Corrected on 12/6/07: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Ingrid Betancourt.
BOGOTA, Colombia—The images immediately blanketed Colombian newspapers and television stations. Captured videotapes displayed the gaunt visages of hostages who have spent the past several years being held in remote Colombian jungles by a violent rebel group. It was the first sign in a long time that three American defense contractors and a prominent French-Colombian woman who once ran for president here are still alive.
For Colombia, which has made impressive strides in recent years to slash what only recently was an out-of-control kidnapping rate, the video was a painful reminder of its recent past. It also was a vivid demonstration that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group known by its acronym FARC, may have been on the defensive for the past several years, but still remains potent and continues to hold as many as 200 hostages.
"My heart is absolutely broken with the pictures of the captives," says Vice President Francisco Santos, who once spent eight months chained to a bed when he was a kidnap victim in 1990. "It mortified my soul."
Perhaps most painful was a letter from Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian woman kidnapped in 2002, that her family in France released.
"Here, we are living like the dead," she wrote. "I no longer have the same strength. It is very difficult for me to continue believing."
The three American defense contractors—Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves—were captured in 2003 after their surveillance plane crashed during a counternarcotics operation.
Colombian officials, who decided to release the excerpts from videos captured in a recent raid on FARC associates, say that they are surprised that the troubling images of the haggard hostages have not sparked a more vehement international reaction. "I am really surprised that five days later, there has been no outcry in the world about this," Santos tells U.S. News.
Indeed, several figures in Bogota, Washington, and Paris have blasted the Colombian government for not trying harder to secure the return of the hostages. In particular, they have criticized President Alvaro Uribe's decision to abruptly end a mediation effort by Venezuela's controversial strongman Hugo Chávez. Colombian officials are clearly stung by the suggestion that they are somehow at fault for not winning the release of the hostages. "There has to be no moral ambiguity about who is the bad guy," says Santos. "Anything different would be putting the democratic Colombian government in the same stature as war criminals and that would be unacceptable."
Hostages like Betancourt and the American contractors are very valuable bargaining tools for the FARC. The rebels have demanded the release of fellow fighters, including one who is awaiting sentencing in a U.S. trial related to the kidnapping of the defense contractors. Kidnap victims have also traditionally been lucrative sources of revenue from families willing to pay ransoms.
The FARC is very protective of its high-profile captives. Intelligence reports suggest that they are surrounded by several layers of guards who have orders to kill the captives if security forces stage a rescue attempt. In addition, while Colombia's government has reasserted control of the country's major cities and most of it smaller towns, some remote rural areas remain under FARC influence. And Colombia's massive jungle is approximately the size of France. "It's like finding a needle in a [300,000-square-mile] haystack," says Santos.
The three U.S. defense contractors shown in the video, which is believed to have been shot in late October, are thought to be the only Americans currently in captivity in Colombia.