A Colombian Crusade

Later this year, on October 20th, during a special charity concert put on for the benefit of the National Brain Appeal, my good friend Dr Lewis Owens will once again be presenting a prestigious St. Martin’s Lifetime Achievement Award to a deserving recipient. An award that was previously presented to Terry Waite and which will also now be awarded to anti-corruption activist and former Colombian presidential hopeful, Ingrid Betancourt. In celebration of this achievement, I have put together this article about Ingrid who was born in Bogotá, Colombia on Christmas Day 1961.

Ingrid Betancourt

In a land of mountains and plains, with coastlines on the ocean of the Pacific, and on the sea of the Caribbean, is a country, with who, along with Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela she shares the beauty of the Amazon Rain Forest. A country, who for years, has been fighting a war on drugs and, with its plethora of cartels, organised crime. A by-product of these two battles? Corruption!

However, from a debut political campaign, in the early 90’s, that included the distribution of condoms, carrying the message: voters should protect against corruption as they would HIV, it was clear that the former worker at Colombia’s ministries of Finance and then Foreign Trade, Ingrid Betancourt was determined to rid her beloved Colombia of this disease that affected the country and her people.

In May 2001, Ingrid launched her campaign for the presidential seat of Colombia. It was during this campaign, that in 2002, Ingrid was kidnapped, along with her long-time friend and assistant Clara Rojas, by the Marxist guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). For six and a half years – she was kept in chains for most of that time – Ingrid was held as a prisoner in the very depths and heat of the Colombian jungle. In a sad twist of fate, Ingrid’s father passed away from complications soon after her kidnap and would never see his daughter again. This is a short YouTube clip of Ingrid in captivity, allegedly filmed a few months after her capture.

Ingrid, it seemed would be destined for a career in politics. Her father, Gabriel Betancourt – who once served under John F. Kennedy as head of the education committee for the Alliance for Progress – and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio – a former beauty queen – were both involved in the politics of Colombia. Gabriel, Ingrid’s father, was education minister under the liberal leadership of President Rojas Pinilla and kept the same position under the conservative government of President Lleras Restrepo. He was also assistant director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) leading on to the position of Colombian Ambassador to UNESCO. Ingrid’s mother, Yolanda, along with being a former Miss Colombia, served in Colombia’s congress representing the poor of the southern parts of this country’s capital city, Bogotá.

Ingrid gained her education in the private schools of France, England and Colombia. However, soon after graduating in 1983 Ingrid married Fabrice Delloye, a French citizen. Paris would be their home. They had two children Mélanie (b.1985) and Lorenzo (b.1988).

You can see a video recorded by the BBC, in which Ingrid talks about being a mother by clicking on this link: Ingrid Betancourt on ‘incredible’ motherhood.

Not long after the birth of Lorenzo, Ingrid and Fabrice separated, subsequently divorcing, Ingrid went back to Colombia. A candidate running for the presidency of Colombia in 1989, Luis Carlos Galán was murdered. Ingrid’s mother, Yolanda was not only a supporter of Galan’s, but she was also stood behind him when he was shot. This event, the motivation for Ingrid’s return to Colombia, where she would take up the post of an advisor to the Minister of Finance, then later, to the Minister of Foreign Trade.

In 1994, Ingrid was elected to the Chamber of Representatives after winning a seat in the lower house on an anti-corruption ticket. President at the time, Ernesto Samper, was accused of accepting money from the Cali drug cartel to help fund his campaign. Ingrid continually criticised his administration.

The Partido Verde Oxigeno – The Green Oxygen Party – was launched by Ingrid in 1997, created to take on the liberal and conservative parties. Then in 1998, Ingrid ran for, and in a record win – Ingrid received the highest ever number of votes for a candidate – became Senator. She soon became the target for death threats, concerned for her children’s safety, she sent to live with their father, who at this time was living in New Zealand. Later that year Andrea Pastrana – who had promised electoral reform in return for Ingrid’s support – won the presidential election and reneged on his promise. Ingrid, withdrawing her support, joined the opposition. In March 2001, Ingrid published ‘La rage au cœur’ which was translated into English and published in 2002 with the title ‘Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia’ which details this period in Ingrid’s life.

The Kidnap – February 23rd, 2002

On the campaign trail for the presidency in 2002, Ingrid and Clara Rojas8*, on their way to San Vicente del Caguán, a rebel-held territory in southern Colombia, were stopped at a roadblock set up by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and taken hostage, and, as I referred to at the beginning of this article, were held captive for six and a half years until a successful but extremely daring rescue mission. Colombian secret military agents had managed to infiltrate the gang. On July 2nd, 2008, Colombian soldiers, undercover as aid workers, landed at the camp in a helicopter and managed to convince the rebels that they were there to transfer the hostages to another FARC held location. However, Ingrid, Clara and 15 other hostages were flown to freedom.

* Two years into captivity, a pregnant Clara went into complicated labour. Her midwife, no more than a terrorist with a sharp knife, drugged Clara and proceeded to perform an emergency caesarean. Incredibly, Clara’s son, Emmanuel survived. Sadly, when he was only eight months old, FARC stole him from her. I am more than pleased to report following the rescue in 2008, mother and son have reunited once again.

After being rescued, Ingrid Betancourt was reunited with her family in Bogotá before being flown to Paris, France. The French president of the time Nicolas Sarkozy, during a ceremony held at Élysée Palace, named Ingrid ‘a knight of the Legion of Honour’ hailing her as “a symbol of hope”.

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