In 2002, while running to be president of Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt — who came from the upper class, was schooled in Europe, but returned to fight corruption and empower the poor — was abducted by FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has been holding parts of the South American country hostage for decades.
Betancourt spent the next six years in the captivity of rebels, who tortured and tormented her and her companions regularly, and became the cause célèbre in Colombia, France, and elsewhere for the thousands who’ve been kidnapped by FARC. After being freed by a complex rescue operation in 2008, Betancourt decided to endure the grueling process of writing a memoir of her travails. The result, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, was published last month, and she comes to UCSB on October 27 to discuss her life.
This week, she took time out of her schedule to speak at length with The Independent. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
After being raised mostly abroad, you returned to to Colombia after your mother was nearly killed while standing next to a politician who was assassinated. Do you regret returning?
I don’ regret having gone back Colombia. I needed to get back to my roots. I was very moved by what was happening in Colombia. When I arrived, there was a huge, horrible war against drug traffickers and the candidate who was killed by my mother was an incredible person who really wanted to fight corruption and all the links with the drug traffickers. That’s why he was killed.
Before I got into politics, I didn’t realize how much the system was rotten. Once a Congresswoman, I started discovering the dimension of the problem. It was bigger than I thought. It was kind of scary. You couldn’t talk to anybody without being sure if the person was straight or if they had some links to the drug trafficking or the corruption. And it was dangerous too. At the time I was abducted, Colombia was more violent, but I thought I could change it by unveiling all the connections between politicians and drug dealers and paramilitaries. I really thought that was something we could do.
Once I was abducted, I realized things were even more complicated because I found that the structure of the FARC was a military organization. That’s far from being a revolutionary organization. It’s more like a military to serve the drug traffickers.
In your book, the reader is quickly struck by the immaturity of the FARC rebels. But how have these kids held a country hostage for so long?
Well, they are armed. They have a military structure so that they can have a strategy and that’s what made them successful. Today, because the army has been restructured and is being successful in chasing them, they are in a bad position, but that bad position is also the result of what they turned into. Before, they could have a political ideal, but today, they don’t. They’re just trying to preserve their way of life, the one they have from drug trafficking, the power they have over the people in the territories where they are dominating.
But don’t the rebels want a better life too?
They want a better life for them, which is okay, if you don’t kill and kidnap and drug traffic. These guys pretend to be defenders of the poorest, but that’s definitely not the case. They are just using the poor to rule, to protect their way of life, which is a drug trafficking way of life. They are not looking for social justice, they’re fighting to preserve their domination. It’s better to be a guerrilla who’s armed and being respected because you’re armed than being a peasant living in misery.
FARC was founded with ideals, right?
That was in the early 1960s. At that time, there was political violence in Colombia between the liberals and conservatives with the peasants in the middle. The problem is still going on. You have the impression that the war is between and poor and the rich, but that’s not true. You have warlords who get a hold of weapons and they chase the poor because they want to take the land they have worked on. Colombia is a very huge country, and two-thirds is forest. You have millions of Colombians living in poverty and they go to the jungles and try to transform a piece of land into agriculture. Once they do that, warlords come and force them to leave the land. So we have four million displaced people in Colombia. It’s a war against the poor.
How is Colombia now?
Colombia is better today than it was 10 years ago. It’s better in security issues, which, of course, are very, very important, but it’s better for the people who live in the cities, which are more protected. That’s only half the population. The other half who live outside the cities don’t have any security and are very poor. They have been the target of greedy landlords who appropriate their lands. Since 10 years ago, the problem of the land in Colombia have been getting worse. Today, we have 16 percent of the population owning 90 percent of the land. We’re going exactly the wrong way — people are getting richer, and all the rest are getting poorer.
Are there any politicians who have risen from poverty? Would that help?
I haven’t seen that. Of course, it would be good, but I don’t think that the social origin is a guarantee of right-doing. Today, we have a president, Juan Manuel Santos, who is from one of the wealthiest families in Colombia — they own the biggest newspaper, they are really into everything. But I think this guy is good. He wants to do a good job because he wants a place in history.
Do you plan to return to politics?
Not really. I’m not ready. I need to take some time and reconstruct my life. Those six years were like a hurricane in my life. It destroyed everything. The only things I didn’t want to lose were my relationships with my children and my mother. All the rest disappeared — all my links to Colombia, my job, my party disappeared, I’m going through a divorce. I have nowhere to stay. The first thing is to construct my life and we’ll see what happens after.
But I don’t want to get into politics like I was before getting abducted. I’m not comfortable with politics in Colombia. It’s too violent and corrupt. People are disinformed and manipulated. A country that cannot see the truth and accept that truth and all the time lives in lies and is complacent with lies is a country where I have difficulty doing politics.
This is a ludicrous question, but is there anything you miss about captivity?
No. There’s nothing because whatever I could miss in captivity I have it now with freedom. If I want to go and be surrounded by nature, I can go to the forest. The pleasure of being in nature is something I can do but now I do it without a rifle in my back.
Perhaps the only thing I miss, but it’s more of a horrible feeling, is to know that there are 18 of us still in the jungle. That pulls me back all the time — when I feel I’m free and living my life, then I think of those who are left there. It’s a very frustrating sensation, knowing how much they’re suffering, how bad they want to be back, and knowing I can’t do anything to help. So I’m trying to help the families of the ones that got back.
That’s another thing. People assume that once you’re free, all your problems are solved. That’s not true. Once you’re free, you have to confront reality — no job, no salary. People are happy to see you the first day and, on the second day, they don’t want to know about your real problems. I really think we need to be in more solidarity with the victims of terrorism.
As such a victim, you filed a claim against the government of Colombia for damages but that turned into a huge PR nightmare. What happened?
There was a huge manipulation of information, and it had political reasons. The facts are very simple. There is a law in Colombia to protect victims of terrorism and the law is very clear: victims of terrorism are entitled to compensation. My companions presented their claims. It was normal. It didn’t even show up in the newspapers. But when I presented mine, there was this huge scandal. The government told people that I was attacking the soldiers that had liberated me. That’s a huge manipulation — then you become a traitor. For me, it was very hard and very painful to see the reaction of people. The government was saying, “She wants to make money from her abduction.” Butt hey could give me 100 times more and I would never go back to the jungle. Nobody is going to give me back what I lost. It’s very cruel.
Why did they go after you?
It’s linked what what happened when I was abducted. At the time, the government had taken away my bodyguards and, once I was abducted, the government was afraid that it could get back to them. What they wanted people to believe was that it was my fault. But I couldn’t respond — I was abducted. The hatred, horrible comments hurt me a lot. I really don’t feel like going back to Colombia because our society is just sick — to be able to transform a victim into a criminal like they did to me is just sick.
During the rescue, a major tells you that Colombians had been behind you all along, yet today I read articles about how Colombians aren’t going to buy your book. Where did this relationship fall apart?
This is how it works in Colombia. When my book is launched, they say it’s going to be boycotted, that Colombians aren’t going to buy Ingrid’s book. But it has been the first bestseller in Colombia since day one. People have been queuing in the bookstores to buy the books and people are reading the book. There are politicians in Colombia who are afraid I could come back. They couldn’t kill me physically, so they want to kill me morally.
Fighting was common among the captives. Was that surprising?
The fights were occasional, and what I really remember of those days is that I couldn’t have made it without my companions. They were my support and my family and I love them. We had times, well, we should be dead. We had sick people without treatment, without medicine, without anything. We were reacting to save our companions with what we had….Lots of the confrontations were manipulations by the FARC telling us horrible things about our companions all the time to arouse rivalry. What I know was when it was a problem of life and death we were what we needed to be. For me, the biggest victory is the love we all have for each other.
How has life been since?
I’m a little in nomad mode. I’m living between my two children, Lorenzo and Melanie. I stay one month in one place and one month in the other. That’s how I wrote my book, trying to be with the people I love, find stability to write this book. It was very, very difficult to write. Now that I’m done, I’m ready to find a place for me.
What will you talk about at UCSB?
I want to know what people want to know. The book is, of course, about the jungle and the abduction, but most of all, it’s a journey inside ourselves. The most rewarding thing for me would be for people to read the book and to have questions. That means it made people think in terms of their own lives. If that happens for me, it’s like a miracle. It’s exactly what I wanted.
Ingrid Betancourt comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall for a free talk about Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle and more on Wednesday, October 27, 8 p.m.. Call 805-893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.