As 6,300 combatants from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) culminate their “final march” to the reach the “Transition Zones” one prominent businessman – who asked to sign as “anonymous” – sends us a recollection of his 10-month ordeal as a economic prisoner of the guerrilla.
To The City Paper:
While the FARC continued with its eventually futile campaign to achieve power in Colombia with its “Revolución armada” it had to find money to buy arms and explosives and the necessities of life. The only way to guarantee their survival was through illicit gain, including receiving protection for drug traffickers, extortion of business owners and the subsistence farmers, they were supposedly fighting for. Kidnapping was justified by the logic that if Colombians pay taxes to a “capitalist” state, then they owed tax to “the people”. This was dressed up as their Ley Dos and you either paid them or they kidnapped you until your family pays.
Many of us were classified as “retenidos económicos” as opposed to “retenidos politicos” – politicians and soldiers held for many years. We were always considered “retained” rather than “secuestrado,” despite the reality we were deprived of our freedom. The “politicos” were used as leverage against the government, most likely an eventual exchange of prisoners, but us, the “económicos” had to wait out our months, often years, until someone came up with enough cash.
Targets for economic capture were identified by common criminals, free agents and the guerrilla’s urban militia. They in turn who could sell their victims to the rural-based FARC and keep a commission. The FARC took their victims to the high mountains or deep forest, where it was difficult for the military and the anti-kidnapping squad – Gaula – to track us. Then the negotiations started.
I was kidnapped by common criminals in Bogotá who sent a “business plan” to the Frente Oriental of FARC – the biggest kidnapping front of the guerrilla- and who pre-sold me as a worthwhile source of ransom. At eight o’clock at night, inside my building in Bogotá, and as I returned from work, I was drugged and bound and stuffed in the trunk of my car. As dawn rose in the hills above the capital, I was handed over to a patrol in FARC-EP uniform, who greeted me: “Bienvenido a la Revolución Armada, Mister.”
This was the front line near Bogotá, and they were nervous and had many sentries to watch out for the Army. I was chained to a tree. I could place the officers as university Marxists. I continued to wear my clothes, plus rubber boots known as pantaneras. In fact, I never took off my clothes, not even to sleep, while I lived in the Sumapaz hills.
Cold and wet, I met other victims and stayed with three of them for all my time. A politician, an old farmer, a petty criminal. We walked over the hills behind the front line, and stayed there while they contacted our families. They were hardly pressed for time. They ask for millions and make horrible threats. On Sunday nights, we may be lent a radio to hear “Las Voces del Secuestro” – a program by the courageous Herbin Hoyos. We strained to hear a message from our dear ones. I never did.
We sleep in cambuches (bivouacs) to cover us from the rain – endless rain – and wear all our clothes in the sleeping bags. The routine was clockwork: bed before dark, awake before dawn. We eat rice and pasta. We lose weight. We walk for miles carrying a backpack with the little that we have.
The change of government in August 2002 from Conservative Andrés Pastrana to Álvaro Uribe was the start of a vigorous land and air campaign to push the guerrilla back. After four months in the Sumapaz we marched south, although we were never told in which direction we were walking. My captors retreated down the Rio Duda into the low hot forests between La Macarena the department of Caquetá. We walked between one place where there was water and the next. It’s what you do in the Sahara. It’s exactly the same.
When you are walking you visualize details of the life you left behind. You are invisible to your loved ones, and the world at-large. This is a constant nightmare.
We traveled often in canoes along rivers full of fish and caimans, and on whose banks, clouds of red ibises gathered. The guerrilleros were teenage girls and boys, recruited from remote country villages, illiterate, unpaid. They knew a lot about the names of trees and birds. “Do you want peace? Why do you treat fellow Colombians like this?” we would ask. “Of course we want peace …but “Paz con justicia social.”
It was clear that FARC was lead by political revolutionaries in the style of Cuba, but tanked up by crime. We met Cubans, Nicaraguans, Italians, Argentines. Together with the famous Dutch girl, Tania, these were the revolutionary “junkies”. Near us were held Ingrid Betancourt, four American pilots shot down over the eastern plains, and lots of soldiers behind barbed wire. They were the political prisoners.
Could we be released against payment of ransom, or would we be held for years? At night we could hear the Air Force flying overhead and bombs falling on the other side of the river. Then one day, it suddenly ends. At five in the morning, I was told to “get up, you are going!” After journey canoe, another walk and a drive in a stolen 4×4 truck, I was delivered to a church, and then sent home. I was in the same clothes as the day I was taken. But I weighed seventeen kilos less. My hair was long and dirty. I was also infected with leishmaniasis, a painful disease caused by a mosquito bite. The FARC had me nearly a year of my life.
But I am “Alive!.” A “paseo ecológico.”