“The jungle is hell. It’s always a battle against nature. The jungle is overwhelming. If you want to walk it is a battle. The vines, the trees, the roots, everything. You feel like you cannot breathe. It’s very tight. It’s secluding. It truly, in every sense of the word, became my prison.”
Ingrid Betancourt should know. Those words are hers and she spent almost 7 years as a political prisoner, held hostage in the darkest reaches of the Colombian jungle by rebels – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – and beaten, tortured, chained to a tree. It began a slow and deliberate asphyxiation of her character. Of her identity. But she wouldn’t let it.
Ms Betancourt was always going to be a tough character to break. She launched her presidential campaign in Colombia in 2002 at the age of 40, attacking the corruption and reliance on drug cartels that had infected the political system. She made an enemy of almost everybody. Nobody wins friends taking on the establishment. But it wasn’t the politics of a narcotics-fuelled campaign that almost crushed Ingrid, rather her abduction at the hands of those rebels in 2002.
The President, constitutionally required to provide protection to campaign candidates fairly and equally, withdrew a security detail from Ingrid’s campaign tour to the recently ‘demilitarised’ San Vicente de Calguan. She and her campaign manager Clara Rojas (37) decided to press ahead at short notice in a beaten up ute. They were ambushed.
Ingrid was 40. Her two children Melanie and Lorenzo were teenagers and her husband, Juan Carlos, had little inkling how their lives would change.
“I really did think they might have made a mistake. I couldn’t get it into my head that they were taking hostage a presidential candidate. In the first few days I thought it was going to take a couple of weeks for somebody to negotiate my release and get me out of there,” Ingrid says.
“The switch happens, gets flicked, somewhere after the first year of captivity. It is a sort of psychological switch because after that point you get back to everything that has happened in that first year and you realise there is nothing happening, nothing expected, no negotiation.”
The Hostage Camp
There was no Stockholm Syndrome, Ingrid says. She didn’t then, and doesn’t now, believe in the cause of the rebels. But she knew that time spent with her captors was the only type of time there was.
“I tried to befriend the ones I could, to understand the ones I could and convince them that they could achieve nothing while not at the negotiating table. But the guards became nasty. They weren’t particularly well educated and they were alone out there in the jungle with just the hostages for company. They vacillated between bizarre turns of good nature and utter depravity. When I was kidnapped, they asked me if the air conditioning was too cold. In the camp, after about a year, I was given a radio. But then at one point I was chained by the neck to a tree for three days and nights, unable to even sit.”