The release of Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt after six and a half years (2,321 days) as a hostage in the Colombian rain forest is something to celebrate, and is also an opportunity to discuss the use of violence as a means of coercion

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You know what hostages are, and what hostage-taking is. It’s a dreadful and unlawful thing that some groups of people do to try to get their own way. Sometimes it’s criminals holding on to a bank manager’s family to force the bank manager to open the safe. Sometimes it’s a political group trying to force a government to do what they want. Whatever the reason, there’s never an excuse for kidnapping another innocent person just to get your own way. It doesn’t often work, either, and it can end violently if police or soldiers try to free the hostages by force.

The South American country called Colombia has some political groups who try to get their own way by hostage taking and violence, and on 2nd July a courageous politician, Ingrid Betancourt, who had been a hostage for over six years, was set free: not by violent action but by clever work on the part of the police and the Army.

Ingrid Betancourt was born in Bogota, in Colombia, South America. She is the daughter of a Colombian diplomat who worked for many years in Paris, where she spent a lot of her childhood.  She went to university in France and for a while was married to a Frenchman which means that she has French nationality as well as Colombian.

When she returned to her home country from France she became heavily involved in politics, and in 2002 she stood for election as President of the Republic.

Politics in Colombia can be dangerous. One of the main political groups —  the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC) is armed and very hostile. They kill and kidnap, and generally try to get their way by force. In 2002 Ingrid bravely went into their territory during her campaign to win votes for her presidential campaign. She and her companions were captured and held hostage.

She was a good catch for FARC – or so they thought. They believed that holding such an important prisoner would give them lots of influence and enable them to get their  own way.

But of course, as usually happens, the Government of Colombia didn’t want to negotiate with the hostages. But they didn’t want to go charging in with soldiers either because that might result in her being killed, either by the people holding her or accidentally by the rescuers. That had already happened to hostages in earlier incidents. So Ingrid had to remain a captive in the jungle for six long years.

Ingrid’s father died soon after she was captured, but her mother, Yolanda, continued to hope for her release, as did her husband Juan Carolos, her sister Astrid, and her son and daughter Lorenzo and Mélanie.

As the years went by, hopes rose and fell. At one time it was thought she might have been killed. Then only a year or so ago, her captives sent out a video of her in which she didn’t look well.

Eventually the Colombian government patiently set up an elaborate plan to get her, and some other hostages, out. Over a long time they managed to get some spies in among the FARC people holding Ingrid. Then a few days ago, one of the spies managed to trick the people holding the hostages into bringing fifteen of them, including Ingrid, into one place, where they would be taken by helicopter to another hideout. When the helicopter landed – in the middle of sixty FARC armed men — it seemed to be crewed by other FARC men, and even the hostages themselves didn’t know what was going on. But as soon as the hostages got on the helicopter and it took off, the crew seized the FARC men and tied them up, and said to Ingrid and the others;

 “We are the Army. You are free”.

You can imagine how they felt. Those on board the helicopter said they jumped around so much the helicopter nearly fell out of the sky. After six and a half years, Ingrid was able to be reunited with her husband, her mother, her sister and two children. It was a joyful and thankful moment, and at the airport everyone involved fell to their knees to offer a prayer of thanks.

Fourteen other people were rescued with Ingrid, including three Americans. But at least 750 hostages are still held by the people who kidnapped Ingrid, and all over the world there are still people held hostage for all kinds of reasons. It’s a cruel and pointless way to behave. People who try to get their own way by holding someone prisoner are, in a way, becoming prisoners themselves – trapped in an illegal act that will eventually lead to them being punished.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for the release of the Colombian hostages. We pray for all prisoners of conscience and hostages. Be with them in their darkness and despair. Support them as they hope and pray for freedom. Be with their families and friends who wait for them every hour of every day. And work in the hearts of those who hold them captive, that they may see the pointlessness of what they are doing.

Our freedom is precious. To be able to walk about, see our friends, enjoy the day and then return home to our loved ones is something to always be thankful for.

Further information
Colombia could be a comfortable and peaceful nation. It has oil, and precious stones, and could easily trade and be prosperous. But it’s damaged, partly by inequality – the upper classes are unwilling to give power or influence to the workers, and millions live in poverty. The main problem, though, is drug trafficking. As a result, Colombia is a dangerous place, where murderous gangs fight for supremacy and foreign governments and businesses will not make investments.

The released hostages:
Ingrid Betancourt  Colombian/French politician.

Marc Gonsalves

Thomas Howes
Keith Stansell

Americans captured when their plane crashed in the jungle five years ago. The pilot and a Colombian man with them were murdered.

Juan Carlos Bermeo

Raimundo Malagon
Jose Ricardo Marulanda
William Perez
Erasmo Romero
Jose Miguel Arteaga
Armando Florez
Julio Buitrago
Armando Castellanos
Vaney Rodriguez
Jairo Duran

Colombian soldiers and workers.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh