Scandal in Colombia: Was a FARC Hostage a Victim or a Traitor?

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LUIS ROBAYO / AFP / Getty Images

Former FARC hostage Sigifredo Lopez (C) smiles as his sons Lucas (R) and Sergio hug him upon his arrival at the Alfonso Bonilla Aragon airport, in Palmira, Valle del Cauca, Colombia, on Feb. 5, 2009.

When Colombian politician Sigifredo López was freed in February 2009 by Marxist rebels after spending nearly seven years in captivity, his two sons were so thrilled that in their rush to embrace their father they nearly tackled him. Broadcast live on TV, the joyous bear hug came to crystalize for Colombians the triumph of hope and determination over barbarity.

But now, López finds himself back in captivity only this time in a government holding tank where he has been cast as the villain. On Wednesday, May 16, police arrested the former state legislator on charges that he helped the rebels plan his own abduction, a mass kidnapping that led to the deaths of 11 of López's fellow lawmaker-hostages. This surreal twist prompted Semana, the country's largest newsmagazine, to put López on its current cover under a one-word headline: "Judas?"

López, 48, insists he is innocent. Shortly before he was jailed he said: "To accuse me of being a guerrilla accomplice is the height of infamy and injustice." Federico Renjifo, the country's interior minister, spoke for many shocked Colombians when he said: "I can't get it in my head that this could actually have been possible."

The saga began on April 11, 2002, when guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, who were disguised as police agents, stormed a government building in the southern city of Cali, announced a bomb threat, then abducted a dozen state lawmakers, including López. Five years later, still in captivity, 11 of the hostages were executed by panicked rebels who thought the army was launching a rescue operation. López claimed he survived because he was being punished and was in solitary confinement in another part of the rebel camp.

But as the sole survivor of the massacre, questions have dogged López ever since. A former member of the FARC told investigators that López was spared execution because he was involved in the kidnappings, but he later retracted that statement. As a young politician, López briefly belonged to a left-wing party and he later served as mayor of Pradera, a town on the edge of a FARC stronghold where local politicians were rumored to have collaborated with the rebels. Some observers pointed out that instead of looking emaciated like some hostages emerging from the jungle, Lopez appeared robust on the day he was freed.

Government prosecutors are basing their case on a trove of information contained on seven laptops, 24 hard drives, and 39 USB sticks recovered from a guerrilla encampment following a military raid last November that killed Alfonso Cano, who was the FARC's commander-in-chief. The key piece of evidence is a 40-minute video in which a man provides details of the layout and security of the state legislative building in Cali shortly before the FARC abducted the 12 lawmakers. Investigators claim that the voice of the man on the video is identical to the voice of López, who has trouble pronouncing the letter "r." In addition, a shadowy image of the man's head appears on camera for a brief moment and investigators say the shape of his jaw and nose match López.

But why would López take part in a crime that would condemn him to a jungle prison, deprive him of the chance to see his adolescent boys grow up and send his family into a financial tailspin? Semana quotes one investigator speculating that López may have been double-crossed by the FARC or that he simply miscalculated. "Maybe he thought it would be a short kidnapping and that he would be quickly released through a prisoner exchange," the agent reportedly said. That may sound implausible but there have been numerous cases of Colombians arranging for self-kidnappings — usually to collect ransom payments from wealthy relatives.

However, other evidence would seem to back up López's version of events. For one thing, FARC leader Cano, in his e-mail, refers to López as a hostage rather than a collaborator. One message, written by Cano and sent shortly after the 11 state lawmakers were executed, states: "One legislator survived. He was being punished and was in another area. He didn't see anything but he did hear [the shots]".

Once free, López wrote a book about his captivity which is dedicated to his 11 slain colleagues and is fiercely critical of the FARC. In public statements and on his Twitter account, López has lambasted the guerrillas and questioned the national government for considering peace talks with the FARC. In fact, the early suspicions that he was a rebel mole gave way to public accusations in 2010 that López was in league with right-wing militias that allegedly helped finance his failed senate campaign. Finally, there was that heart-wrenching televised reunion with his family which would seem impossible to fake.

In his statement to prosecutors, López pointed out that the FARC had already robbed seven years of his life and he implored the government not to take away any more. Yet even if he is released, López expressed fear that his reputation has already been damaged beyond repair. "Like a plucked hen," he said, "it will never be the same."