Among the first international initiatives of the new Sarkozy administration in France has been an attempt to win the release of Ingrid Betancourt, now in her sixth year of captivity in the Colombian jungle.  --  Members of her family are household names in France, where they continue to keep her drama in public consciousness by frequent appearances; she was an issue in the 2007 presidential campaign in France.  --  On Saturday, Marie Delcas of Le Monde reviewed the facts of her case in an article translated below.[1]  --  A news broadcast describing her case (in French) can be viewed here....


[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]

By Marie Delcas

Le Monde (Paris)
May 26, 2007,1-0@2-3222,36-915360@51-891509,0.html#

BOGOTA -- Ingrid Betancourt has been living in the jungle for five years, three months, and three days. How has this slender young woman, raised in the elegant salons of Bogota, the 16th arrondissement of Paris, and the classrooms of the rue Saint-Guillaume, survived such an ordeal? [NOTE: The Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris ("Sciences Po") is located in buildings on or in the vicinity of the rue Saint-Guillaume in Paris's 7th arrondissement. --M.J.] "As for her, she's very strong," Jhon Pinchao said last week. At the end of April, the policeman captured on the field of battle succeeded in escaping after eight years and nine months spent in captivity. As for the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) ('Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia'), they have time on their side. Some of them were born in the maquis.

The last proof that Ingrid Betancourt was alive dates from August 2003. FARC sent a video of the young woman, who had lost weight but remained determined. Ingrid, wearing a combat uniform, could be seen greeting tenderly her two children, Mélannie and Lorenzo, her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio. In the video, she explained with the self-assured tone of a head of state why the government should negotiate with FARC, which was demanding an exchange of "prisoners of war." But President Alvaro Uribe has always been deaf to this argument. Ingrid and her unfortunate companions -- there are still 56 of them -- thus continued "to rot in the forest." The expression employed by the Franco-Columbian woman made an impression.

Intent on showing toughness, Alvaro Uribe refused to give in to the demands of guerrillas and open negotiations. An offensive against the rebels allowed him to secure the main highways and the cities, and his fellow citizens approved of his firmness: Alvaro Uribe was reelected in 2006. Contrary to all expectations, the hostages were only only a minor issue in the election debate. In a country bruised by forty years of violence, the kidnapping was only one drama among many others. The fate of Ingrid mobilizes people in Paris more than in Bogota.

In 2001, the French were fascinated by the Colombian woman. Her book, La Rage au coeur ('Seething with Rage'), sold more than 300,000 copies. There she recounted her struggle against corruption and the practices of a political class ready to do anything to maintain its privileges. France thus discovered a committed women who spoke impeccable French. The daughter of an ambassador, Ingrad had lived in Paris. At Sciences Po, she had met Dominique de Villepin. And her first marriage was with a French diplomat, Fabrice Delloye, the father of her children.

But in 1989, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, the hope of a generation, was assassinated by the mafia. For Ingrid Betancourt, it was devastating. She abandoned her easy life, her French husband, and her children to return to Bogota. After a brief stint in the ministry of finance, she entered politics. Completely unknown, the young woman with a Parisian look attracted the attention of the TV cameras by distributing condoms at intersections "as protection against corruption."

She was first elected to Congress in 1994. With the help of her oratorical talent and provocative media stunts, she became the enfant terrible of Columbian politics. The young representative prepared for battle against President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), who financed his campaign with money from drug traffickers. When she received her first death threats, she sent her children to live with their father, who was then posted to New Zealand. In 1998, she became a senator. She left the old liberal party and founded her own party, "Oxygen." Asked to give the closing speech at the international Green confererence in Canberra, Ingrid was a sensation. She became an international celebrity as a spokesperson for the ecological movement. Colombians who never once heard her mention the word "environment" are still amazed: her great cause remained that of modernizing and restoring morality to political mores.

She set her sights on the presidency, but the competition was intense. Two other women were also candidates, the liberal Marie Emme Mejía and the conservative Noemi Sanin, who was also trying to incarnate political renewal. Ingrid Betancourt found it hard to discard her image of a rich kid with a cause for that of a credible official. Her book's success in France annoyed her fellow Colombians. The country's leading daily, *Semana*, spoke ironically of "the new Joan of Arc . . . of the French." David Soto, professor of political science, said at the time: "You don't wash your dirty linen in public. A French politician wouldn't publish a book in English in the United States to denigrate French behavior." Despite an execellent campaign, Ingrid Betancourt's standing in the polls at the time of her kidnapping was only 2%.

That was on February 23, 2002. As a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, Ingrid Betancourt wanted to reaffirm her commitment to peace and went, against the advice of the police and the army, to a meeting in San Vicente del Caguan. One week before in that large southern city, she had met with FARC leaders involved in a long and sterile peace process. Courageously, she had addressed the guerrillas through the media, challenging their ideals. "Was it to sell cocaine that you took up arms?" she said, before joking with the guerrilleros. The context lent itself to such an approach.

But on February 20, discussions broke down. Ingrid decided to intervene. She got into her car and headed off with her campaign director, the faithful Clara Rojas. On the road, a guerrilla barricade had been set up. Alain Keler, the photographer who accompanied Ingrid, and who would be released several hours later, recounted: "We saw a Red Cross car turn around. A young guerrillero asked us to turn around. He hadn't recognized Ingrid but she identified herself and asked to see the commando leader." The day before, the candidate had said: "If I'm kidnapped, I'll negotiate with the guerrillas." "Ingrid, who believed in peace, committed the unforgiveable error of not understanding that the logic of war had taken away her rights," Jorge Pulecio, one of her entourage, said.

For her family, the endless waiting had begun. No one then could imagine that it would last so long. "I would have gone crazy," Juan Carlos Lecompte says today. He's a carefree PR man whose passions are motorcycles and golf, but through the drama of his wife he discovered that of his country. Armed with a life-sized photograph of Ingrid, Juan Carlos began his long march. In Bogota, he went to every demonstration to describe over and over again the anguish of the kidnpapping. In Paris, Mélanie, Ingrid's daughter, took up the baton. In France and Belgium, support committees were organized.

Haggard, Yoland Pulecio, Ingrid's mother, assumed her role of spokesperson with dignity. "Mr. Uribe, I hate you," she told the head of state, who, for months, refused to meet with her. Every morning at dawn, Yoland called the radio station to say a few words to Ingrid. In a country were kidnappings are common currency, several radio stations make this service available to families.

Two videos got through in the first eighteen months. Then silence ensued, along with rumors, false reports, and long periods of depression. The Betancourt family and the diplomats learned to be wary. At the beginning of 2003, there seemed to be some some reliable information. President Uribe himself let them know that that there has been an emissary from FARC. Ingrid, ill, was said to be on the verge of being released.

The French minister of foreign affairs sent a plane to Brazil -- without informing Brasilia, which learned about it from the newspapers. The affair turned into a fiasco. And the guerrillas refused to budge from their positions. The Colombian government seemed on the verge of giving in several times, but then torpedoed attempts at negotiation. The rumors continued: Ingrid was said to be pregnant by a guerrilla leader. In March 2005, in a moment of theater, a Colombian journalist revealed that Clara Rojas, her campaign director, had had a child. Jhon Pinchao, on May 16, confirmed the news.

He also said that Ingrid had tried five times to escape, that she sleeps with a chain around her neck, that she hasn't given in to the guerrillas, that she is writing. "Ingrid lives like a dog," was how Juan Carlos Lecompte saw it. From contradictions in Pinchao's testimony, the husband convinced himself that Pinchao was lying. Paris seems determined to resume its efforts. And President Uribe is making great efforts to persuade people of his good intentions. He has just announced the unilateral and imminent liberation of several hundred guerrillas. But does FARC have the slightest intention of liberating its hostage, that jewel to which they owe their international existence? The Colombians have their doubts.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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