Held for Ransom

Once the kidnapping capital of the world, Colombia is fighting back.


Posters of missing Colombian kidnap victims lie on a Bogotá square.

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BOGOTA, COLOMBIA—The nightmare begins in a bar. Roberto Carlos Castro still cannot reconstruct who slipped a drug into his drink in the early morning on Saturday, October 20. But when the 20-year-old business school student wakes up, a man is pointing a revolver at his head, telling Castro that he is being held for an initial ransom demand of 10 billion Colombian pesos (more than $5 million). The kidnappers bind Castro's hands and feet with duct tape, which they don't remove for seven straight days.

Castro has become another victim in a country known until recently as the kidnap capital of the world. For Castro's family, it is a tragically familiar experience. His father, a liquor and cigarette distributor, and his mother were kidnapped in separate incidents several years earlier, each spending months in captivity before being freed. "I never thought it was going to happen to me," says Castro. "I told [the kidnappers] we had already been through this, so why again? They had no answer."

In many ways, Castro's abduction belies Colombia's dramatic success in stemming what has been an out-of-control kidnapping rate. In 2000, at the peak, 3,572 people were abducted; this year, fewer than 475 cases have been reported, according to Colombia's Ministry of National Defense. Much of the improvement has come from a heightened security presence throughout the country, along with military advances against two major rebel groups, which have long used kidnapping to raise money. A training program launched by the State Department—and in the process of being handed over to the Colombian government—is also helping to strengthen Colombia's elite antikidnapping units, known as GAULA, which are drawn from both the police and the Colombian military. (GAULA is the Spanish acronym for Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty.)

Following the abduction, Castro's case is assigned to GAULA Cundinamarca, a military unit in the midst of its own tumultuous year. Last spring, before receiving the specialized training, it was involved in a botched rescue operation where a hostage was killed, along with two GAULA soldiers. "There were some individual mistakes, so they discovered the proximity of the troops," says Col. Luis Erbin Guio, the overall commander of the military GAULA units. "The planning now is synchronized."

When Castro is kidnapped, part of the Cundinamarca squad is finishing up a six-week crisis-response training course funded by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. It is the 21st of Colombia's 32 GAULA units to go through the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Assistance course, which focuses on close combat skills and operational planning for rescue missions.

The rest of the GAULA unit digs into Castro's case, trying to trace a series of cellphone calls to the young man's father, demanding the ransom and warning (falsely) that Castro is sick. Even as investigators work to isolate which cell tower is handling the calls, Castro makes a run for it, trying to escape his captors. They catch him quickly, yanking the rosary around his neck so hard that the cord slices into his skin. The group's leader brandishes two grenades, warning that he will throw one at Castro if he tries to escape again. Then, the man chains Castro's right leg to a metal bed in a windowless bedroom.

Setting the trap. Colombian investigators get their first break when a phone call is traced back to a Bogotá taxi driver. The same day that the cabbie is arrested, two other men call Castro's family to arrange the ransom delivery. They are quickly arrested, and a GAULA team is dispatched to their hometown of Villavicencio. After more than a week of intensive searches and interviews, the GAULA officers find two additional gang associates who can lead them to the suspected ringleader, a guerrilla fighter who goes by the alias Polla Ronca. In return for a lighter sentence, the two men agree to help set a trap for Polla Ronca, who is believed to be a key fundraiser for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC, which is the country's leading kidnapper. Over wiretaps, police listen in as Polla Ronca sets up a meeting with the men in custody.