Midway through Ingrid Betancourt’s harrowing memoir, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, the politician who had been the hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for three and a half years escapes from her captors’ jungle encampment with her closest companion and possibly sometime lover, Luis Eladio “Lucho” Pérez. Lucho and Betancourt find themselves in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, lost, hungry, and terrified. They are swept down a river, kept afloat by empty water jugs; they survive on raw fish caught with a few hooks they’ve stolen from their prison; they try desperately to fend off the nighttime cold that seeps through their sodden clothing. Lucho, a diabetic who has been deprived of medicine by his captors, faces the threat of coma and death. At every turn they are terrorized by jungle creatures: red ants, alligators, and a plague of insects called la manta blanca, which sets upon them shortly before their food runs out and they surrender to the guerrillas in despair:
It covered us like snow, spreading over our clothes and into our skin, inflicting painful bites that we could not avoid. La manta blanca was a compact cloud of microscopic pearl-colored midges with diaphanous wings. It was hard to believe that these fragile things, so clumsy in flight, could inflict such painful bites…. We had to retreat and take the path to the river earlier than planned. We plunged with relief into its warm water, scratching our faces with our nails to free ourselves from the last relentless insects chasing us.
Once again the current sucked us out to the middle of the river, just in time. Behind Lucho I saw the round eyes of a caiman that had just surfaced…. Had he decided not to leave the riverbank behind? I saw him swing his tail, then turn around.
Betancourt spent six and a half years in the jungle as a captive of the FARC, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest Marxist guerrilla group, which has been fighting the Colombian government in a bloody civil war since 1964. During her captivity, she was cut off from the world, deprived of any contact with her husband, two children, and parents (her father died of cancer in her second year as a hostage); her life in captivity was an object of fascination yet one shrouded in mystery. There were reports that she had tried repeatedly to escape, and spent most of her time locked up in chains. (She remained “defiant,” I was assured three years ago in Bogotá by Jhon Pinchao Blanco, a police sergeant who had escaped from the same jungle camp in April 2007.)
Then, on July 2, 2008, Betancourt and fourteen other hostages were freed by Colombian troops, in a meticulously planned rescue …