Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt has always been audacious. Running for Congress on an anticorruption platform in 1994, Betancourt passed out condoms as symbolic protection from government depravity. Once elected, she received death threats for denouncing drug traffickers. In 2002, Betancourt took her fledgling presidential campaign to guerrilla territory, where she was promptly kidnapped. She tried to escape three times before she was finally freed by Colombian special forces on July 2, 2008.
But her cheekiest move was revealed this week: Betancourt and her family are taking legal action against the Colombian government for negligence on the day she was kidnapped. "The state gravely failed in its duty in allowing a presidential candidate to travel in this part of the country without proper protection," say the court documents filed by the Betancourts. In a communiqué released Friday, July 9, the Defense Ministry expressed "surprise and sadness" after receiving a petition from the family to settle out of court for about $7.9 million.
The news shocked many Colombians because even though Betancourt has been fiercely critical of her rebel captors, it seemed as though she was blaming the government for her kidnapping. Vice President Francisco Santos called it "an act of greed, ingratitude and opportunism." An editorial in the Bogotá daily El Tiempo called Betancourt's petition "outrageous" and blasted her for trying to collect money from the pockets of Colombian taxpayers after the government had spent huge sums planning and carrying out her rescue. The Bogotá government has provided compensation in some kidnapping cases after it was determined that authorities had not provided adequate protection for the people who were abducted. But by many accounts, Betancourt's behavior was a key factor on the day she was grabbed by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Seeking to jump-start her stalled presidential campaign, Betancourt set out for the southern town of San Vicente del Caguán on Feb. 23, 2002. The situation was already tense. Then President Andres Pastrana had abruptly cancelled peace negotiations with the FARC, and troops were moving in to retake a rebel-controlled zone where the talks had been held. The mayor of San Vicente del Caguán, which is located in that zone, was a member of Betancourt's political party, and the candidate wanted to show her solidarity with the townsfolk. Betancourt didn't consider the trip especially risky because she had recently met with FARC commanders involved in the peace talks.
Because the FARC had set up land mines on the highway, she tried to hitch a ride on one of the military helicopters transporting journalists, soldiers and Pastrana to San Vicente del Caguán. But because of the deteriorating security conditions, Pastrana had rejected requests from two other presidential candidates to be airlifted to the town, and he refused to take Betancourt. Clara Rojas, Betancourt's campaign manager, later wrote, "If the President's attitude had been different on that day, we very probably would not have been kidnapped."
True, Pastrana could have been more accommodating. But Betancourt was determined to go. Against the advice of a parade of military officers, she and Rojas decided to make the trip overland. "I personally warned Ingrid twice at the airport not to go," says Camilo Gómez, one of Pastrana's closest aides. He added that Betancourt gave army officers a signed statement taking full responsibility for her actions. Just 30 miles down the highway, Betancourt's pickup slowed for a FARC roadblock. Recognizing the candidate, the rebels commandeered the vehicle and drove Betancourt and Rojas into the jungle.
Betancourt endured forced marches, malnutrition, tropical diseases and the constant threat of execution. In her absence, her marriage fell apart and her income dried up. Colombians felt her pain, but many had a hard time warming up to Betancourt because she was, in some ways, a prisoner on a pedestal. Other FARC hostages were relative no-names, but Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, was a celebrity in Europe, where thousands marched in the streets demanding her freedom. French officials urged the Colombian military not to attempt a rescue operation because they feared Betancourt would be killed. Instead, they pushed the Bogotá government to cut a deal with the FARC by swapping imprisoned rebels for hostages. But that effort went nowhere, as Pastrana was succeeded by President Alvaro Uribe, who refused to give in to the FARC's demands.
Uribe's critics argue that he prolonged the hostages' pain by refusing to carry out a prisoner exchange. Indeed, numerous hostages languished and died in FARC captivity. Police NCO Armando Castellanos, who was rescued alongside Betancourt, said he was also considering legal action against the government. "I think the government owes us a lot," he told El Tiempo. "There were reasons to carry out a prisoner exchange, which could have saved lives." In the case of Betancourt, all the fuss, publicity and lobbying on her behalf may have backfired by convincing the guerrillas to hang on to their prized hostage for as long as possible.
In a statement, Betancourt's lawyer, Gabriel Devis, said his client feels "profound and permanent gratitude" to the Colombian government and the commandos who saved her life. But he insisted that "all legitimate governments compensate their citizens who have been victims of terrorism."
Yet governments also take into account the responsibility of the victims for getting into hot water. Last year, Reinhilt Wiegel, a German tourist kidnapped in Colombia, was ordered to repay her government $17,000 for helicopter transportation and other costs incurred after she was freed by guerrillas in northern Colombia. The German government had warned tourists against traveling to that area of the country.
Even if she wins her legal battle, Betancourt has already lost badly in the court of public opinion. After she was rescued, it was widely speculated that Betancourt, who had been holed up in France writing her memoirs, would make another run for the presidency. But her wildly unpopular push for compensation may be a sign that she is bowing out of Colombian politics.