Anti-government guerrillas kidnapped Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt Saturday, three days after President Andres Pastrana broke off peace talks with the FARC rebels and ordered a large-scale military invasion to retake their former safe haven. On Saturday, Pastrana made a symbolic visit to San Vicente del Caguán, the de facto capital of the Switzerland-sized area that he granted to FARC in 1998, to demonstrate that the armed forces were reconquering the region. According to El Espectador of Bogotá, the president refused Betancourt and her entourage a military helicopter ride to San Vicente, so she determined to get there by road, despite official warnings against driving in the conflict zone. En route, the candidate’s pickup was stopped at a FARC roadblock. When one of the three rebels stepped on a landmine and lost a leg, Betancourt instructed the guerrillas to get into the truck so she could take the injured man to a hospital; instead, they halted the vehicle in the jungle. The three men in Betancourt’s party were released, while she and her campaign director were taken away by FARC.
FARC is currently holding around 800 hostages, including four members of Congress and a former governor. Spain’s El Mundo said FARC wants the government to release jailed guerrillas in exchange for Betancourt’s release. The guerrillas are thought to generate $200 million to $300 million per year from kidnappings, drug trafficking, and protection rackets.
The Financial Times described the situation in the formerly demilitarized zone as a “power vacuum”: As many as 5,000 guerrillas are retreating into the dense tropical jungle as the army retakes the towns. Living conditions in San Vicente are terrible: El Tiempo of Bogotá reported that since FARC blew up the power generating system Friday, there is no water, gas, telephone service, or electricity, and without refrigeration the food supply is dwindling. Residents also fear reprisals from right-wing paramilitary units who, the FT suggested, may “exact brutal punishment on those they consider have helped the Farc” during their occupation.
Although polls currently show that less than 1 percent of the electorate intends to vote for Betancourt in the May election, she is well known at home and abroad. The daughter of prominent politicians, she previously served in Colombia’s House and Senate. According to Clarín of Argentina, she is known as “the Colombian Joan of Arc,” has been accused of involvement with the Calí drug cartel, was once involved with a member of the M-19 guerrilla group, and after leaving Congress dismissed it as a “rat’s nest” of corruption. Educated in Paris, her book La rage au coeur (published in the United States as Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle To Reclaim Colombia) was a huge hit in France, selling over 200,000 copies. She is known as an innovative campaigner: Le Monde of Paris said that earlier this year she gave away Viagra pills at campaign stops, instructing Colombians to stand up for democracy and justice, until the health minister and Pfizer forced her to stop distributing pharmaceuticals without a prescription.