BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Saturday, 7 June 2008 11:44 UK

Colombia gets tough with kidnappers

By Frank Gardner
BBC News, Colombia

Perched in his high-rise office in the north of Bogota, Colonel Humberto Guatibonza surveyed the city like an eagle in his eyrie.

Gaula hostage rescue team
Colombia's elite team says it is winning the war on kidnapping
On his desk, a steaming cup of Colombian coffee - drunk neat, strong and dark, the way they like it here.

On his lap, the classified dossier for an imminent hostage rescue operation.

There were maps, co-ordinates, targets circled in red and aerial surveillance photos taken by spotter planes peering through the gaps in the clouds.

As the commander of Colombia's elite hostage-rescue force, the GAULA (Unified Action Groups for Personal Freedom), the colonel is right in the frontline of this country's battle to shake off its reputation as the "kidnap capital of the world".

"We are winning," he told me in Spanish. "Just look at the figures."

He summoned an assistant who brought us an official-looking chart. The trend was certainly downwards.

When the current president, Alvaro Uribe, took over six years ago, an average of 10 people a day were being snatched, either for ransom or for political bargaining.

Now that figure is down to one a day.

Training base

"But," I pointed out, "with nearly 200 Colombians abducted this year already, you do still have a problem."

The colonel - youthful, clean-shaven and dressed in a bomber jacket - smiled and gave me a crushing handshake.

"Let us show you," he said, "how we do things here."

The Farc rebels want concessions... which the government refuse to grant

So we drove south with a police escort to Sibate, GAULA's training base, set in rolling farm country just outside the capital.

The striped barrier lifted, the guards waved us through and we pulled up by a nondescript stone building.

Shots rang out and a dozen men in helmets and flak jackets emerged, dragging a rather unconvincing plastic body behind them, the dummy hostage.

This was not for our benefit, we just happened to have caught the latest batch of recruits on the final day of their six-week training course.

A big, bald captain greeted us in full battle gear and reflecting sunglasses - this was Latin America after all.

"They are ready now," he said.

"Ready for what?" I asked.

"The real thing," said the captain.

Strong-arm tactics

A veteran of over 100 operations, some successful, some not, he told me which terrain he preferred to work in - "urbano" (urban).

Demonstration against kidnapping in Bogota
Demonstrators march with pictures of hostages kidnapped by Farc

City hostage rescues were easier, he said, because you have the population on your side and you can often practise in a nearby building. Jungle operations are a nightmare - there are mines and booby traps and the guerrillas are on their own turf.

There is no question that the strong-arm tactics of the GAULA and of the wider government are winning the support of most Colombians.

They are fed up with the kidnappings, and this February several hundred thousand people poured into Bogota's Bolivar Square to send a message to all armed guerrillas that enough was enough.

But getting tough with the left-wing Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has come at a price.

The number of new abductions may be down but the outlook for the hundreds, possibly thousands, of Colombians still held or unaccounted for is grim.

The Farc want concessions, like a demilitarised zone where they can move about freely, concessions which the government refuse to grant.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of this tough stance comes from where you would expect it: from the husband of the country's most famous kidnap victim, Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian woman snatched as a political hostage at a Farc checkpoint six years ago.

Photo of Ingrid Betancourt, from a video seized from captured Farc rebels
Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was captured in 2002

She was last seen in a video this winter, pale, thin, her hair down to her waist, her eyes cast down to the jungle floor.

One evening we went to visit her husband, Juan Carlos, in their flat high above the city.

In the hallway were huge portraits of Ingrid, photographs of her campaigning to be president, medals from admirers.

Juan Carlos greeted us with a cigarette between his fingers and the flat reeked of stale smoke.

"I took it up five years ago," he explained, "after my wife was kidnapped."

A suave, good-looking man in his late forties, he recounted how he had recently made 100,000 copies of a picture of her children.

He then charted a Cessna plane and flew from airstrip to airstrip in Colombia's Amazon jungle province, handing out the leaflets to native Indians to give to the guerrillas in case they came across them, in the hope that somehow one of the photos might reach his hostage wife.

Emotional toll

The plight of Ingrid Betancourt has captured the attention of world leaders but her case is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

When I think now of Colombia's kidnap victims, I think of a woman released this year after years in the jungle.

It was not the physical hardships that distressed her, she told me. It was knowing that her family were growing up without her.

With tears welling in her eyes, she told me her husband had died while she was in captivity.

From the next-door room came the sound of a baby.

"That's my granddaughter", she explained.

"I hope you will excuse me if I go to her now.

"I have a lot of catching up to do."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 June, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

You can hear Frank Gardner's full report on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 on Monday 9 June.

Country profile: Colombia
04 Mar 08 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific