother, tested her enormous reserves of courage to their limit and beyond.
It was February 23, a Saturday, and Farc was stronger than it had ever been in its 40-year history. With 16,000 fighters, a firm hold on the drugs trade and training received from the Provisional IRA, the rebels felt in top form. The only blot on the horizon was that they had failed to secure the release of hundreds of their comrades in prisons across the country.
But they had a plan to achieve that. They had been "collecting'' security force officers and politicians who they planned to hand over in return for imprisoned rebels in a "humanitarian exchange''. And they were poised to get the jewel in the crown, a popular, glamorous politician.
With a French passport from her first marriage, and as the daughter of an aristocratic Colombian diplomat, Betancourt was about to give them what they craved: the attention of the international community. The rebels told Betancourt to get out of the car and told her she was "being detained'', along with her aide, Carla Rojas.
Over the next six years there were to be just three "proofs of life'' delivered by her captors: a video a few months after her capture, showing her sitting at a rustic table, but with no clues as to where she was being held was the first. "I am not asking for a prisoner exchange for me, nor for the other kidnap victims,'' she said, her voice calm as she read from notes. "That is a decision for the government and it must be free to make that decision, without pressure or blackmail.''
The request was repeated a year later -- another video, Betancourt looking well, asking for rescue from the newly elected President Uribe. A small, bookish-looking fellow, Uribe's discourse was nonetheless hard-line and uncompromising.
Like other presidents before him, he promised to defeat Farc and bring them to the negotiating table again -- but this time at the point of a gun. For Uribe this was not just political but personal: his father had been killed at the hands of the rebels.
Betancourt's family, however, was not convinced and spoke against Uribe's strategy, with good reason. In May 2003, the military had tried to rescue 10 political hostages held by Farc in the northern province of Antioquia.
The rebels heard the helicopters carrying the 75 Special Forces troops and promptly executed the hostages, among them a provincial governor and a former defence minister.
For years, there was no "proof of life''. Yet the mythology about Betancourt grew: in France, she took on the status of a 21st century Joan of Arc. presidents Chirac and Sarkozy both promised to secure her freedom.
But the prospect of a "humanitarian exchange'' of prisoners was not in sight. The guerrillas demanded a demilitarised zone -- in the middle of a key drug-running route -- to negotiate a prisoner swap. Mr Uribe said he would not "cede an inch of territory to terrorism''.
The political hostages, now numbering over 60, continued to rot in the jungle. Betancourt's family tried to keep her plight on the national and international agendas. Juan Carlos Lecompte, Ingrid's husband (her second, and not the father of her children, Melanie and Lorenzo), would fly over stretches of jungle and toss out pictures of her children, once distributing 10,000 copies.
He would turn up at political events with his arm draped over a life-size cardboard cutout of his wife, ready to talk to any journalist.
The story would pick up every February when another anniversary was celebrated, but then fade. In May 2007, after four years of silence, word came from a heroic source. An escaped hostage, a policeman called Jhon Frank Pinchao, had been with Ingrid for months, even learning a few words of French from her.
"Ingrid never cries,'' said Pinchao who broke down frequently as he spoke of eight years in captivity. "She is too strong for that, she never shows the pain.'' Then, at the end of December, three rebels were captured in Bogota, carrying "proofs of life'' for many of the hostages, including Betancourt. In a photograph she looked gaunt and ill. The letter to her mother made grim reading.
"These six years of captivity have shown me that I'm not as resistant, nor as brave, nor as intelligent, nor as strong as I had thought,'' she wrote.
Just a month later, her aide Carla Rojas was freed, to be reunited with the son fathered by a Farc rebel while she was in captivity. She confessed that her relationship with Betancourt had been strained by their failed attempts to escape.
Yet the woman who stepped down on the tarmac of Bogota airport on Wednesday was not only standing on her own two feet, she proceeded to give an impromptu press conference for over an hour and then went, still in the boots and clothes she had worn in captivity, to the presidential palace for a two-hour address to the nation conducted by President Uribe.
She stayed up most of that night, speaking to her husband, sending him out to get oranges for breakfast, before heading off to the airport to greet the children she had not seen for six years.
Ingrid was 41 when she was taken. Now, at 47, she has the profile, status and credibility that politicians would kill for. She is likely to pick up where she left off at the roadblock in 2002 when she was running for the presidency.
She has given herself a new mission -- to secure the release of the remaining hostages. She wants to negotiate with Farc. However, like her, the rebels have changed over the last six years.
They are no longer the confident force that snatched Betancourt. The year 2008 has been the blackest for Farc in more than four decades of fighting.
Two members of the guerrillas' seven-man ruling body, the Secretariat, have been killed, one bombed in an encampment within Ecuador, another murdered by his bodyguard, who later claimed a government bounty. And the death in March of the leader and founder, Manuela Marulanda, aged 78, who suffered a heart attack, shook the movement deeply.
What the latest military rescue has shown is that command, control and communication within the rebel army are in disarray.
With desertion at a record high, it is clear that morale is low. The new supreme commander, Alfonso Cano, known more as an ideologue than as a military commander, has only a fragile hold on the rebel units spread across the country. Yet it would be premature to write off what has been one of the world's richest and most powerful insurgencies. Farc still number 9,000 fighters, they still have plenty of money -- allegedly around $300m (€191m) a year -- thanks to the drugs trade and are still capable of inflicting massive damage on this war-racked Andean nation.
What is needed is a mediator, a person of national and international standing, with personal understanding of the Colombian conflict.
What is needed is the peacemaker that this country is crying out for, the John Hume of Colombia. There is one woman who could fill those shoes. One woman who could assure herself of a place in history and perhaps of the presidency of her nation. Ingrid, your nation calls for you.