Author Ingrid Betancourt

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Former Colombian presidential candidate who was held in captivity describes the future she wants for her country.

As Ingrid Betancourt campaigned for the Colombian presidency, she was taken hostage by a terrorist guerrilla organization and held for more than six years—becoming the longest female hostage held in captivity. In '08, she was freed in a military attack. Betancourt was born in Colombia, but grew up in Paris. She returned to her homeland in '89 to become involved in national politics. Since her rescue, she's worked to raise awareness of human rights violations and describes her fight to survive her ordeal in the book, Even Silence Has an End.


Tavis: Ingrid Betancourt was a candidate for president of Colombia back in 2002 when she was kidnapped and held hostage in the Colombian jungle because of her anti-corruption stance. Her six-plus-year ordeal made headlines around the world and is now the subject of her critically acclaimed new text, “Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle.” Ingrid Betancourt, an honor to have you on this because/
Ingrid Betancourt: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start by asking about the title, “Even Silence Has an End.”
Betancourt: It’s a verse of one of the poems of Pablo Neruda.
Tavis: Oh, great poet, yeah.
Betancourt: Yeah, Chilean poet, beautiful. It’s a poem where he thinks of what people will say about him the day he will die, and he says, “My words will remain, because even silence has an end. Silence like the death.”
When I was in captivity, and in a moment where I was very ill and I thought that perhaps dying was my best option, the voice of my father came back to me because my father used to recite those versus to us when we were kids. I think that helped me cling to life and for me, the title is the victory over despair, over darkness, over pain and over death.
Tavis: You were taken captive how? You were campaigning. Set the stage for me.
Betancourt: Okay. It was a Saturday, in the morning – very early in the morning. I took a plane from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and I went to Florencia. I took a flight. When I arrived at Florencia, in the south of the country, I had to take a road to San Vicente Del Caguan, a little village that was the place where the government has been having peace talks with the rebels, the communist rebels in Colombia, the FARC.
Two days before my trip those talks ended, and the president of Colombia at the time was very adamant in saying, “We are reclaiming this zone, we are evicting the FARC from that zone.
So when I arrived everything was militarized. The president was going to go to the same place I was at the same moment, and in the moment I was going to take the entry to the cars to begin the road, my escort received an order from the president saying they couldn’t come with me.
So for me it was clear that it was a political move, that the president didn’t want me to go to San Vicente and that if I accepted, that by withdrawing my security he was able to control my campaign. I thought it was serious, because then what documentary?
So I decided I had to go, and I went with no bodyguards. The road was clear. There was soldiers everywhere, so I thought it was secure enough. Then I stumbled in a group of armed guys with camouflage uniforms, and in Colombia we used to know that if the boots that those guys would be wearing were leather books it was the Colombia army.
If they were rubber boots, that was the rebels, it was the FARC, and those guys had rubber boots, so I thought, yeah, now I’m in problem.
Tavis: Was it a mistake to have gone down that road by yourself? I ask that not – obviously you were held captive for six-plus years, so one obviously could say of course it was a mistake; she was held captive. But maybe not – was it a mistake, now in retrospect, do you think, for you to have gone down that road by yourself?
Betancourt: Well, you see, if I would have the same amount of information and the same choices and confronted to the same principles, because after what happened, of course I had been thinking did I have to go? Could I have done something different?
I always come to the same conclusion – that I couldn’t do anything different, because the people of San Vicente and the mayor had called me asking me not to cancel the trip because they were very afraid that because they had been participating in those peace talks, the paramilitary, which were the opponents of the guerillas, far extreme right rebels, would take revenge on them and kill them.
So they were waiting for me to go in, like, to shelter them, to shield them from a vengeance that could come from the paramilitary. But then there was also this issue about democracy. I was a presidential candidate. I wanted my country to be a clean country, a democratic country, and here I was confronted to a government that was manipulating my security in order to prevent me from doing my campaign. And I thought, I couldn’t be blackmailed.
Tavis: In our country, here in the U.S., we would think it an awfully bold move – an awfully bold move – to kidnap one who has been a member of the House of Representatives, to kidnap one who is a sitting United States Senator. You’ve got to be really stuck on stupid to think you’re going to kidnap a United States Senator.
That’s essentially what happened to you. You’ve been in the House, you’ve been in the Senate, and you were kidnapped. Was that a bold move on their part in Colombia, or are things like that possible and happen often or from time to time in a place like Colombia?
Betancourt: I think that what happened is that the reaction of the government and of the Colombian society was a reaction where they just decided to forget us, because they didn’t want us to negotiate with terrorists. And so –
Tavis: But you’re a government official, though.
Betancourt: Yes. That’s why there is a difference in the way people react. In Colombia there was not solidarity for that moment for us. It changed. After six and a half years the country changed and the sensitivity of people towards our situation changed, but at the beginning I could hear on the radio people saying, “We have to sacrifice those hostages. We cannot negotiate with terrorists.”
It was very hard for us to feel abandoned, and for me especially, I was thinking, okay, I’m abducted because I was doing politics because I want to change my country, because I’m devoted to my country, and now that I need support and help I’m just abandoned. So it was very, very hard for me.
I think that things have changed. I was rescued by a military operation and the soldiers of my country were the heroes of my rescue. They were the ones risking their lives to bring us to freedom, and not only me but 15 people with me, including three Americans that were hostages with me during all those times.
Tavis: Remind us of what U.S. policy was during this time toward Colombia and was there something that America did or didn’t do, said or did not say, that you want to reflect upon now?
Betancourt: Well, I think that I was very surprised to see that in the United States nobody talked about the situation of my three companions, my three American companions. They had been abducted in service. They were working for the American government in the sense that they were contractors appointed in the framework of what we call Plan Colombia, which was the aid the United States would give to Colombia in the war against drugs.
They were doing their job. Once they were kidnapped, because their plane was shot and they were captured, there was no response. It was like –
Tavis: This is 2002, so George Bush –
Betancourt: 2003.
Tavis: 2003, yeah, so George Bush is president then, and our government, as you recall, didn’t have a whole lot to say.
Betancourt: No, and I remember something that was very painful for all of us. We heard this message on the radio – the only way we could hear or know what was happening in the outside world was through radio. We were given sometimes some transistors and we could hear messages from our families. In Colombia there are so many hostages that there are radio programs devoted to the families so that they can air messages to their loved ones, and they don’t know if we get those messages or not.
My mother sent me messages for six and a half years without knowing if I was hearing her. But I was, and in one of those messages my mother was telling me that she went to see the American ambassador in Colombia and she wanted to ask him to help in this situation, to see how we could be free.
The answer was for us, the hostages in Colombia, including the three Americas, are like people that are in a terminal disease and they’re going to die. We’re not going to do anything for them.
That was something shocking, of course, to a mother that is in this situation, but I think this was part of what was going on. The other part is that there were, especially the casually, U.S. Army, people that were committed in working with the Colombians to see where they could find us, and they were really searching for us in a very discreet and secret way.
So I think that even though the American government was saying up front that they were not going to talk to terrorists, they were doing secretly what was necessary to find us and make the rescue happen.
Tavis: Your captors were obviously moving you around from place to place, as you detail in the book, treating you horribly, you and your fellow hostages, treating you horribly during this six-plus year journey. Why, in retrospect, do you think they did not kill you? Why are you still alive?
Betancourt: Because we became trophies. Because the situation became so worldwide known, and there was so much pressure, especially in Europe, from all kinds of activists asking for our freedom that they knew that killing us would deprive them from their trophy, which was as long as we were alive and as long as they could prove that we were alive, they had this incredible media platform where they could be on stage and be vocal and do propaganda for themselves.
Tavis: The rescue – how did that happen?
Betancourt: Oh, it was incredible. Well, we were waiting for a helicopter to land, and they had told us an international humanitarian commission was coming to talk to us and eventually to transfer us to another camp where we could talk to the high commander of the FARC. When this helicopter landed and some guys, a group of six or seven guys, with one woman, came out of the helicopter, well, I didn’t see an international humanitarian commission.
I saw guys that were very friendly with the FARC. They were hugging them, they were joking with them, they bought presents, and I thought, those guys are from the FARC. They are the same thing. So none of us, none of the 15 hostages, we didn’t want to get into the helicopter because we thought if we get into that helicopter we will be transferred to a place deeper in the jungle and it will be done.
We’re heading for 10 more years of abduction. But they had rifles, of course, so we couldn’t do anything but obey. Once we were in the helicopter and the helicopter took altitude, those guys that had come wrestled with the commanders of the FARC, two of them that had boarded the helicopter with us, and it was very strange – we didn’t know hat was going on, why they were fighting between them.
Then they neutralized the two commanders, and at that moment one of the guys screamed (speaks in Colombian), “We are the Colombian army, you are free.” That was incredible, because we couldn’t – it was hard for us to understand what they were telling us. Suddenly, those guys who were our captors were prisoners, and we were free, and everything was – and I remember screaming – screaming in a way, like an animal, screaming and thinking, why am I screaming?
And I couldn’t hold it, I couldn’t control myself, and I said, “Oh, my God, this is insane, I have to stop. This is crazy.” Then I looked at my companions, and they were doing exactly the same thing – they were shouting, they were jumping, they were kissing.
And I thought, oh, my God – of course, the helicopter was doing like this because of all the (laughter) and I thought we were going to crash. It was too good to be true.
Tavis: They rescued and they celebrated and they crashed and killed themselves. (Laughter) So let me close on this note – do you have any interest now in still being the president of Colombia one day?
Betancourt: No.
Tavis: Not at all?
Betancourt: No. No, not at all, I have no ambition. But I have an ambition for my country. You see, I think that Colombia needs to find her soul. I think there’s too much hatred in my country, and I would like to see my fellow countrymen opening their hearts for love, because I think love is the key for many things.
It was a key for me for surviving. It was also the key for me to be really free, because true freedom comes with no hatred, forgiving, and that’s what I want for my country. I want this love to just get deep in the hearts of Colombia so that we can get rid of what is going on, that horrible war, and that corruption that is the background of the war.
Tavis: I’m sure it’s obvious to you that in this brief conversation I have literally just scratched the surface of what is a powerful story, the story of Ingrid Betancourt. The book is called “Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle.” An honor to have you on this program and I’m just delighted that you are still with us.
Betancourt: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm