POLITICS | 7/16/2010 12:00:00 AM
Ingrid Betancourt´s unusual lawsuit against the government is a political suicide and has no legal viability.
Last Friday, however, in that equation prevailed hatred, or at least indignation. Radio stations reported that the former presidential candidate and her family sued the state in search of a multi-million compensation for her abduction. The news spread rapidly and generated hundreds of comments on social networks and the websites of major media. They reflect feelings of bewilderment, surprise and indignation. At the end of the day, just as former presidential candidate for the Polo Party said, "the FARC were the perpetrators of the kidnapping, not the government, and if she’s now free is because of a successful military operation and not a unilateral release (from the FARC). "
The Ministry of Defense informed, through a statement, that the family reported that the Betancourt Pulecio family effectively requested, through a lawyer, Juan Gabriel Devis Morales and before the Attorney-General, the convening of a court settlement with two State agencies: the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The law establishes that the proposal for direct settlement is a prerequisite to filing a formal complaint. Applicants expectations rise up to 15.431 million pesos ($6,5 million USD), divided in 5,831 for damages caused to Ingrid and 9,600 in addition to her immediate family’s suffering. These include moral damages and costs of what the kidnapped stopped receiving during the inhuman 3320 days of captivity in the hands of the FARC.
The whole picture is full of irony. On Friday, July 2, the second anniversary of Operation Jaque was celebrated and the Ministry of Defence held a moving ceremony to commemorate it. Most of the 14 released attended, including the group of American contractors. But the star was doubtlessly Ingrid. The Colombians had hardly seen her in their country. After her release, she moved to France one night and then traveled around the world with the aura of heroin. Thus, her presence caused admiration. And her words of recognition and gratefulness were well received. She highlighted the Army troops who rescued her, and thanked President Uribe, whom she has always referred to with heartfelt gratitude. The former hostage had been coherent and consistent in the past 24 months. Since the first day of the military operation, she described it as "perfect."
Nobody would have imagined that two days before her visit, Ingrid had filed a lawsuit against the Colombian government. Her attitude puzzled everyone, not only because the contradiction involved, but because blaming the government for FARC’s criminal acts is unreasonable. The lawsuit is based on two main arguments. The first one is that there wasn’t enough official protection for the presidential candidate the day she was kidnapped, when she intended to go to San Vicente del Caguan.. And secondly, that not sufficient efforts were made to accelerate her release.
Neither of these arguments seems sustainable. The accusation on lack of government’s protection is weak. Ingrid wanted to hold a political event in San Vicente, as the municipal mayor was elected by her own political group, the Oxygen Party. However, three days before her trip, President Andres Pastrana had broken peace conversations with the FARC, and the demilitarization of 42,000 square kilometers of the area had been declared concluded. The FARC was in retreat and the army was gradually recovering the territory. It was known then that the conditions were of very poor security.
Other candidates also planned to go to San Vicente but had to withdraw when Andres Pastrana’s government, through the Peace Commissioner Camilo Gomez, warned them that Colombia could not guarantee their safety and asked them to refrain from traveling. "Not only because we could not participate in politics, but because war had broken out and the area was truly dangerous," Gomez told Semana.
In Ingrid´s case, according to what her assistant Clara Rojas narrates in her book, Captive, she and Betancourt arrived at 9 am on February the 23 to the airport in Florencia (Caquetá department), on their way to San Vicente. There they were told that perhaps they could board one of the helicopters that would fly along with president Pastrana’s. But he passed before them with a group of staff members, got in the helicopter without a word, and filled every seat.
Camilo Gomez recalls that, in Florencia’s airport, Ingrid was informed that the trip was risky by a government’s official. And there is a document in the DAS (Colombian intelligence agency), dated February the 23rd and signed by one of Caqueta’s Police commanders, by the head of the DAS protection department and two bodyguards. The letter described the risks involved, the recent violent events in the area and the FARC’s threat to stop any vehicle that passed by the road to San Vicente.
Clara Rojas does not mention these warnings in her book, but she does report that they were given a blue van by the DAS office of Florencia (the information also rests on the DAS) as well as no security personnel. The captain of Ingrid’s protection team told the candidate that he wouldn’t go, nor any of their escorts. A French journalist, an interpreter and Oxygen Party’s press officer also stayed.
The police captain put white flags and Ingrid’s campaign posters on the car. Five people left in the vehicle: the candidate, Clara, the driver, a French journalist and his cameraman. Florencia’s Police escorted them out of the city. The road was empty, and they reached an army checkpoint. "They informed us that there hadn’t been any fighting in the area or on the road to San Vicente, but also warned Ingrid that if she took the risk to continue, it would be entirely on her responsibility."
The controversy over the responsibilities involved in the kidnapping sprouted from the very start. While the Ministers of Justice and Interior said that Ingrid herself was to blame, her Party answered angrily: "We demand the government to assume it’s responsibility (...) because it was because of it’s negligence that the candidate had to be transported by road to San Vicente del Caguan" . Meanwhile, Ingrid sometimes recognizes that responsibility and sometimes she doesn’t. In one proof of life the woman declared that "the public has been told that we were irresponsible, reckless, and that therefore we are to blame of our own kidnap. It is cruel as well as ignorant, to add such comments to what we’ve already experienced here". But the truth is, despite that statement, that more warnings may not have been made about the risks involved in her trip. What happened therefore had an origin in Ingrid’s decision, despite the opinions of knowledgeable authorities in the region and those of the central government.
The second argument is related with the six years of captivity. Ingrid Betancourt, along with her mother, sister and children, consider that the government didn’t do everything it could have done to gain her freedom. They claim that such negligence extended their drama and deepened the suffering. The accusation is no less absurd than the first. Possibly there hasn’t been any kidnapping in Colombia's history that has received more attention from the government than Ingrid’s. International pressure —especially France’s— and Uribe’s efforts in fighting the FARC made Betancourt’s release a real priority. President Uribe even accepted Nicolas Sarkozy’s request to release Rodrigo Granda, the so-called ‘foreign minister of the FARC’. French airplanes went to the Amazon for her cause, seeking to pick her up as a result of a failed French humanitarian operation. It was because of her that relations with France were practically frozen for nearly two years. What responsibility can be attributed to a government that accepted as many concessions in the pursue for Ingrid Betancourt’s freedom?
During the long captivity, in fact, there was a persistent debate over whether the Uribe government should try to negotiate a humanitarian agreement (prisoner swap) or whether they should attempt to rescue Ingrid by military means. Yolanda Pulecio, Betancourt’s mother, asked Uribe’s government, both in Colombia and abroad, to discard an operation alleging the risk that such a thing meant for her daughter. At the same time she also requested to negotiate a swap of hostages and imprisoned guerrillas in prison.
You cannot impose this understandable position from the point of view of a mother to a government that has as much valid political issues. A government may opt not to negotiate with terrorist or illegal groups, in order to avoid a vicious cycle that may encourage further kidnappings. Such a position was actually chosen by several countries that have had to deal with terrorism for decades, like the United States and Israel.
President Uribe believed that if he accepted a swap that would solidify the perception that the kidnapping of political leaders, officers or soldiers produced the results the captors sought. One can disagree, for political or ideological reasons with the concept. But from a legal point of view it cannot be argued that a decision which seeks to discourage kidnapping creates the opposite.
The argument that the government is responsible for a kidnapping by the guerrillas is weak. There is an example that clearly shows it, and that coincidentally took place just one day before Ingrid and Clara were kidnapped. A German court determined that operating expenses that had been used to free a German citizen who had been kidnapped by another Colombian guerrilla (ELN), had to be paid by the former hostage and not by the German authorities. The justice of that country blamed the victim, Reinhilt Weigel, for getting into "an adventure" in the jungle.
An unlikely favorable sentence to Ingrid Betancourt would not only be unfair but also counterproductive. Given that in her case there is more individual responsibility than in maybe every other kidnapping in the country, that would generate a flood of lawsuits of people who may have more justification in blaming the government. The number of hostages by the FARC rise over 3,000 in the last decades, and almost none of them have any personal responsibility, as Ingrid does.
What, then, does Ingrid Betancourt seek with her claim? Why she risked the prestige she had left in such an inconvenient way? And with a legal action so unlikely to succeed? During her abduction, the former candidate had reached an unprecedented top position in popularity polls. But then, the revelations about her personality and her behavior in captivity gave way for the image of a selfish and spoiled woman.
Ingrid Betancourt, however, kept a little of her prestige and good image. Some even expected her return to the political arena, and the election of Juan Manuel Santos opened an opportunity for it, given that they worked together in the past. Experts predicted the Embassy in Paris for Ingrid, which made sense because of the symbolism she represented and the interest that the French had shown around her and her causes. But what she has done now is a political suicide that practically reveals her intention to leave Colombia permanently. For instance she won’t attend a tribute a group of intellectuals held for her father, Gabriel Betancourt Mejia, considered one of the ideologists of education in Colombia.
It is enough to take a look at the number and tone of the demonstrations that swarmed the Internet in recent days to get a measure of the cost she’s paying now for it. There’s rarely an event that produces such a negative and at the same time unanimous reaction. Why did she do it? The decision is hardly understandable. After the analysis of it’s political consequences, it might be suggested that the goal is plainly economic. But Ingrid just signed contracts for almost seven million dollars for her book about her abduction. Her next book made her a millionaire. So the legal action wasn’t likely after the money either. But nobody has been able to find the answer. An error explicable only by the suffering that produces on a human being such an inhuman and prolonged kidnapping in a Colombian jungle.