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Colombia's continuing hostage pain

By Henry Mance
Bogota

For many Colombians, no other recent event comes close. The rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 fellow hostages not only ended a tragic ordeal - it also bloodlessly humiliated the Farc guerrillas with an unprecedented show of military cunning.

Front pages of French daily newspapers carry the news of Ingrid Betancourt's rescue
Ingrid Betancourt's rescue made headline news around the world

Yet it was not the only successful hostage liberation in Colombia this week.

In a much lower-profile operation on Thursday morning, Alf Onshuus, a Norwegian-Colombian university lecturer who was taken captive in January, was released by the Farc.

A ransom was reported to have been paid.

The two liberations illustrate the two very different types of hostages in Colombia: political captives, designed to further the Farc's agenda, and victims of economic extortion, whom the Farc, the ELN guerrillas and criminal groups use to fill their coffers.

"All the pressure from the government, from the media and from the Farc is about the political hostages," says Olga Lucia Gomez, director of the NGO Pais Libre (Free Country).

"It's a distortion of the problem: kidnapping isn't seen in its totality. Kidnapping a teacher is as big an aberration as kidnapping a politician."

The precise number of economic hostages is unclear.

The ministry of defence's standing estimate of nearly 3,000 is currently under revision, and it expects a final figure of around 700.

Everyone remembers the policemen and Ingrid, but no one remembers us
Former victim kidnapped for ransom
Ms Gomez warns that figures are likely to underestimate the problem, with up to 40% of cases not reported to authorities by families afraid of reprisals.

In contrast, the Farc now hold only 25 political hostages, a number that has fallen because of rescue missions, unilateral hand-overs and killings.

Trauma

For families, this whittling-down brings mixed emotions.

"There was lots of happiness (with this week's liberations), but I couldn't share in it fully," says Claudia Rugeles, the wife of the former provincial governor Alan Jara, who has been in Farc captivity since 2001.

"Every time there's news like this, and not all the hostages are freed, it's like being steamrollered."

Ms Rugeles also argues that "with economic kidnapping the family has the chance to solve the kidnapping [by agreeing a ransom], whereas with political kidnapping the freedom of the hostage doesn't depend on the family, but on the state. That means impotence."

Claudia Rugeles, wife of Alan Jara, and their son, Alan
Claudia Rugeles feels powerless to bring about her husband's freedom
Negotiations between the Colombian government and the Farc over a possible hostages-for-prisoners swap are currently stalled despite the families' urging.

Economic hostages also generally spend shorter spells in captivity, but this does not automatically translate into less trauma.

"You're captive just like a political hostage, but you're pressured for your family pay up quickly and, if not, they threaten you, saying they're going to kill you," recalls one victim.

He was targeted in 2002 as the regional head of an oil company and released a month later when his family paid the required money.

"Everyone remembers the policemen and Ingrid, but no-one remembers us."

Unhappy endings

Even the most renowned hostages are likely to find that liberation brings its own dilemmas as they try to readapt to family life.

Some freed hostages have experienced harmonious family reunions, notably Clara Rojas and her young son, Emmanuel, in January of this year.

Pablo Emilio Moncayo shown in an undated video wa seized 10 year ago
Pablo Emilio Moncayo's father has campaigned tirelessly for his release

The general trend, however, is less positive.

Jorge Eduardo Gechem, an ex-congressmen released the following month, separated from his wife soon after.

"They took one Jorge Eduardo and they gave me back another," she said at the time.

For the oil executive, the effects of extortion were both emotional and economic.

"The post-kidnapping was worse than the kidnapping itself, because all types of traumas began to come out," he says.

"And the flip-side is that you're left with nothing. I'm 51 now and I haven't been able to go back to work properly, because the companies say that if you've been taken hostage once, it might happen again."

Future role?

Many high-profile hostages have been more fortunate.

Current Vice-President Francisco Santos survived being kidnapped by the Medellin Cartel in 1990 - an experience retold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the bestselling book News of a Kidnapping.

More recently, in 2007, President Alvaro Uribe appointed Fernando Araujo as his foreign minister, just two months after the latter had escaped from a Farc camp.

Ingrid Betancourt herself, kidnapped in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency, now looks set to emulate such returns to the public life.

"I still hope to serve Colombia. Whether from the presidency, only God knows," she told the media following her release.

Expectations are growing as to the potential role she might play.

According to Herbin Hoyos, whose radio programme broadcasts messages to the hostages from their families, "Ingrid has committed herself towards an international mobilisation on behalf of the remaining hostages".

Having likened her own ingenious rescue to a film, Ms Betancourt could help produce a fitting sequel.

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