The Struggle to Free Ingrid Betancourt Hope Running Out for Colombian Captives

Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and her running mate Clara Rojas have been held hostage by FARC rebels for over five years. Now Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has unexpectedly released 150 FARC fighters in an attempt to broker a deal.

By in Rio de Janeiro


Kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (r) and her running-mate Clara Rojas are seen in a 2002 video released by their kidnappers FARC.
AFP

Kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (r) and her running-mate Clara Rojas are seen in a 2002 video released by their kidnappers FARC.

The child has a name, but until now he didn't exist officially. Emmanuel is three years old and was born in the jungle, in a shed made of wood and barbed wire. Two prisoners sewed and embroidered his clothes.

The little boy rarely sees his mother. His father, a fighter from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has probably been executed: Colombia's largest rebel organization does not tolerate physical relations between hostages and their guards. Now the child is being raised by guerrilla fighters, and is reportedly being brought up as an indigenous child.

Emmanuel is the only son of the 44-year-old lawyer Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped by FARC rebels five years ago, together with 45-year-old Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Rojas was the candidate for the office of vice president. The two women are still being held as political hostages by the insurgents.

Emmanuel is the first child born in FARC captivity. The world would never have known about the boy's existence had 33-year-old police officer Jhon Frank Pinchao not succeeded in escaping from a FARC hideout in late April. He says he was kept prisoner along with Betancourt for two years and once held the boy in his arm. Rojas is mostly held in a different guerrilla camp, Pinchao reported, and the rebels have taken her baby away: "I once heard her beg to be allowed to see her son."

Before his escape, FARC rebels held the policeman hostage for more than eight years. He described the hostages' suffering in detail: The captives are chained together in pairs at night. Some suffer from hepatitis and malaria.

Betancourt tried to escape five times, according to Pinchao. "She is a very brave woman," he says. The guerrilla fighters punished her by keeping her in chains for 24 hours each time, in addition to reducing her food rations and taking away her radio. Pinchao says the politician exercises to keep herself physically fit, and she teaches the other prisoners French.

The revelations about Emmanuel's existence have shocked the nation. "The boy has been a prisoner since he was born," Colombian President Álvaro Uribe commented.

Unexpected Moves

Last week, Uribe unexpectedly announced the release of more than 150 imprisoned guerrilla fighters in a "humanitarian gesture" intended to put pressure on FARC to free 56 of its hostages. Besides Betancourt and Rojas, the rebels are holding three Americans, several politicians and 34 policemen and soldiers. In addition, they have kidnapped more than 2,000 businessmen and ranchers during the past six years in order to procure ransoms.

FARC member Rodrigo Granda, who was released last week, speaks at a press conference in Bogota.
AP

FARC member Rodrigo Granda, who was released last week, speaks at a press conference in Bogota.

The president's surprise move has been accompanied by intense diplomatic activities. France's new President Nicolas Sarkozy has made securing the release of Betancourt -- who holds dual French and Colombian citizenship -- a foreign policy priority. He also pressured Uribe to release Rodrigo Granda, FARC's unofficial foreign minister. Granda was freed from jail last week, with the idea being he could convince his comrades to release Betancourt.

At the moment, there is nothing to suggest the guerrilla organization will make any concessions to its arch-enemy Uribe. Nevertheless, the president is apparently pinning his hopes on the French connection. Over the last few years, Paris has sent a secret special envoy to Colombia more than a dozen times with the aim of establishing direct contact with FARC.

Now Colombians are puzzled by their president's sudden about-turn in strategy. Up until now, Uribe -- whose own father was murdered by the guerrillas -- was seen as a hardliner who favored a military solution to the conflict.

The president increased the presence of police and military forces and pushed the rebels, who had even advanced into the cities, back into the jungle. Security has improved markedly since then, with the number of kidnappings dropping dramatically. That only makes the release of the guerrilla fighters all the more surprising. The newsmagazine Semana described his new initiative as a "triple somersault without a safety net."

Critics suspect the president is not actually interested in the fate of the hostages. "He wants to prepare the release of his own political friends," Senator Gustavo Petro speculates. Dozens of members of parliament and politicians from the Uribe faction were arrested in recent months, accused of having supported right-wing paramilitary death squads. "They're now putting pressure on the president," says Petro.

And Yolanda Pulecio, Betancourt's mother, doesn't trust the president yet. "He promised us he would not try to free the hostages by force, but he isn't keeping his promise," she says. Despite FARC threats to murder its captives in the event of an attack, the military tried to locate the hideout where the hostages are being held following the escape of police officer Pinchao in mid-May.

A Colombian radio station broadcasts a message at 5 a.m. each morning from Pulecio to her daughter. And now the mother has found an important ally: Clara González de Rojas, the 76-year-old mother of kidnapped Clara. The elderly lady is now directing an international solidarity campaign from her small apartment in Bogotá.

She has repeatedly sent appeals to FARC via the Internet. "I want to see my grandson before it's too late for me," she says.

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