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Inside the Trap

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Dovic/JBV News/Polaris
Freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt removing a portrait of herself from the Hôtel de Ville in Paris the day she returned to France, July 4, 2008

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 operation. The culmination of an elaborate charade orchestrated by Colombian military intelligence, Operation Jaque (or “check” as in “checkmate”) involved duping the rebel high command into believing that the helicopter-borne military rescuers were members of a humanitarian aid group that had come to inspect the hostages. The rescue turned Betancourt into a hero worldwide, an embodiment of courage in the face of FARC brutality.

Yet within months of her liberation, unflattering portrayals of Betancourt began appearing in print. Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle, by Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes—three American civilian contractors who were liberated in the same rescue—describes Betancourt as a “snake,” a “princess,” and a selfish figure with a sense of entitlement. They say that she refused to share food, kept valuable possessions—such as a shortwave radio—away from the other prisoners, and even ratted on Gonsalves to her guards after he insisted on holding onto a collection of intimate letters she had written him during their time in captivity. Captive: 2,147 Days of Terror in the Colombian Jungle, by Clara Rojas, Betancourt’s longtime aide, says that she failed to offer her emotional support after Rojas became pregnant in captivity, and blames Betancourt’s “apathetic and bitter” behavior for the unraveling of a twenty-year friendship. “We became like those couples who become total strangers once communication has completely failed them,” Rojas writes.

She had always been so strong and determined, and it was upsetting to watch her falling apart. I even believe that she wanted to die. She grew from being a role model for me to someone who represented death.

(Rojas was released in January 2008 in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.)

Betancourt’s reputation suffered another blow in June 2010, after she accused the Colombian army of negligence in the events leading up to her 2002 kidnapping. Claiming that they had denied her protection on a risky fact-finding trip into contested territory, she demanded $6.8 million in compensation from the government. That demand was rejected by the army and by the Colombian vice-president, Francisco Santos, who said that the petition deserved a “world prize for greed, ungratefulness and gall.”

Her demands also cost her much of the goodwill that had been accorded her by fellow Colombians. Days later, faced with mounting public outrage, Betancourt dropped the lawsuit. Now, with the publication of her memoir, she has set out to clarify her actions and present her own version of what happened in the jungle during those six and a half years. The book should dispel any lingering rumors about her bonding with her captors. But its unflinching portrait of her mental anguish, and of the behavior of her fellow captives, is unlikely to lay to rest the controversy surrounding her.

I met Betancourt in the summer of 1997, during one of half a dozen trips that I made to Colombia while working as Newsweek‘s South America bureau chief. The daughter of a Colombian diplomat posted to UNESCO in Paris and his wife, a former beauty queen turned senator, Betancourt, then thirty-five, was ambitiously pursuing her own political career. Elected a member of Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives in 1994, she had launched the Oxygen Green Party and was contemplating a run for president. When we had lunch in central Bogotá, Betancourt talked to me bluntly about the “disastrous” administration of the then President Ernesto Samper, a once-popular reformer who had admitted to accepting money from the Cali drug cartel for his electoral campaign. Colombia, she told me, was unraveling: much of the countryside was in the hands of the FARC or its enemies, the autodefensas—right-wing paramilitary groups that had formed an alliance with the army and were killing guerrillas and suspected sympathizers with impunity while collecting drug money.

We spent two hours together that afternoon; Betancourt could be convincing as well as flirtatious. On a trip to the northern province of Antioquia the next day, I saw much that confirmed her descriptions of a country in the grip of an escalating civil war. In a guarded camp deep in the sierra, Carlos Castaño, the country’s most powerful paramilitary leader, told me that the autodefensas and the FARC were locked in “a battle to the death.”

Samper was succeeded as president by Andrés Pastrana, who favored a soft approach to dealing with the FARC—which then numbered about 20,000 guerrillas. In November 1998, Pastrana created the despeje, an 18,000-square-mile safe haven for the guerrillas in the jungles east of Florencia, in Caqueta province. Pastrana’s granting of a Switzerland-sized concession was meant as an inducement to the FARC to participate in peace talks. Instead, the rebel group used the demilitarized zone to train its soldiers, grow coca leaf, operate drug laboratories, improve its logistics and intelligence, and create a gulag for some of the hundreds of policemen and soldiers it had seized as prisoners of war.

The FARC also initiated a new strategy, attributed to Julio Suárez Rojas, aka Mono Jojoy, one of the group’s most brutal military commanders: seizing Colombian politicians. These “high-value hostages” could presumably be traded for FARC rebels being held in Colombian jails. In February 2002, the FARC hijacked an airliner in southern Colombia and took the region’s most powerful senator as a hostage. At that point, Pastrana broke off peace talks and sent the army back into the despeje to seize control.

Betancourt’s journey into captivity, she writes, began on February 23, 2002, when she embarked on a fact-finding mission into the despeje. She was concerned about the plight of civilians who might be targeted either by withdrawing rebels or advancing government troops. Betancourt’s trip has often been criticized as a reckless publicity stunt. In her telling, however, she was sabotaged at the last minute by the Colombian army, which had promised to take her by helicopter to the zone, then canceled the trip. (Betancourt suspects that Pastrana, who wasn’t eager to accommodate her, intervened. “I had supported him during his campaign on the condition that he implement major reforms against political corruption,” she writes. “But he’d broken his word, and I had crossed over to the opposition. He turned against my team.”)

Then, after she started to travel by road, she writes, the Security Department of Caqueta refused to allow her to bring bodyguards. She proceeded after being reassured by locals that the FARC had withdrawn from the zone. About an hour outside of Florencia, the small group—including Rojas and two journalists—arrived at a roadblock manned by soldiers wearing camouflage fatigues and the telltale black rubber boots of the FARC. One of them recognized her. Moments later, a guerrilla stepped on a mine that blew his leg off. The FARC commandeered Betancourt’s truck and loaded the injured man aboard, and they headed deeper into the jungle:

After ten minutes the vehicle stopped again. One of the recent arrivals jumped out and opened the doors. “All of you, out! Quickly!” He pointed his gun at us and grabbed me by the arm. “Give me your cell phone. Show me what you’ve got in there!” He searched my bag and pushed me forward, pressing the barrel of his gun into my back.
From the beginning I had held on to the hope that they were taking us to a place where they would care for the wounded man and that we would then be permitted to turn around and leave.
Now I had to face what was happening to me. I had just been taken hostage.

Brought to the first of a succession of jungle hideouts, Betancourt describes her transition from a life of urban sophistication and privilege into a primitive “hell” where her every move was dictated by her captors. On her first trip to the latrine, escorted by a young female guard, she writes:

I looked more closely. A number of holes had been dug in the ground. The sight inside each was nauseating. Insects were crawling all over the matter that had not been covered properly. I was already feeling sick, and instinctively I doubled over in disgust, gripped by spasms as the putrid odor filled my nostrils. Without warning I threw up over both of us, splattering even our shirts….
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