Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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The kidnapping capital
Susan Abad
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With more than 3,000 people kidnapped, only 45 can hope for a political solution.

The 800-kilometer walk from his native town of Sandona in western Colombia to the capital, Bogota, that professor Gustavo Moncayo and his daughter trekked last June is a symbol of the powerlessness Colombians have grown to feel toward kidnappings.

With a photo of his son stamped in his t-shirt, his hands in chains, Moncayo is seeking that the government negotiate a humanitarian agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that would allow army Cpl. Pablo Emilio Moncayo to go free. He was kidnapped almost 10 years ago, on Dec. 21, 1997.

The International Criminal Court lists kidnapping on its list of 11 crimes against humanity. The crime has plagued Colombia since 1933 when the young Elisa Eder was kidnapped. But since the 1990s it has become widespread, as common criminals, drug-traffickers, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries use kidnapping as a means to attain their economic or political goals.

According to the National Fund for the Defense of Personal Liberty, which works under the Defense Ministry, there have been 23,144 kidnappings reported in Colombia since 1996. Of those cases reported, 6,772 are attributed to the FARC, 5,289 to the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, 3,775 to common crime and 1,163 to paramilitaries. Authorities are unsure which group or individuals are responsible for the remaining 6,000 crimes.

The Fund, known as Fondolibertad, says there are 3,143 people currently in the hands of kidnappers in Colombia. A group of 45 people are considered “exchangeable” by FARC members. These prisoners survive under FARC’s watch in the Colombian jungle.

Police officers are no exception
Some of these prisoners were Police Capt. Julián Guevara, who died in January 2006 of an undisclosed illness, 11 departmental lawmakers being held in the southern Valle del Cauca department, who were killed by the FARC on June 18, and two hostages who managed to escape. Fernando Araújo, now foreign minister, escaped from hostages Dec. 31, 2006 and police officer John Frank Pinchao managed to do the same, and tell of his chilling story, on April 28.

There are some 32 police and military personnel — most of whom have been in captivity for more than eight years in the jungle — 10 politicians including one of the most famous cases, that of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and three US contractors the FARC is trying to exchange for 600 guerrilla prisoners. FARC members have demanded a demilitarization of the Pradera and Florida municipalities in the Valle del Cauca, a request President Álvaro Uribe quickly declined.

“These are the most visible kidnapping cases, but there are more than 3,000 people in captivity and the government does not have it clear how to set them free,” said Olga Lucía Gómez, director of the nongovernmental organization País Libre, meaning “Free Country” in English “They’re business people, engineers, livestock farmers, public officials, housewives, and children who would not benefit from an eventual humanitarian agreement.”

The majority of kidnappings take place for extortion, not for political reasons, and it is unclear just how much money is moved through kidnapping.

A costly crime
A July 2004 study by the National Planning Department found that between 1996 and 2003, kidnapping cost US$260 million. The Colombian government spent $110 million to counter the crime, and the remaining $150 million were paid as ransom by the victims’ families.

The El Tiempo newspaper said in a July 1 article that guerrillas, paramilitaries and common crime had obtained $2 billion from kidnapping in the last 20 years.

But even though the crime has continued, the number of kidnappings has decreased over the last five years, according to Gómez, thanks to efforts by the Uribe government.

“The most significant drop happened between 2002 and 2004, precisely in the first two years of Uribe’s government, when cases dropped from 2,882 to 687 kidnappings per year,” she said. “Today we have a rate of more or less 600 kidnappings per year, the same rate we had 10 years ago.”

The government has taken a hard line against kidnapping. Two new laws in 2002 and in 2004 increased the maximum prison sentence from 28 years to 42 years for kidnapping with extortion, which can increase to 50 years in prison for aggravated kidnappings.

But the government has also taken initiatives to benefit victims of kidnapping. An August 2005 law forced public, private and multinational companies to pay family members the kidnapped persons’ salary, and suspend their tax or loan payments — for healthcare, housing and education — until the person is freed.

On July 5, some 15 million Colombians dressed in white marched throughout the country against this crime, demanding all hostages be freed and that the bodies of those who were killed or who died in captivity be returned to their families.

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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