In Colombia, Hostage's Letter Hits Home

Yolanda Pulecio says the letter from her daughter, Ingrid Betancourt, who was seized by guerrillas in 2002,
Yolanda Pulecio says the letter from her daughter, Ingrid Betancourt, who was seized by guerrillas in 2002, "has awakened the conscience of the entire world." (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- It was a godsend, the 12-page letter that Ingrid Betancourt sent her mother. It confirmed that the best-known hostage in Colombia, one of hundreds, was alive, deep in a guerrilla encampment.

But the letter rang with such profound pain and despair that Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, has still not stopped crying. In meticulous prose, Betancourt told her mother that she was "tired, tired of suffering" and that she sometimes thinks death would be a "sweet option."

"These almost six years of captivity have shown me that I'm not as resistant, nor as brave, nor as intelligent, nor as strong as I had thought," Betancourt, a prominent French-Colombian politician, wrote. "I have fought many battles, I have tried to escape on several opportunities, I have tried to maintain hope, as one does keeping head above water. But mamita, I have been defeated."

In the past year, Colombia has been awed by several dramatic stories involving hostages, including that of a policeman who hiked 17 days through the jungle to escape guerrillas and that of a boy born to a hostage mother. But the letter from Betancourt has resonated inside this hardened country, and beyond it, like nothing else. It has generated Christmas vigils, energized international diplomacy and prompted planning inside and outside government to win the hostages' freedom.

In the process, the letter has cast a spotlight on the plight of the captives.

"Ingrid's letter has awakened the conscience of the entire world," said Pulecio, who has stepped up frenetic efforts to free her daughter since the missive's release.

The Colombian army seized the letter on Nov. 29 from three rebel emissaries who were transporting the correspondence and video footage of several hostages through Bogota, the capital. The letters and videos were part of a proof-of-life package long sought by the families of captives, including relatives of three Americans held since 2003: Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.

In Washington, the issue of the hostages has drawn the concern of members of Congress, with some saying they might participate as observers in talks between the rebels and the Colombian government.

"The proofs of life have caused an unprecedented spike in interest about the hostages' situation here in Washington," said Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "That level of interest is still not huge, but it is higher than it has ever been."

Although the number of kidnappings has dropped under President Álvaro Uribe's government, wealthy Colombians still fear being abducted; the writer Gabriel García Márquez, for instance, long ago left the country out of concern for his safety. Uribe says the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, continues to hold more than 750 hostages -- bargaining chips to be used to win the release of imprisoned guerrillas.

The FARC, a Marxist group that has been fighting the state for 43 years, is able to hide captives by taking advantage of a vast, largely uninhabited countryside, much of it almost impenetrable jungle. The group's hostages include local politicians, soldiers and policemen captured in combat, as well as the three Americans -- Defense Department contractors who according to the Bush administration have been held longer than Americans anywhere else in the world.

Then there's Betancourt, who will turn 46 on Christmas day. She is a Colombian who also holds French citizenship and who served as a senator here and ran for president. Colombians remember her as a youthful and effervescent crusader against malfeasance and drug trafficking in the country's establishment.

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