Ingrid Betancourt

The Colombian senator and presidential candidate talks about drug trafficking, political corruption, guerrillas, the paramilitaries and how to fix democracy in her embattled nation.

Published January 15, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Would you love your country if it were ruled by drug lords, guerrillas and corrupt politicians? Would you risk your life and the lives of your children to serve it? Would you go on a hunger strike in order to fight for reform?

Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian senator and presidential candidate, has said yes to all of these questions. Her memoir, "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia," is an impassioned personal account and a stinging indictment of the violent corruption that's strangled Colombia for decades. Told in the present tense, filled with harrowing details of death, love, loyalty and betrayal, it contains all the makings of a fast-paced Hollywood thriller.

Of course, the dramatic struggle is not unique -- countless thousands have suffered from the chaos that Gabriel García Márquez drew on in writing his novel "100 Years of Solitude" -- but Betancourt's story is especially powerful because the 40-year-old politician could have avoided Colombia's strife. She grew up pampered in Paris. Her father served as Colombia's ambassador to UNESCO while she attended French schools, married a French diplomat. Only later in life did she return to Colombia, when the guilt of living far away from the country's pain became overwhelming.

And with that return, followed by a decision to run for office, Betancourt's life changed forever. When her crusade against corruption and drug trafficking earned attention and a seat in the legislature, bodyguards became an everyday companion. Smear campaigns suddenly appeared and death threats forced Betancourt to send her children away, to live in New Zealand with their father, her ex-husband.

Neither the loss of her children, nor the power of her enemies, has managed to sap Betancourt's high dose of commitment. She's near the bottom of the presidential polls, her critics say she cares more for attention than reform and the Colombian press has largely ignored "Until Death Do Us Part," which came out in Colombia with the more combative title, "La Rabia in el Corazón" ("The Rage in My Heart"). But in France, the book is a bestseller, and Betancourt remains convinced that her message will resonate with those she cares most about -- the Colombian people.

Salon chatted with Betancourt, between stops on her American book tour, about Colombia, corruption and her unique campaign for reform.

What do you make of the news that President Andres Pastrana has broken off relations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), the left-wing guerrillas who have been fighting against the government for decades?

In his position, I would have done the same. The problem is that the peace process was in crisis. The president has given a lot to the guerrillas and the guerrillas have given nothing in return.

The move of President Pastrana is also a strategy to regain confidence from the people of Colombia, to make them believe again that it is possible to negotiate but to negotiate in healthy phases -- those in which the government has not to be kneeling before the guerrillas, but where the conditions are put up front and met by the guerrillas and the government.

You note in your book that one of your goals is to break ties with the paramilitaries who often fight these guerrillas on the government's behalf, and who are responsible for most of the war's civilian massacres. How exactly do you propose to do this?

We have to recover our democracy first. We need to be sure that the people in the army -- the officials that have participated in illegal operations with the paramilitaries -- are imprisoned. They must pay for the barbarian acts that they have achieved. This is something that is not happening today in Colombia because the officials that have been related to illegal activities have the protection of the system. They act with impunity. They don't go to jail and there's no law enforcement.

So there needs to be judicial reform, not just democratic reform ...

Yes. If we really want to cut the ties between the paramilitaries and our state military, we need to be sure that our judicial system will work. In order to make it work, we need to be sure that corruption is not going to play a major role in its activities. We have to cut the alliance between politicians and drug traffickers. Those ties are what keep the system from working.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who agree with you on the trafficking issue but drug money is so intertwined with Colombian life, with everything from banks to the war to local village economies. How would you rid the system of this pervasive influence?

By going after the politicians that are serving the interests of the drug traffickers. If you do that, you will clean the system. If we have the possibility of having fair elections in Colombia; if we have a system where the elections will be transparent; if the officials who are counting the votes are neutral people who are not serving individual interests, then we will have a Congress that's representative of the Colombian population. And if they are representative of the population, we will be able to do the reforms that we haven't been able to do for a long time -- reforms in the judicial system and in the public administration.

There is a strong vein of anti-American sentiment in Colombia, and even here in the U.S. many Americans have a hard time supporting the drug war as it's being waged in Colombia. Where do you stand on the issue? To what extent would you welcome U.S. aid if you were president?

We have to welcome and be thankful for the aid we're receiving from the U.S. government. It has helped us a lot. But what we have to see is that this aid is primarily going to military issues. This is good to the extent that it has transformed our techniques, and given us technological support. But as long as our military has clandestine ties to the paramilitaries, we are not really doing what we should be doing. Because this aid will not be used properly; it will be used to defend dark interests. We need to be sure that the financial aid that the American government is giving to Colombia is arriving in the right hands. And I would say today that, because of the corrupt politicians who are everywhere in the public administration, the aid is in the wrong hands.

Should the U.S. government stop giving aid? Is it doing more harm than good?

This is a decision for the Americans to make, but I would say that the Americans should help us clean the political system in order to have a guarantee that the aid is going to be used properly. If we don't do this, we are wasting our time, we are wasting our money -- and we are frustrating both the Colombians, who are expecting a lot from the American aid, and the American people, who want to see results.

You come from a prominent Colombian family but you grew up in Europe. How did you get started in politics?

At home everyone spoke about politics. My father was an ambassador and my mother was linked to social issues in Colombia, and the major issues in the home were political issues. From very early in life I was forced to listen to people talking about Colombia, about our future, about our rights, about what we could expect as Colombians. I also think that because I was brought up in France, I was very sensitive to some issues like human rights protection, the environment and anti-corruption.

I returned to Colombia because I felt that Colombia was living in a very difficult crisis and it didn't feel good to be living outside Colombia knowing that my friends and relatives were facing problems in Colombia while I was living abroad. I had a sense of responsibility. I felt that I had to be with my people in their moment of difficulty. I felt like I could have a very comfortable life while others were putting their lives at risk in order to save our country.

Also, there was an incident. I'm very close to my mother and when I was abroad, she was participating in Louis Carlos Galan's presidential campaign. Galan was a leader that we all considered to be a moral figure; we thought that he was going to save Colombia. And the day he was killed, my mother was with him.

But the story is very strange. That night, I couldn't sleep; I had nightmares. And in the morning, the only thing I wanted to do was call my mother in Colombia. When I called her, she was at the other end of the phone, crying and yelling "They killed him, they killed him."

Then she told me the story, which is really incredible. She was behind him at the moment the shot was fired, but she had fallen down because she was wearing high heels. And that fall saved her.

So what I realized at that moment, when she was telling me the story, was that I could have called her that morning and someone else could have answered -- someone who told me that Mother had been killed. Suddenly, I had this obsession that I had to go home and home wasn't abroad. Home was Colombia.

Since returning, you've made many sacrifices for your cause, watching friends die, going on a hunger strike to fight for an investigation of the sitting president and sending your children to live with their father in New Zealand. Which of these was most difficult?

The hardest sacrifice is a daily sacrifice. I have been living apart from my children for six years, and there is not one day that I don't suffer.

And didn't you have to send your children away under dangerous circumstances?

We received death threats. The children were very young and there was a guy who came to my office. He was threatening us, so we had to leave. We took a plane the next day and I left them in New Zealand with their father. I thought that perhaps it was not going to be too long, but six years have gone by, they've grown to be teenagers and I haven't been able to live with them.

How old are your children now, and what do they think of your crusade?

My children were 10 and 7 when they left; they're now 16 and 13. I think I've been lucky because my children could have been traumatized or they could have hated me because of the decision I have taken. But they have grown into very healthy teenagers, very confident in themselves, and they support me. They are proud of me, they understand what I'm doing and they don't feel that I've abandoned them. They feel that I'm doing the correct thing. I have their support; it's a gift from heaven.

Do you think it's substantially harder to be a woman, a female leader, in Colombian politics?

Well, what's happened in Colombia is that we've been living through a civil war for 50 years, and when you live in Civil War -- or any war -- men go to fight and women take care of the important things, as I would say it. In Colombia, 70 percent of the families are raised solely by women. Women have been forced to take responsibility not only in family issues but also in economic issues. All women in Colombia work. Even among the wealthy, everyone works. I have no friends who stay at home as housewives.

This has opened the path to politics. What's also helped a lot is, well, men have done such a lousy job in politics that people think women will do it better. This is the hope that people have so they will vote more readily for a woman than a man.

But once you get into politics, things change. Once you're elected and you have the confidence of the people, the battle in the political field is terrible because those guys [in power] won't respect anything. They won't confront your ideas; they'll try to knock you down by attacking you in personal fields. This is something that we as women have to bear, the fact that they attack you for leaving your children, or because you have a divorce or because you've been married several times.

You've used some unconventional campaign tactics to fight back, such as handing out condoms as a sign that you would protect the people from the disease of corruption. How has the public responded?

At the beginning it was kind of shocking because Colombia is a conservative society. Church is very influential in Colombian society, and having a young woman distributing condoms in the street -- especially because condoms are a man's device -- was very shocking to a lot of people. But then they started to understand the symbol of the thing. They understood that I was trying to make them think that we needed to react against corruption, and that's why I was elected.

I think there is an enormous space in Colombia to do symbolic actions and be very pedagogical with the public to make them understand something that it would normally take years to make them understand.

Your detractors argue that all you want is publicity and that you're self-righteous -- that you think of yourself as the lone crusader fighting Colombian corruption. How would you respond to such criticism?

I would say that you may choose your life, but you don't choose the suffering that you have to overcome. It's not pleasant to be fighting drug traffickers. It's not pleasant to fight corrupt politicians, to confront senators and representatives who insult you and threaten you. So I think it's very unfair to say that what I have done is just to gain publicity. There are other ways to get publicity. One way is to get naked in the road. Then you'll have publicity but you won't be at risk, it's not dangerous.

The criticism is really a way of undermining my struggle [against corruption]. My struggle annoys a lot of people in Colombia. There are many people who are not comfortable with what I do because they are using Colombia to tolerate corrupt attitudes and cover them and camouflage them.

But we need to raise the standards of our ambition. We need to have high standards for our democracy. We cannot just say we are a democracy and have institutions that don't work, have corruption everywhere, have human rights violations as a systematic way of dealing with our problems. This has to change.

In your book, you point fingers at those who are corrupt and you obviously believe that your sacrifices will eventually be rewarded. Yet, the murder rate in Colombia has nearly doubled since 1995 and many feel that the country is worse off than when you first entered politics in the late '80s. Do you ever feel like a failure? And in a country so filled with confusion -- in which you too have been accused of corruption -- how do you know who is being honest and who is lying?

It is not possible to fight corruption as I have been fighting it if you have something to hide. It's easy to throw dirt and say she's done this, she's done that, but the truth is that I am very lonely in this. If I had done something wrong, I can assure you that I would be in prison because I have so many enemies. This is a game where you cannot play in two camps; you have to be very straight.

But do you think it's obvious, who is honest and who is not?

Well, in Colombia there is a gray zone. Many things that are considered corrupt in other countries are considered normal in Colombia. We have to be very radical in order to change public opinion about what is corruption. We have to really ask for accountability in order to change the idea of what politicians can and cannot do.

The way of knowing who is corrupt and who is not is simple: You have to investigate. Everything that I have said in my book has appeared in the media in Colombia. The only difference is that I have put the picture together. In Colombia, the information will appear as a little line at the end of the page of the newspaper. They won't give it the importance it has. All I've done is put it all into context.

You're far down in the polls and two of the candidates who are running for president -- Horacio Serpa and Noemi Sanin -- you denounce as corrupt protectors of the Colombian status quo. Do you think you can beat them? Or is your campaign simply an attempt to raise public awareness about the dangers of corruption?

This is a very serious campaign. I have worked to have a very professional campaign. I have a big headquarters in Colombia and a 100 person staff. There are many people who would like to see this as a symbolic campaign, but it's not. It's a very true and serious campaign.

My chances? I think I have a 100 percent chance. The elections are open to everyone. The only thing that I fear is fraud in the elections. That's why I'm asking the Americans to help me in having people cover the elections. Journalists, politicians, congressmen and women -- we want them to come to Colombia to help us guarantee that we will have fair elections. Because when you present yourself in an election, you're willing to lose but you only want to lose in a fair way. You don't want your elections stolen from you.

I know I'm low in the polls but those are official polls. I don't really believe in them. When I was a candidate for the Senate, an official poll came out -- it was everywhere, in all the papers -- and I didn't appear in the list of those who were going to be elected. And I became the senator who was elected with the highest number of votes in the country.

What will you do if you lose the election? How will you continue to fight if you're not in office?

There's no other choice but to win. But I will continue fighting in or out of the presidency. We have to win this battle against corruption. Perhaps the only thing that I really want to convey to Americans is that they must understand that if we continue tolerating corrupting governments all over the world, we will always be at risk -- all of us. Because corrupt governments nourish drug trafficking and terrorism and this is what is tearing my country apart. I'm fighting to clean my country to have a democracy that's as strong and as effective as the one you have here in America, Europe and other countries. It's the basics that we're asking for, not the luxuries.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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