A comandante talks about the case of Ingrid Betancourt, FARC prisoner for the past four years
From our correspondent
“Why on earth did we kidnap Ingrid Betancourt, who, at least on paper, was the
politician closest to our vision of an ideal Colombia? Because she happened to
be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” From his hiding place deep in the
heart of the Magdalena Medio, thousands of acres of thick forest that cover the
altoplano of central Colombia, Pastor Alape, one of the nine comandantes of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a member of the general
secretariat, has agreed to talk with us about Betancourt.
Background. A Colombian with close ties to France, in 2002 Betancourt was the New Colombia/Green
Oxygen candidate for president of Colombia. At the time, she was traveling to
the “demilitarized zone” of San Vicente del Caguan, 740 kilometers south of Bogota.
The area had been the scene of peace talks between then President Andres Pastrana
and the guerrillas of Tirofijo and was demilitarized until after three years of
fractious discourse the talks broke off on February 20, 2002.
Three days later, on February 23, Betancourt was stopped and captured, along
with her campaign manager, Clara Rojas. Now the area is a desert. The guerrilla
forces beat a hasty retreat to the nearby mountains. Thousands of soldiers of
the army advanced to retake possession of the zone. Heavy bombardments destroyed
bridges, guerrilla camps and even a first aid center. But no guerrilla leader
was captured. They had already fled, taking away with them their hopes for a
peace accord—and Senora Betacourt.
Dialogue. Comandante Alape has a strong voice and pronounces each word with precision, a habit of
command. His face is strong, direct. Yet he has gentle ways. He wears a camouflage
uniform and a black beret decorated with a pin displaying the Colombian national
“Nothing about that kidnapping was planned,” he explains, every now and then
adjusting his ruana, a small poncho he wears over his right shoulder. “She was there and we took
her. Our revolutionary FARC philosophy considers anyone who participates in this
system of government to be an enemy. Ours is a social revolution. We are helping
the people to take power. Our principal objective, therefore, is to destroy the
current political class, the fruit of a corrupt oligarchy. We are at war.” We
are sitting at a wooden table under a ramada set among the trees along the bank of a little stream. “War is an inhuman instrument.
Everybody pays the full price. Kidnappings are one of the horrible rules of the
game. To deprive someone of their liberty is a barbarous act. I understand the
agony of her children. But we have no choice, if we are to change this country.
Our guerrilla logic determines that Senora Betancourt is precious merchandise,
to be exchanged for so many of our companeros in enemy hands. The only thing that I have to say is that Ingrid and all other
detainees are treated with respect. Physically they are all fine.”
At the head of the table. Alape is seated at the head of the table. All around is silence. It is 3:00
pm in the hot Colombian summer. We are at least four hours’ walk from the nearest
habitation. There are a few young men in camouflage around us cutting firewood
to cook their rations. The other members of the commander’s unit are off somewhere
finishing up the day’s chores.
“The political prisoners spend their days walking because the hideouts are never
too secure. Then they read. They listen to the radio. We let them listen to
the radio. It is only right that they keep informed, that they stay in contact
with the world. And one way or another they stay in touch with their families.
We even let them listen to Radio Caracol,” now he is laughing, “which broadcasts
messages for the prisoners. I know that this is not an easy life. But they never
go hungry, as happens to the majority of Columbians. The poor farmers have to
bear the violence of the mercenaries hired by the big landowners.” Then he concludes,
looking us straight in the eye: “Ingrid’s children and all of the people dear
to the other three thousand prisoners ought to hope that Uribe is not re-elected
and that the next president will accept the conditions for a humanitarian exchange—which
we members of FARC have been proposing for years.”