“Our case is all about money”
Ransom hostages excluded from hostage exchanges.
On Dec. 27, as the world awaited the freedom of political hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo González de Perdomo — who were freed on Jan. 10 after being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for six years — a group of soldiers along with lawyer Gustavo Muñoz, director of the New Hope for Kidnapped Persons Foundation, entered into the southern jungle of the Caqueta department in order to rescue the bodies of six kidnapped persons who died at the hands of the FARC.
After a year of searching for the remains of the six Colombians, they were finally found in three mass graves with signs that they were punched and beaten to death with stick blows. They were kidnapped for ransom, so they were not included in any hostage exchange proposal.
According to Muñoz, 35 of the people kidnapped for ransom in 2006 were killed by the FARC while in captivity.
“At this time, those kidnapped for ransom have a death sentence,” confirmed Muñoz. “The FARC’s modus operandi is to force hostages to record proofs of life for the FARC to use in the future, in order to keep demanding ransom even when they’ve already killed the hostage. When they run out of recordings, they charge up to [US$10,000] to return the body.”
More than 3,000 kidnapped
Since the year 2000, the New Hope Foundation has tried to help the plight of thousands of families who can only free their loved ones by paying millions of pesos to subversive groups. There are currently 750 people being held hostage by the FARC and 550 more in the hands of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Paramilitary groups demanded ransom from some 400 families over the past few years only for these families to later find out — through paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso’s confession after the groups’ demobilization at the end of 2004 — that all the hostages were killed while in captivity.
The figures turned in by Muñoz mention 3,820 citizens who are still in the jungle and in the majority of these cases, the authors of the kidnaps are undetermined. The government institution National Fund for the Defense of Personal Freedom reports 3,134 kidnapped persons.
“For more than three years we have been asking for these cases to be included in humanitarian agreements. In 2005 we, along with former president [Julio César] Turbay [1978-82], handed in a proposal to [President Álvaro] Uribe’s government, which stated that for each guerilla warrior released from prison, one political hostage and 100 ransom hostages would be freed. We never received a reply and after the death of Turbay [September 2005], everything froze,” he explained.
However, Muñoz, who in 2003 was named member of the National Peace Counsel, managed to get a law passed in 2005, which protects kidnap victims as well as their families. After being held hostage for six months by the Arturo Ruiz block of the FARC and earning his freedom with a multi-million peso ransom that left him in ruin, Muñoz realized that there are vast legal shortcomings in the protection of these people.
The new law requires employers to continue paying the kidnapped person’s salary to their family members through national banks and requires financial entities to grant loans of up to $100,000 so that in the absence of their loved ones, the families can generate income through productive projects.
The legislation also considers the freezing of payment of public services, mortgage debts, taxes and other financial obligations until the kidnapped person appears. In the case that the hostage is killed, the debt is terminated. The New Hope Foundation estimates 4,000 families have benefited from this law.
Family members talk
“The government is indifferent when someone receives pressure — both from the guerrilla front by telephone and the creditors who forget that the debtor is no longer here, that there is no income, no wages and no worker.
If it weren’t for a court protection I obtained, my belongings would have been seized by the National Tax and Custom Directorate,” said Mariela, who asked to withhold her real name and whose husband was kidnapped for five years, during which she paid high sums of money to receive proofs of life that kept her hope alive.
“My illusion was centered on calls, that always presented new demands. The families have no other option but to go into debt because when a family member has been kidnapped, you exhaust human resources, looking around everywhere, doing anything possible so that the person is freed,” she told.
This search included travelling to remote areas to turn in certain amounts of money in specified bill denominations, with the unfulfilled promise of freeing her husband.
“The possibility of them including the ransom hostages in a human exchange is still a distant dream for us,” she said. “FARC and the government demand things without keeping us in mind. We are abandoned because even to negotiate, we need mediators who charge. Our case is all about money.”
Over two years ago, Arturo, owner of a shoe factory who also asked that his last name not be used, said he paid $250,000 for his son’s freedom, having received seven proofs of life over the course of the same number of months.
Later, when taken by a former guerrilla to the mass grave where his son’s body was located, he found out that he had only been kept alive for eight days.
“What the FARC does is inhuman, but so is what the government does. Our families were not nor will be included in negotiations — as if some victims were more valuable than others. In the jungle, there are no preferences, deals, or distinction of any kind, whether the person is a military officer’s son, black or white,” said Arturo.