By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, Jan. 1 -- A 3 1/2 -year-old boy whom Marxist rebels pledged to include in a hostage release that collapsed Monday is not in their hands, and has almost certainly been living in a foster care program in Bogota, Colombian officials said in interviews on Tuesday. They believe they have located the boy and are conducting DNA tests to confirm his identity.
In an intricate operation overseen by Venezuela, helicopters from that neighboring country were to have picked up the boy, his hostage mother and another female prisoner in the jungle and flown them to Venezuela. But anguished families who have waited as long as six years to see their loved ones freed were instead shattered as the mission unraveled.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, blamed government military operations in the area for the failure of the long-negotiated release. But Colombian officials questioned how the release could have gone forward at all, saying they had learned that the boy, born in captivity to hostage Clara Rojas, had passed out of rebel hands in 2005.
An emissary working for the rebels turned over the boy, named Emmanuel, to child protective services in the isolated town of San Jose del Guaviare in 2005, two senior officials said Tuesday. From there, he apparently wound up with a foster family in Bogota, his real identity unknown to anyone, the officials said.
The astonishing twist in a saga that captivated Colombia before the Christmas holidays began to go public Monday when Colombian President ¿lvaro Uribe flew to the operation's staging area in the town of Villavicencio. The rescue attempt, mediated by Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez, drew prominent observers to Villavicencio, including filmmaker Oliver Stone and former Argentine president N¿stor Kirchner.
Uribe, known for his intense hostility toward the FARC, publicly accused the rebels of reneging on their pledge to liberate the three hostages because the group did not have control of the boy.
"When the FARC began to say that they were not turning over the hostages, supposedly because of military operations, when we had done everything possible within our reach to facilitate the hand over, we saw that the FARC was trying to fool Ch¿vez, the international community and us," said Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos in a telephone interview.
The FARC, responding on its de facto Web site, denied that the boy was not in its care and said the government had launched a "ball of smoke" to divert attention from the real reason for the operation's collapse: Uribe's intransigence.
The Uribe administration said it is hoping to scientifically match DNA from the boy, who is being closely guarded by child protection authorities in Bogota, with samples from the family of Clara Rojas, a kidnapped politician who is believed to have given birth in a rebel camp in 2004. A rebel commander is reportedly the father.
On Tuesday, a special team was dispatched to Caracas to take DNA samples from Clara Gonzalez de Rojas, mother of Clara Rojas, and the prisoner's brother, Ivan Rojas. They and other relatives of the hostages have been in the Venezuelan capital since last week, awaiting the release of their loved ones. DNA samples are also being sought from other relatives of the boy, said Santos, who said that authorities hoped for a clear match within a few days with samples from the boy found in Bogota.
"We don't lose anything by doing this," Ivan Rojas told reporters in Caracas on Tuesday. "Why would we put things in doubt?"
Last year, the boy's existence received broad news coverage in Colombia and beyond after a policeman, Jhon Frank Pinchao, escaped from a FARC camp and spoke of how he had been with Rojas and her newborn son in 2004. He said the boy was named Emmanuel. The guerrilla group received widespread condemnation for holding a child prisoner.
On Dec. 18, it announced it would hand over three hostages to Venezuela's government: Consuelo Gonzalez, a former congresswoman held since 2001; Rojas, a politician kidnapped in 2002; and the boy.
The FARC pledge prompted hope that the group, which has more than 750 hostages, including three U.S. Defense Department contractors, was prepared to make other unilateral releases.
The pledge came shortly after the Uribe government had terminated an effort by Venezuela to mediate the release of prisoners. Colombia approved the renewed role for Ch¿vez, and he began orchestrating a complex operation in which Venezuelan helicopters would fly deep into rebel territory to pick up the hostages.
But Santos and another senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that military intelligence and infiltrators into the rebel group determined that while Ch¿vez was overseeing the preparations, the FARC was frantically trying to locate Emmanuel. The FARC is widely dispersed and has a decentralized command.
The guerrilla leaders who offered to give up the boy may not have realized they no longer had him, the Colombian officials said. Or they may have thought they could quickly recover him.
The guerrillas began accusing the Colombian military of launching operations, which Santos and the other senior official denied.
After the government received a tip about the boy's real whereabouts, authorities began to go through the records of about 100 children who had been turned over to child protection services in southern Colombia in 2005. They quickly narrowed their search to three boys and, by Friday, felt that they had located Emmanuel, now bearing a different name.
Santos and the other official said the boy they found had suffered an injury at birth, the same kind of injury that the escaped police officer reported Emmanuel had suffered. The boy had burn marks on one hand, a wound that Emmanuel also had. He also had suffered from jungle maladies, including malaria and leishmaniasis, which are unheard of in this chilly capital 8,000 feet above sea level.
"The coincidences are many," Santos said. "When we saw that the information coincided, well that gives us a certain level of confidence that the hypothesis that they didn't have the boy was true." The defense minister also said that the man who turned the boy over to authorities in 2005, whom he identified as Jos¿ Gomez, had gone back to child protection authorities in recent days to try to retrieve the boy.
On Tuesday morning, the officials said, Gomez confessed to prosecutors in San Jose del Guaviare that the FARC had turned the boy over to him in 2005. Claiming to be the uncle of the boy's mother, he had then given the boy to authorities.
The Colombian government's account at first irked the Venezuelan government. But after receiving details Tuesday, Ch¿vez struck a more conciliatory tone, wishing Uribe a happy holiday and calling for the two to work together for peace in Colombia.