Monday, June 24, 2013

A Nation Kidnapped

FARC kidnappees held behind barbed wire in a jungle prison.
No other crime, perhaps, has scarred Colombia's recent history and psychology as deeply as has kidnapping.

Unlike massacres and assassinations - which at least end quickly - kidnappings stretch on for months, years or more than a decade, creating long, painful dramas.

And kidnapping even created its own culture in Colombia - as it's now doing in Mexico - with novels and non-fiction books and even radio programs for kidnapping victims.

Now, two human rights organizations have attempted to place numbers on this scourge. And their report, altho terrible enough, is almost surely a huge underestimate.

The report, A truth Kidnapped (Kidnapping from 1970-2010), is the result of five years' research by Cifras and Conceptos and the Center for Historical Memory, counted more than 39,000 kidnappings over the past four decades. Of those crimes, they said, only some 7,800 kidnappers have been arrested, meaning a 92 percent rate of impunity.

Over these past decades, kidnapping has become a source of chronic anguish in Colombia. For years, foreign journalists made sure to note how wealthy Colombians kept anti-kidnapping hot lines at their fingertips, lived behind barbed wire and traveled with bodyguardss. Colombia's fabled plastic surgery industry got its start from reconstruction for wealthy kidnap victims of the Pablo Escobar era, whose ears and fingertips had been sliced off to horrify family members. And then there was the literature - from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's News of a Kidnapping, to the recent slew of books by Ingrid Betancourt, the American contractors and others rescued from the FARC after years of jungle captivity. Kidnapping even gave birth to what must be one of the world's most unique media forms: Radio stations which transmit messages from anguished family members who hope that their captive loved ones in the jungles or mountains have access to a transistor radio.

But as terrible as the kidnapping study's numbers are, they are surely a gross underestimation. Most kidnappings - 75%, according to the anti-kidnapping NGO Pais Libre - are not reported at all. That may be because the victims are too scared or unsophisticated, unimportant or remote, or because they prefer to reach 'a friendly agreement' by paying the kidnappers instead of involving authorities.

During my journalistic days I interviewed many kidnapping victims, including one famous one: Clara Rojas. She was presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt's running mate, who while in captivity had a baby with a guerrilla. I also spoke to a young woman who'd been kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas when she was 15 and held in the jungle for three years along with her father, until her family finally scraped together enough money for their ransom. The guerrillas didn't physically abuse their victims, but the woman recalled the terrible boredom of spending her teenage years captive in a jungle tent with no idea of if or when she'd be free.

I also talked to a man who'd administered a ranch near the Venezuelan border. Guerrillas kidnapped him mistakenly believing that he was the ranch's owner, and therefore a valuable prize. They subjected him to a kind of torture by forcing him to endlessly tread water in a river until they became convinced he was only an employee and released him.

I met a man from a rural town who repaired radios and electrical equipment. Guerrillas kidnapped him and forced him to repair their communications equipment. After this happened several times, the man and his family fled to Ecuador, where they were refugees.

Also in Ecuador I talked to a woman who had owned a small town restaurant in a Colombian border area. A group of strangers came and ate for several days without paying. When she finally presented them with the bill, the men informed her they were FARC guerrillas: 'We're not paying,' they said. 'And we're also taking away your business and your sons,' whom they turned into unwilling rebel fighters and permanent kidnap victims.

Stories like those often never make it into the statistics.

Then there have been the guerrillas' spectacular mass kidnappings, including the ELN's 1999 kidnapping of 285 parishioners from a Cali church and the 46 passengers and crew of an Avianca flight the same year. In 2002, the FARC invaded the regional Assembly building in Cali and kidnapped 12 regional deputies, whoom they held for five years before murdering 11 of them.

The most recent high profile kidnapping was of a Spanish couple in La Guajira, apparently by common criminals. Police rescued them last week.

Kidnapping peaked between about 1996 and 2005 and has since declined steeply. This year, officials recorded an average of 5.8 kidnappings per week in Colombia, down from 8 per week last year, according to Pais Libre. That's still a lot, reflecting weak rule of law and the continued activty of outlaw organizations throughout the country.

The FARC guerrillas have said they've given up kidnapping, and hopefully they'll hold to their word. If the ongoing peace negotiations succeed, Colombia's kidnapping nightmare will finally conclude, if not end completely.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: