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….
[Later that day, as] I sat in front of [a] chessboard, I was overcome with panic. We were the pawns. Our existence was being defined according to a logic that my abductors were concealing from us. I pushed away the game, incapable of continuing. How long was this going to last? Three months? Six months? I observed the people around me. The blithe attitude to life, the gentle rhythm of routine—it all sickened me. How could they sleep, eat, and smile while keeping us away from our loved ones?
As the weeks turned into months, and then into years, Betancourt writes, she veered from hope of imminent freedom to paralyzing boredom to the depths of despondency. She formed a tight emotional bond with Lucho, a Colombian congressman who had been reduced in captivity to a ragged, aged, sickly figure. She passed the time reading the Bible, embroidering, and listening to her shortwave radio, her only link to the outside world. She mourned the death of her father, was distressed by the thought of her two children growing up without her, and found emotional sustenance in the messages of love and encouragement she received from her mother, broadcast on a Colombian radio station. She was stricken with a succession of jungle diseases, including malaria and leishmaniasis, a potentially lethal, worm-borne parasite that causes massive skin ulcers, and was treated with a series of painful abdominal injections. She survived forced marches through heat and drenching rainstorms and journeys upriver deeper into the Amazon, jammed for days with fellow prisoners beneath tarpaulins, overcome with nausea from the exhaust of the outboard motors. She had to deal each day with the petty cruelty, arrogance, and sadism of FARC commanders.
Betancourt saw the hypocrisy and misogyny behind the FARC’s pronouncements of equality, and even had sympathy for some of the younger guerrillas. Many of these fighters were drawn into the rebel movement to escape from desperate poverty, then found themselves trapped. The girls, in particular, lived at the mercy of their all-powerful chiefs:
In the FARC it was frowned upon to turn down a leader’s advances. A girl had to show proof of camaraderie and of revolutionary spirit. Women in uniform were expected to assuage the sexual desires of their brothers in arms…. A girl could refuse once, twice, but not three times, or she would be called to order for a lack of revolutionary solidarity. The only way to avoid censure was to declare, officially, that you were part of a couple and to obtain permission to live together under the same roof. But if a leader had his eye on one of the girls, it was unlikely that another guerrilla would try to intervene.
While Betancourt singles out FARC commanders for particular scorn, some of her sharpest criticisms are aimed at her fellow hostages. She portrays Clara Rojas, the political aide who wrote harshly of Betancourt in her own memoir, Captive, as a manic-depressive who broke under the pressure of captivity. Betancourt says Rojas physically struck her, and endangered them both by freezing up in a panic during an escape attempt. As she sees it, the arrival of the three Americans at a camp for high-value prisoners in October 2003, nine months after their drug-surveillance plane stalled and crash-landed next to a FARC patrol, spiked tensions higher.
Betancourt took an immediate dislike to Keith Stansell, a gregarious ex-Marine from Florida, whom she portrays as a crass loudmouth who bragged about his rich friends and hunting vacations: “He couldn’t help talking about other people’s wealth. It was an obsession. He’d proposed to his fiancée because she was well connected. His favorite subject was his salary.” However, an intimate friendship developed between Betancourt and Stansell’s soft-spoken colleague Marc Gonsalves. Despite the FARC’s efforts to separate them, the pair maintained contact through hand signals and missives hidden inside “the letter box”—the base of a tree stump. The relationship was a “lifeline,” Betancourt writes, that was broken finally in the summer of 2007, when the FARC moved them to separate camps.
Betancourt’s narrative drags at times, under the weight of the inertia, torpor, and monotony of life in the jungle. But the story picks up with her dramatic accounts of her escapes. After each of these doomed efforts, she is force-marched back to camp, stripped of her small privileges, subjected to physical and mental abuse, and immobilized by chains. From the depths of indignity and misery, she writes, she salvages a sense of herself:
Having lost all my freedom and, with it, everything that mattered to me—my children, my mom, my life and my dreams—with my neck chained to a tree—not able to move around, to talk, to eat and to drink, to carry out my most basic bodily needs—subjected to constant humiliation, I still had the most freedom of all. No one could take it away from me. That was the freedom to choose what kind of person I wanted to be.
This self-portrait of Betancourt as a stoic figure rising above her captors’ lack of humanity is undermined, however, in Out of Captivity, the memoir written by the American hostages in collaboration with the freelance journalist Gary Brozek. Narrated in turn by each of the three contractors, the book presents a harsh, often deeply critical portrait of Betancourt. From her first appearance in the book, she is depicted as a “selfish” and “arrogant” figure—resentful of the Americans’ arrival in the camp, fiercely territorial (complaining bitterly, for example, when Stansell hangs up his hammock on “her” tree in the courtyard), and solipsistic to the point of self-delusion. “Both Lucho and Ingrid seemed certain that Ingrid’s release was just around the corner,” Gonsalves writes of their first encounter in the prison camp, in October 2003, before his antipathy gave way to guarded admiration, intimacy, and later, disillusionment and disgust.
The Americans mock Betancourt’s apparent belief that the prisoners have been herded together as a prelude to her own liberation, “so that she could verify that we were alive and well.”
“Can you believe that?” Keith said as Ingrid walked away. He looked like he’d taken a bite of a rotten piece of fruit. “The frickin’ princess thinks that the FARC built this castle for her alone. How arrogant is that?”
A reader is likely to feel confronted by two opposing views of reality. Stansell, for example, accuses Betancourt of telling the camp commander that “we were CIA agents and…we had microchips in our blood.” Betancourt presents the same episode as an example of the FARC’s insidious strategy of turning the captives against one another by spreading false stories behind their backs. And what Betancourt presents as an act of necessity—hiding her shortwave and refusing to share it with the other prisoners after the FARC issues an edict banning the devices—the Americans use as another example of her selfishness:
Her behavior was a shock to all of us…. [Keith] saw Ingrid’s actions as just another power play, an attempt to use the radio to control us…. [Keith] said that “character will out.” In other words, captivity would reveal the essential nature of us all…. Now, in the case of Ingrid and the radio, it appeared that was exactly what was happening.
Gonsalves later softens this portrait of Betancourt with a moving account of their friendship. He finds himself drawn to her vulnerability, her loneliness, and her situation as the only woman in a camp full of men. In the end, though, Gonsalves says he felt disappointed by her. After refusing to turn over to her the intimate letters she had written to him over many months, Gonsalves was disgusted, he writes, when she initiated a search of him and the other Americans by their FARC guards. And his respect for her fell further after she formed an intimate relationship with William Pérez, a captive who made life easier for himself by doing the rebels’ bidding. “I was sad to see that she had reverted to form,” Gonsalves writes, “that whatever forces were at work on her in the jungle had again reduced her to seeking refuge in someone else instead of in herself and in her faith.”
Some of the criticism of Betancourt seems petty and mean-spirited, failing to take into account the psychological pressures that all the hostages endured, the desperate compromises they made in order to survive. More than anything, the backbiting among the hostages points to the success of the FARC’s tactics of sowing suspicion and division among its prisoners, keeping them weak and demoralized.
The situation in Colombia has changed dramatically since the days of the hostage epidemic. Back in October 2007, when I traveled in Caqueta to retrace Betancourt’s journey into captivity, the FARC was a ubiquitous presence in the southern and eastern parts of the country. In Donsello, in the heart of the former demilitarized zone, the despeje, seven FARC hit teams had ridden in on motorcycles at dusk weeks before my arrival, in an attempt to murder all the members of the town council. They’d assassinated two women on their doorsteps before fleeing back to the jungle. Walking through town, I passed the remains of a Nestlé powdered milk factory, bombed by the FARC in January. Twenty policemen, in olive uniforms and armed with M16s, surrounded me as I walked. “You could become a kidnap victim too,” explained a lieutenant.
Since then, under the leadership of Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos (previously Uribe’s defense minister and the main figure behind the July 2008 rescue mission), the government has strengthened the army, improved security, and significantly weakened the rebel force. Driven out of the cities and confined to a few remote jungle areas, the FARC “is in worse shape than ever before,” I was told by José Miguel Vivianco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. On September 22, 2010, at a rebel camp in the jungles of Caqueta, the army tracked down and killed Julio Suárez Rojas, alias Mono Jojoy, the chief planner of kidnapping high-value hostages.
Suárez Rojas was the military operational commander of the FARC and second-in-command—a role he took on after Raúl Reyes was killed in a Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuador in 2008. Rojas was, Vivianco says, “the military strategist, the guy who controlled the mind and soul of the FARC. His death in combat was devastating.” According to many estimates, defections and killings have reduced the FARC to less than seven thousand men, and the rebels’ ability to carry out abductions has been significantly impaired. The FARC has been steadily releasing its hostages over the last two years; many others have escaped. It’s thought that fewer than twenty policemen and soldiers remain in captivity today.
Uribe, who retired from office last August with high popularity ratings, has been criticized for allowing right-wing paramilitaries to continue to operate with impunity. Over the last two years, a few paramilitary leaders have been extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges—most notably Salvatore Mancuso Gómez, also known as “Triple Cero,” the commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of paramilitaries that fought the guerrillas across the country and financed its activities by means of donations from landowners, drug trafficking, extortions, and robbery. Yet despite a demobilization program that Uribe instituted, few of these groups have been dismantled.
In fact, according to a Human Rights Watch report published last winter, “new groups [have] cropped up all over the country, taking the reins of the criminal operations that the AUC leadership previously ran.” It went on: “The successor groups regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control.”1 There is no indication so far that the new administration of President Juan Manuel Santos will be any more committed to taking on the paramilitaries.
Ingrid Betancourt, now forty-eight, continues to be haunted by her years in captivity. Her marriage to her second husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, broke up after her release. These days she divides her time between New York and Paris, where she runs a foundation to help other former hostages. There has been no serious discussion of her return to politics, and it’s not clear whether she would have any success. Although her years in captivity softened her elitist image, Betancourt’s demand for compensation for her suffering in the jungle struck many as impetuous and unappreciative and hardly endeared her to the public. Earlier this year, she went back to Colombia for a reunion with some of her fellow former captives. Members of the group discovered that they were tormented by similar nightmares, including one that involved being trapped in a building and battling their way to freedom. She told The Guardian in September: “It will take time until we cut the string still linking us with the jungle.”
December 9, 2010
Human Rights Watch, “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia,” February 3, 2010. ↩