Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by FARC rebels and held hostage in rebel camps in the middle of the jungle for nearly six-and-a-half years before she was freed in a dramatic military rescue in July of 2008 that made international headlines. She has just published a harrowing account of her time as a hostage of FARC, the abuse she endured, and her numerous unsuccessful attempts to escape. [includes rush transcript]
We continued the interview after the live broadcast. Watch Part II of the interview here.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Colombia. Last week, a massive operation conducted by the Colombian military targeted a large encampment of guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, killing a FARC commander and secretariat member named Jorge Briceño, also known by the nickname “Mono Jojoy.” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared it was, quote, “the most resounding blow against the FARC in its entire history.”
Well, I’m joined now by a woman who spent more than six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle, allegedly because of an order by Mono Jojoy. I’m talking about Ingrid Betancourt. Raised in France, Ingrid returned to her native Colombia in 1989. In 2002, she ran for president on an environmental and anti-corruption platform as a candidate for a formation called Green Oxygen. While campaigning, she traveled to a remote village where then-President Andrés Pastrana had just ordered a rebel safe haven to be dismantled after failed peace talks. She was kidnapped by FARC rebels, held hostage in rebel camps in the middle of the jungle for nearly six-and-a-half years before she was freed in a dramatic military rescue in July of 2008.
Today Ingrid Betancourt is somewhat of a controversial figure in Colombia. In July, she sued the Colombian state for $6.8 million in damages, saying they took her bodyguards away just as she was about to drive into an area filled with guerrillas. But the move angered many Colombians, and she later withdrew her suit, amidst criticism that Colombian military forces risked their lives to save her.
Well, Ingrid Betancourt has just published a harrowing account of her time as a FARC hostage, the abuse she endured, her numerous unsuccessful attempts to escape. The book is called Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. Ingrid Betancourt joins us here in New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
INGRID BETANCOURT: Thank you, Amy, for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Your response to the killing of Mono Jojoy, the FARC commander who — allegedly it was his orders that took you hostage?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, I think he was the one who invented the kidnapping of civilians to trade them for prisoners, guerrillas in the prisons of Colombia. And I think also that my abduction was so long because of his participation in the decisions. He didn’t want us to be negotiated or to be free. He considered us as trophies that they need to keep in order to have more exposure in the international scene.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had met him before you were taken hostage, right? You were a legislator in Colombia. You were running for president. So, you knew him.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah, I knew him. I met him once before my abduction. I went to the zone of [inaudible], demilitarized zone that the government had given to the FARC in order to incentivate their participation in a peace process. And so, I was talking to the big commander of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, and Mono Jojoy was there with all the other commanders of the FARC. And I remember I was talking to Manuel Marulanda, explaining to him some reforms that I thought were important to, you know, have a better democracy in Colombia, and Mono Jojoy came in and said, “I don’t know why you’re talking with politicians. You’re losing your time. What we need to do is to abduct them and to trade them for our prisoners.” And so, I was, like, under shock, and I remember I looked at Manuel Marulanda, his boss, and I said, “Really? That’s what your intentions are?” And he had a move like, “Don’t pay attention.” And so — but, of course, well, time proved that he did what he wanted to do, and he abducted many of us. We were like twenty politicians and hundreds of military and policemen that were prisoners, war prisoners for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happened that day in 2002, when — describe the trip you were taking, what your intentions were. You were at the end of a presidential campaign. You had just come from your father in the hospital, who was very, very ill, so you didn’t have much time, and you had a lot of campaigning to do. Why did you go to this area?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Well, the first reason was because the peace talks had ended. And the people in the area were frightened that because they had been living with the guerrillas, in a way, after the peace process there could be retaliation, especially from the paramilitary, and they thought they could be killed. So they asked me to go there like a shield, to just show the world that they were — you know, that they were frightened. The mayor of San Vicente was a person of my party, and I felt committed to just — I mean, if he asked to go, I felt committed to just —-
AMY GOODMAN: He was the only mayor, right? Green Oxygen mayor.
INGRID BETANCOURT: He was the only -— yes, he was the only mayor we had elected. And that day, I was flying to Florencia because the airport of San Vicente was closed, and so we had planned a trip by the road, and we had — I mean, I had been confirmed that we would have escorts of an armored vehicle. And when I was going to take the road, my escorts came to me to tell me that they had received the order to just not go with me. They couldn’t — I mean, they were prohibited of accompanying me on the trip.
AMY GOODMAN: And these armed escorts, were they Colombian military that had been approved from Bogotá?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes. I mean, as a presidential candidate, the constitution gave the possibility of — and, of course, the security of — being with an escort, because Colombia at the time, and still now, is a dangerous country, and especially for politics. So I would have them, and it was a constitutional right. And once I was ready to go to San Vicente, probably because the president was going to go to San Vicente, too — and I don’t know, but my belief is that perhaps he thought that having me at the same time as he was going to be in San Vicente could just make like a shadow or disrupt what he wanted to say. Whatever the reason was, is that he gave the order to just not allow my escort to come with me, my body guards. And then I was confronting a decision, because I thought to myself, OK, if he takes my bodyguards away and I don’t go, every time he want me going, he — you know, I mean, he —-
AMY GOODMAN: Any time he doesn’t want you to go somewhere, you’ll -—
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah, he will be —-
AMY GOODMAN: —- he’ll determine it.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah, so it’s the end of the campaign, in a way, because he will be in control of my campaign, ruling over my decisions, and telling me where I can go and where I cannot go. So I thought it was a very bad precedent for our democracy. And that was why I went. It was a question of principle for me.
AMY GOODMAN: You had two options. He could have let you on the presidential plane — the planes that were going exactly where you wanted to go, or just continued with your security guards over land.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: But he wouldn’t allow either.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah, he didn’t allow either. Then, when I was abducted, they retold another story. And because I couldn’t respond, because I was abducted, people thought that the official version was the good version, the true version, which was not. They said that they couldn’t take me in the helicopters that were there, because I was on campaign. But the contradictory thing is that I didn’t ask for those helicopters to take me, because I had my plan to go by road. And then they gave me an official vehicle to go by road. So that was a contradiction.
And then they said that they had warned me. And, I mean, that’s a lie. But the thing is that if they had warned me, as they told me, if it was so dangerous, if it was a war zone, as they pretended they had told me, why didn’t they stop me? Just, there was a checkpoint, a military checkpoint I went through. And the guys let me through like they would let through everybody. I mean, it was a normal traffic. I remember buses and taxis and motorcycles and civilian vehicles going through.
I mean, I think that the problem was that because they withdrew my security, they thought that they were going to be held responsible for my abduction. And for me, I mean, it’s very clear that the only responsible for my abductions are the guerrillas, the FARC. But what I don’t like is for them to say that it was my fault if I was abducted, because it wasn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happened the day that you were abducted.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Well, that day, so I passed this checkpoint. I remember I went to a gas station that was in the road. I always — because this was a road I — I mean, I had done a hundred times. And I spoke with the owner, a woman, and I asked her, “How’s the situation?” She said, “Everything’s calm. I’m so glad that the guerrillas left,” because that was the purpose also of all the — what the government was saying to everybody is that after the peace talks had ended, they had the control of the zone again, and the FARC had just disappeared. And so, this woman confirmed that the guerrillas were gone. So I was, you know, very confident.
We took the road. We arrived to a bridge. The bridge had a problem. And that occurred many times; I was used to that kind, you know, of happenings. So we had to go under the bridge and cross — it was a creek, because it was a dry season — and to take the path the other side of the creek. And so we did, and once we arrived to the other side, a side that we couldn’t see from the previous side, I saw the — I saw, I mean, armed men in camouflage uniform. And I couldn’t see — I couldn’t really know if they were military army guys or if they were guerrillas. The only thing I could see to make the difference was to check on the boots. If they were rubber boots, it was a guerrilla. If they were leather boots, they were the army. And it was rubber boots, so I knew that it was the FARC. And then they stopped our car, and they asked me if it was me, if it was — if I was Ingrid Betancourt. And I said, “Yes.” And they asked us to deviate to a dirt road. And then I was abducted.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I’d like you to read from Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. Our guest is the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. She spent more than six-and-a-half years in the jungle, a captive of the FARC guerrillas. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Ingrid Betancourt. Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. There was a video taken of you about half a year before you were ultimately released. Can you read from your book? This goes to your state of mind. Who did the video?
INGRID BETANCOURT: The video was taped by the commander, Enrique, who, when I was liberated, was taken prisoner. And he wanted the proof of life, that I didn’t want to give, because for six months I had been very ill and the FARC had denied any medication. And here he came, saying, “Oh, you look so well. And say hello to your mom.” And, I mean, it was — it was very humiliating. So this is the moment where I’m thinking how to react to his demands.
“I would have no part of their manipulative pretense. My family was suffering enough as it was. My children had grown up in anxiety, and they had reached adulthood chained, as I was, to uncertainty. I had made my peace with God. I felt there was a sort of lull in my suffering, because I’d accepted what had happened to me. I hated Enrique. But in a way I knew that I could let go and not hate him anymore if I wanted. When he had looked at me and said, 'You know I can get this proof of life no matter what,' he’d already lost. I almost felt sorry for him. Of course he would get it, but it didn’t interest me anymore. There lay my victory. He no longer had a hold on me. Because I had already accepted that I could die. My entire life I had believed I was eternal. My eternity had stopped here, in this rotten hole, and the presence of imminent death filled me with a peace of mind that I savored. I no longer needed anything; there was nothing I desired. My soul was stripped bare. I was no longer afraid of Enrique.
“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 important 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: Ingrid Betancourt, reading from Even Silence Has an End, her memoir of being held hostage for more than six-and-a-half years in the Colombian jungle.
How did you stay alive? A number of times — I mean, you tried unsuccessfully to escape a number of times. They had you on a leash. They would drag you. They would hook your neck, your ankle.
INGRID BETANCOURT: I think that we all have in ourselves this kind of animal instinct to survive no matter what. But for me, it was also God, faith. It was the love of my children that I wanted to get back. It was my companions that were with me, my fellow hostages, that were —- with their fraternity, their love, their solidarity, they were just pushing me up. And I think it was also a commitment not to give up, a force inside of all of us to just stay alive.
AMY GOODMAN: You mention your fellow hostages. At the same time your book has come out, the three American contractors, military contractors -— they worked for Grumman, for Northrop Grumman — theirs has come out, and they criticize you. I was struck by one of the stories that they deal with and how differently you deal with it in your book. And it’s the issue of the radio. The guerrillas demanded all the radios be taken away. That was all of your lifeline to the outside world.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, because that was the way we would hear messages from our family. It was the only way to know what was happening in the world. It was — for me, it was everything.
AMY GOODMAN: Your mother would speak to you on the radio, your children.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Every day. Every day.
AMY GOODMAN: On a radio show.
INGRID BETANCOURT: On a radio show.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were the only one who said, “Let’s hide the radio.”
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: “Let’s keep it.” So you became the center, because first they attacked you and said, “How dare you? You’re going to get us all in trouble.” But ultimately they all relied on your broken-down radio.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah. And more than that, I think that the very core of this problem with the radio was that once they realized I had managed to hide mine, they blackmailed me, and they asked me to give them my radio. And I was saying, “Wait a second, guys. I mean, I’m not going to give away my radio, because I want to listen to these messages. We can share the radio. But if we share the radio, I mean, it has to be a risk we all share.” Because they wanted me to bear, you know, the guilt, if we were discovered. But they want —-
AMY GOODMAN: The responsibility, but not the risk.
INGRID BETANCOURT: The responsibility, yeah. And then they said, “If you don’t give us the radio, we will tell the guerrillas that you have the radio, and we will give you up.” And I thought that was -— I mean, that was the reason of the, you know, row between us.
AMY GOODMAN: I was surprised that they hadn’t kept them themselves, their own radios.
INGRID BETANCOURT: No, and especially that there was no solidarity. Why attacking me? Why not saying, “Look, let’s — you know, we’re here together in this.” And, you know, the incredible thing of this story is that by talking, you know, and negotiating, we came up to the good solution, which was, let’s share responsibility, and let’s share the radio.
AMY GOODMAN: I mentioned at the beginning your suit that has been very controversial in Colombia. But your description of what happened to you, how you were stripped of your security, that issue — of course, you were abducted and held by the FARC — that is not questioned — but you feel the government has responsibility here.
INGRID BETANCOURT: Well, I think that there was an error in the service. That’s what I think. I don’t know how much this becomes a responsibility, because of course I don’t think they could just, I mean, foresee that I was going to be abducted. Nobody could. But the thing is that when I asked for compensation for my abduction as a victim of terrorism — this is a law that we have in Colombia that protects as victim of terrorism, and we can ask for compensation. And this happens all over the world; every country has this. The incredible thing was how the government reacted and how they manipulated the information, because they said, “Ingrid is attacking in court the soldiers that released her.” And there is no link between my action, which is asking as a victim of compensation, and my saviors, my heroes, my soldiers that freed me that I love. I mean, and because of that, the way it was presented, Colombians reacted in a very harsh and, I think, unjust way. They said that I was trying to get money from my abduction, like use my abduction to have money, but taking it from the government.
And Amy, you know, I could have that money or ten times more, I would not accept to go back to the jungle to live what I lived. I was deprived of my children, of their adolescence. I couldn’t be there to give my father — I mean, to hold my father’s hand when he died. So, it had been difficult for me to, you know, accept the reaction in Colombia, because I feel it was very unfair. And I feel it just shows how cynical we have become in Colombia, that we just forget the suffering of victims —- not only me. I mean, every time there’s something happening in Colombia, somebody is killed, or even if a woman is raped, they say it’s her fault, she was too provocative, or it’s his fault he was dealing with the narcos. I mean, we always transform the victim into a criminal. And I -—
AMY GOODMAN: So, while others have sued, you’ve had to — you felt you had to withdraw the suit?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yeah. Well, others, my companions, asked for compensation. And I hope they’re going to be compensated. And I withdrew because I want to have my peace, my serenity.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute to go, though we’ll do part two right after the show. That day in 2008 when you were rescued, the Colombian military rescue, you didn’t realize it was the Colombian military, right? You thought you were just being transferred yet again?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, yes. It was — they did it so well that they also made us think that they were working with the guerrillas, that they were, in fact, like guerrillas disguised in some kind of humanitarian commission.
AMY GOODMAN: They were — came in white planes?
INGRID BETANCOURT: They came in white planes.
AMY GOODMAN: The controversial use of the ICRC symbol, the International Red Cross symbol?
INGRID BETANCOURT: Well, I think I was too much into my own thoughts, and I don’t remember that. I know they have shown things on the cameras, but I don’t remember that. I remember like a dove in a blue background, and I thought, “This is fake.” I mean, this is not the UN. This is like the, you know, the dove — the Dove soap dove, so I thought, “No, this is just a — this is just a pretending thing. It’s not true.”
AMY GOODMAN: And when did you realize that you were being freed?
INGRID BETANCOURT: When I was in the helicopter. It came to a point where suddenly they moved, and they neutralized the two commanders, the guerrilla commanders that had come in the helicopter with us. Enrique was the one I was reading about. He was the one that was videotaping my proof of survival. And he was neutralized by the guys. And I remember my companions kicking him.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
INGRID BETANCOURT: And I thought, “My god, this is incredible!” And then the leader of the group shouted, “This is the Colombian army! You’re free!”
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, but we’ll bring our folks part two. Even Silence Has an End. Ingrid Betancourt, thank you so much.