Interview

Chained in the Colombian Jungle

The FARC's most famous hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, tells FP what six-and-a-half years of captivity in the jungle felt like.

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

In the deepest jungles of Colombia on Sept. 22, one of South America’s most notorious guerrilla warriors was killed along with two dozen of his followers. Mono Jojoy, a man President Juan Manuel Santos has called "the symbol of terror in Colombia" and the second in command of Colombia’s infamous FARC terrorist group, had a lot of blood on his hands — perhaps more than any other Colombian rebel leader — from his decades of fighting. Among his best-known brutalities was the 2002 kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. It took six and a half years, and one of the most complex military operations in Colombia’s history, to free Betancourt and her fellow captives in 2008.

For Colombia, Jojoy’s death has been a watershed moment as the rebellion grinds to an end after years of kidnappings, bombings, land seizures, and drug trafficking. And no one understands the extent to which FARC has terrorized Colombia’s people better than Betancourt herself, whose memoir, Even Silence Has an End, came out this week. A day before Jojoy was killed, Betancourt sat down with Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson to discuss her years in captivity, what she learned about the FARC, and how people on the outside can help the  more than 3,000 hostages who remain.

Foreign Policy: What was the process of writing this book like for you?

Ingrid Betancourt: I didn’t know how I was going to write the book until I was actually in front of the page and with my pen and just saying, "OK. I’m going to dive into it." But the incredible thing is that once I was trying to write, all the information came in a surge. I could remember everything. But it’s really a book of emotions. It’s not a chronological recount of all the events.

FP: Walk us through your average day in captivity.

IB: Sixty percent or 70 percent of the time, we were marching. You were with your backpack marching from 5 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon nonstop. And that was for days and for months without stopping. Those days, you were just a piece of meat walking. Your brain was disconnected from the effort to just keep the pace with the backpack and the heavy load — for me it was very difficult. It was also the torture of having your body besieged by all kinds of bugs, animals, pains, blisters, and cuts.

On those days, I would wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning, because we would have to pack our belongings before 5 o’clock in the dark, and normally without lights because of the danger of using lights if the military was around. Also around this time I would expect a message from my mother. In Colombia, there are many hostages, more than 3,000, so there is a radio program devoted to the families to send messages. My mother would use one of those programs, and every morning at 5 o’clock she was one of the first to go on the air. I wanted to have everything packed and ready to be able to just listen to her, because if I was packing, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

Then it would be a whole day of marching. You would have to climb things and cross rivers. We would arrive at around 4 o’clock. The commander would try to find a place for us to stay, normally near a creek. Then we had to do everything again: We had to put the tents up, hang the hammocks, take our things from the backpack to go and bathe and wash our clothes, which were, of course, horribly filthy.

When we were not marching, there were three meals a day, one at 6 o’clock, the other one at 11 o’clock, and the last one at 4 o’clock. By 5:30 p.m., we were chained and we had to sleep until the next day when they would take the chains off. I tried to escape so many times that I would be chained 24 hours a day.

The day for me would have two major activities, first a workout: I would do two hours of workout before the time to go bathe. And after bathing, I would have again two hours when I would just go under my mosquito net or under a place where I could feel that I was alone and meditate.

FP: How did your perception of the FARC change while you were in captivity?

IB: I think that we, and perhaps my generation more than others, were brought up with this romantic idea of revolution, with Che Guevara and you know, it was love and peace. And in a way, that’s how I thought about the FARC.  

When I came to know the FARC, many things struck me. First, that in this communist organization, there was this hierarchy of privileges. The commanders could have things that the others couldn’t have, including the girls. The beautiful girls go with the commander because with this position, he would have money, he would have power, and he would give to this girl better food or a better radio or a little jewel — and that was enough to make her feel that she should be with that commander.

What I saw was repulsive. I saw that this organization was far from being interested in the fate of Colombia. They were interested and are interested in their business, which is the drug business. That’s how they get the power, because that gives them the money to buy rifles and things. And in the jungle, which is a no-man’s-land, they rule like gods. They can force the peasants that are living there to do whatever the FARC wants. I would say to [my FARC captors], "One day I will get out of here, but what about you guys? You’re prisoners of this organization you’re in. You cannot go freely. If you want to leave, you cannot leave. They will kill you, or they will kill your families. You’re prisoners."

Still, for me there is a difference between the system they created and the people. Because yes, there were people who were horrible, of course. But there were also persons who were, I would say, astonishing. I couldn’t have given testimony of what I lived through without honoring those persons who had compassion and who had wisdom, even though they were so young. Some people I had the privilege to encounter as a prisoner, I think they were incredible.

FP: How do you see your relationship with Colombia?

IB: Well, I love my country, but I don’t like what’s happening in my country. Sometimes I feel like the group pressure is so heavy on individuals, it’s like you’re plugged to the central brain and you cannot unplug and say, "Wait a second, perhaps I can think in another way."

FP: What do you think can and should be done for the rest of the hostages who are still in captivity?

IB: I think the press has been astonishing. That kept me alive. That kept my fellow hostages alive. And it’s keeping the ones who are still in the jungle alive.

There’s a lot of controversy about if it’s important to talk about the hostages or not. Talking about them triggers a problem: that those hostages become more valuable items to negotiate. But I think that what we have to preserve above all is humanity and dignity. Only, only by naming them, by putting their names out, does it give a sensation of existence and humanity. In the position we were in, treated like animals, like cargo, like objects, I would think it’s the most important thing.

There are other things that we can do: We can take care of the families and of the children. The horrible part is that once you’re abducted, there is no salary, so there is no education for
the kids. And when they come out of captivity, we have to be there too. Because coming out is a moment of exultation, but also you crash into the real world. And that is something difficult.

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