"Dead, I can't do anything"

Francisco Santos, a former kidnap victim of drug lord Pablo Escobar, became a symbol of hope for Colombians weary of violence and fear. But when leftist guerrillas ordered him killed, he had to flee to the U.S.

Published April 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Ten years ago Francisco Santos nearly became another victim of the endemic violence that has torn apart his native Colombia when he was kidnapped and held for eight months by late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. But Santos, a member of a wealthy publishing family that runs Colombia's most important daily, El Tiempo, was not intimidated. After his release, he founded Pams Libre (Free Country), the first Colombian civic organization to combat kidnappings, an enormous problem in this South American country.

In November, on a visit to New York, Santos, 35 and editor of his family's newspaper, could barely contain his optimism for Colombia's prospects. "We will turn around the violence. People are making their wishes for peace known," he said. Santos was in the middle of building the No Mas movement, another civic venture that had encouraged 10 million Colombians, from every walk of life, to march down the streets of every major city and demand their right to a peaceful existence.

Organizing the marches was a gutsy move in Colombia, where a generation's worth of violence between the government and armed groups from both the left and right has resulted in the virtual disintegration of civil society. Today, two decades after Gabriel Garcma Marquez brought honor to Colombia by becoming one of Latin America's first Nobel laureates, the country's story continues to be told by grim statistics: 800 people kidnapped for ransom every year; 1,500 people killed in massacres last year; 20,000 to 30,000 people killed violently every year during the past decade; 149 journalists murdered for doing their work in the past 20 years.

Yet the marches had changed the tone in Colombia and given people hope. "The one who is defenseless in our country is the simple citizen, the worker, the person who does not carry a weapon. The working poor, who have a lot to lose. And for them the marches were an answer," explained Santos.

Then on March 10, Colombians learned the inconceivable: Leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) had ordered Santos killed for his organizing against terrorism and he had fled to the United States. The guerrillas had hired gunmen, who had been pursuing him around town. "It is very hard when they force you out. But I had to leave; there are too many dead people in Colombia already. Dead I can't do anything," a dejected Santos said.

He was only the latest casualty of Colombia's vicious terrorists: the leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary gangs who have targeted journalists, university professors, students and writers in the past few months, as the war in Colombia intensifies.

Santos arrived in the United States just as debate began in Washington over a proposed $1.7 billion military-aid package to Colombia. The money will mainly be used for drug-interdiction operations and to train anti-narcotics personnel in Colombia. Some of the funds will be shared with Peru and Bolivia for anti-drugs operations, but Colombia will get the lion's share of the money, including about $388 million for Blackhawk helicopters for the Colombian army.

On March 30, the aid package made it through the House of Representatives 263-146. It now faces tough going in the Senate, where critics will try to toughen the conditions under which the money will be granted or scuttle the aid altogether.

To some, the aid proposal raises the specter of another misguided military intervention in Latin America. Others oppose it as a militaristic extension of the White House's ill-founded War on Drugs. The aid has also been questioned by some in the Pentagon, who feel it is not the duty of the U.S. military to fight a foreign war.

It's the connection between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups that evokes comparisons with the Central American wars, where death squads were responsible for thousands of political assassinations. And even though the government of President Andres Pastrana has cracked down on military involvement in human-rights violations, the country's ombudsman's figures for 1999 are hair-raising: 311 massacres. Of those, 165 were carried out by paramilitary gangs, 65 by the guerrillas and six by the armed forces. There were 75 by undetermined forces.

As the final aid package makes its way through Congress, members who remember past mistakes have tried to put conditions on it. One key restriction is the Leahy Amendment, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in 1998, which bars military aid to any unit involved in human-rights abuse.

Despite American reservations, 70 percent of all Colombians approve of U.S. assistance, according to a recent poll, and that includes Santos. "The worst thing that could happen is for the United States to abandon Colombia," he said last week after the aid package made it through the House. He shares the bad memories of military aid in Latin America most U.S. citizens remember.

"I was a student in Texas during the Central American wars and I was quite against U.S. aid to El Salvador," he explained. "But the Colombian conflict is different, this is like comparing apples and oranges. To begin with, there was a Cold War during the Central American wars, and the conflict was purely political. Our conflict has the element of politics, but it is completely penetrated by drug trafficking."

Even Human Rights Watch in New York, which has done the most effective exposis on military and paramilitary abuses in Colombia -- most recently reporting that half of Colombia's 18 army brigades had been involved in human-rights violations -- has tried to influence the language of the aid package, rather than oppose it outright.

"The debate is an opportunity to develop the right mechanisms to help the international community to come up with the right language to force the Colombian military to break its ties with the paramilitaries," the group's Americas director, Josi Miguel Vivanco, said. The Colombian police force, Vivanco and others note, has effectively cleaned up its human-rights record since it started getting U.S. aid and training.

In 1990, Santos was ambushed in the capital, Bogota, by men working for Escobar. He was held captive, chained to a bed, for 242 days. After his release, he became a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. In 1992 he founded Pams Libre to address rampant kidnappings, a crime perfected by common criminals, guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

The problem not only plagues rich people; it also affects the middle class and the working poor. The guerrillas have even invented a new terminology -- miraculous fishing -- to describe mass kidnappings in which a guerrilla team sets up roadblocks in the major thoroughfares across Colombia and takes dozens of civilian and commercial vehicles and their occupants. The trucking industry has been severely harmed by this practice, and practically no one in his right mind travels by car anymore.

The number of people kidnapped in Bogota increased 100 percent, to 220, in 1999 over 1998. The number of kidnapping victims in the country has skyrocketed to 3,650 people, according to Santos. Most pay their ransom and are released, but an undetermined number of them languish in the hands of the kidnappers. Many die in captivity.

"A recent poll we conducted showed that 50 percent of the people, no matter of their economic situation, felt they could be potential victims of a kidnapping," he explained. "The kidnapping racket is very profitable. We estimate the guerrillas make up to $100 million a year in ransoms, and we don't see them stopping that practice soon."

"Those who are being hit are the ones who believe social change can happen through a frank exchange of ideas," wrote Rudolph Hommes, an economist and former finance minister, in a guest column in El Tiempo. The attacks have created a sense of despair to many who have seen their country debilitated by violence from Marxist guerrillas, rightist paramilitary groups and organized criminal gangs.

Writing about the new phenomenon, the weekly Semana said, "There is a sensation that is slowly creeping in the heart of every Colombian that the subversives and criminals are trying to terrorize our idols." Among recent victims are Luis Herrera, a prize-winning cyclist, and television star Fernando Gonzalez Pacheco, the Jay Leno of Colombia, both hit by the guerrillas.

Herrera was kidnapped by FARC, which released him 24 hours later partly because his detention seemed ludicrous, but also because the cyclist apparently was already paying extortion to the organization of Henry Castellanos, aka Romaqa, a local FARC chieftain. A world-class athlete, Herrera holds numerous international awards and is a subject of pride for Colombians, who are hungry for good news about their country.

Pacheco left the country quietly, but told his fans, "The only thing worse than leaving your country under threat is that you are leaving terrified." When it couldn't get to him, FARC kidnapped Guillermo Cortes, Pacheco's cousin, a 72-year-old retired journalist who remains in captivity. Pacheco missed the kidnappers only because he was working on the weekend they visited his country home. The message a fan left on Pacheco's phone mail sums up the feelings in Colombia: "If you are being forced out, it's a sign this place is completely screwed up."

Santos' latest trouble started last year, when a man who had a relative kidnapped in Bogota approached the offices of Pais Libre. That tip helped the organization to uncover an intricate plan by FARC, which had started a kidnapping ring with a group of former criminals.

According to the tip, the guerrillas were to begin relying more heavily on kidnapping in urban centers. The new plans anticipated the impact U.S. aid would have on their operations in rural areas, where they protect coca plantations. Extortion and kidnappings would supplant some of the income the guerrillas now get from the countryside, according to military experts and former guerrillas interviewed in Colombia.

The new tactic was also part of a long-announced plan to make city residents crack under the weight of the war, which until now has been fought in faraway rural provinces, according to a recent interview with Alfonso Cano, a guerrilla leader living in Mexico.

"I never received any warnings, they were just going to kill me, get me out of the way by using hired killers, so the murder could not be traced to them," Santos said. The hired killers followed him for several weeks. He kept quiet about the threats until his security force was certain of who had hired the men. Fortunately for Santos, his kidnapping in 1990 had taught him a few things. "I was aware odd things were happening around me. I began to ask questions and follow every tip," he explained.

But Santos was not prepared for the answers he got. His murder had been ordered by Romaqa, who had kidnapped four American birdwatchers two years earlier and is believed to be responsible for most of the serious kidnappings in Bogota in recent months. Initially Santos rejected any conjecture that this was part of FARC's general military strategy because, he said, he believed that the guerrillas would not do that if they were negotiating for peace with the government of Pastrana.

Now Santos believes his case reflects the downward spiral of the situation in Colombia, where leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups are using terror to further split society. "They are attempting to divide the country between haves and have-nots," he said. "In my case, they had a hard time explaining what I was doing. They could say my case was an attack against the oligarchy," he added.

But Santos does not reflect his class background. A short, barrel-chested man with a quick smile and nervous personality, he defies the stereotype of the typical rich Bogotano, who is solemn, detached and refined. Cramped in an apartment in Florida, where he has moved to wait out his exile, Santos said, "My case is the case of anybody who gets involved."

"If he leaves what does that mean for the rest of us who remain here?" an antique dealer in Bogota wrote in an e-mail. Even Otty Patino, the tough-talking former leader of the M-19 guerrillas, which signed a peace process with the government in 1991 and demobilized its forces, wrote a personal note to Santos in El Tiempo: "You can't abandon us. The process you began cannot sustain itself without your presence. We need you here."

"I am only one more, like the intellectual, the reporter, the human-rights worker, the refugee. I have to abandon my piece of land, my life, my soul, my country. Ironically this is happening when I truly believe that things are getting better," Santos wrote in a goodbye column in El Tiempo. He emphasized the words "things are getting better," as if to infuse his countrymen with hope.

But his departure has deepened the hopelessness felt by most Colombians. In 1999, more than 300,000 abandoned the country. Many left because the unemployment rate is now 20 percent, up from 7 percent two years ago.

In addition, most Colombians thought the process started by the Pastrana government and FARC in January 1999 would bring peace within a few months. When it did not arrive, many people packed their bags. Among them were most members of the small Jewish community, hit heavily late last year by kidnappings, some of which were carried out by a group of corrupt officers working out of a local military brigade.

"Unfortunately, the situation is going to get more violent in the next two years," predicted Santos. "It is a natural reaction to the peace process and one of the problems of holding talks while the war continues."

Santos' story and his exile epitomize the conflict in Colombia. As Garcia Marquez wrote in the prologue to his book "News of a Kidnapping," which described the kidnapping of Santos and seven other prominent Colombian journalists by Escobar, it is "the biblical holocaust in which Colombia has consumed itself for the last 20 years."

Without being flippant, Santos said being forced out of his country is as painful an experience as his kidnapping. "It is just as dehumanizing, except that I can go to the bathroom whenever I want," he said.

By Ana Arana

Ana Arana is an investigative journalist who focuses on criminal organizations in Latin America.


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