Colombia’s revolutionary guerrilla group known as the FARC has always been highly stigmatized for its involvement with kidnapping, and rightly so. Since shortly after the group’s official inception in 1966, the rebels have targeted politicians, security enforcers and business moguls as fair game for indefinite sequestration in the jungle. Over the years, thousands of individuals have been held captive by the group, for lengths exceeding a decade in some cases. Like the prisoners whose only option is to be patient and wait, the same holds true for their families who are typically left uniformed in the dark while appealing to the deaf ears of the government and FARC commanders.
Despite the historical precedence of the FARC and its habitual kidnapping tendencies, the Colombian media cartels seem to demonstrate a preference for the high-profile variety hostage. While all kidnappings are initially reported in some form or another, only a fraction of these continue to make headlines with the passing of time. Indeed, most captives are lucky to receive follow-up stories of their time in FARC captivity. A select few, however, manage to remain in the media’s spotlight throughout their tenure as prisoners.
Case in point, the most recent high-profile captive who was liberated this past 2 July, Ingrid Betancourt. Throughout her 76-months in FARC custody, Ingrid seemed to be the focus of a perpetual story being run by one of Colombia’s numerous papers, television or radio broadcasts, and the trend persisted internationally. For more than six years, she was unarguably the poster child for FARC prisoners. Her notoriety as a Colombian ex-presidential candidate for the 2002 elections being held captive catapulted her to rock star status which drew both international attention as well as criticism against the government and her captures.
Consistent media coverage of Ingrid’s captivity turned constant as her health began to decline about a year ago. Her fame finally became iconic when a photo of her was released depicting a fragile woman who appeared thinly malnourished and depressed – reports claimed that she was on the verge of death and a letter addressed to her family was made public. Physicians were subsequently brought in to the FARC camp where she was being held in order to evaluate her health and substantiate the reports. In fact, media coverage made it appear that her days were numbered, and until her liberation the world also believed this to be true. Yet on 2 July, Ingrid stepped off the plane in Bogota as a woman who had gained weight and seemed perfectly healthy with a glowing smile. What happened to the frail woman who was on the verge of death? It seems the media overlooked reporting her miraculous improvement in health over the past several months approaching Operation Check.
While estimates range anywhere from 700 to 3,000 hostages being held in custody of the FARC to date, Ingrid appears to have been the only captive who turned ill in the jungle and was thus deemed even more worthy of media attention. It makes one wonder how all the other incarcerated victims have managed to evade illness while in captivity, or if the media simply picks its preferences on which to report. Chances are the latter scenario merits more consideration.
The truth is, not all FARC hostages are created equal. As tourists, security officers, defense contractors, politicians and businessmen are still being held in captivity, it is nearly a sure bet that none of them will ever receive the same press coverage as Ingrid did while in captivity. Even Jhon Frank Pinchao, the police officer who was captured in 1998 and escaped on his own in May of 2007, didn’t receive as much coverage as Ingrid. The ex-prisoner consequently wrote a book to share his nine-year ordeal with the public.
All the media frenzy over Ingrid raises suspicions as to the motives of the press and its supposed adherence to fair reporting. Analyzing Ingrid’s capture by the FARC on 23 February 2002 reveals even more absurdity. While on her presidential campaign in 2002, Ingrid was warned in advance by the Colombian government, the military and police forces not to enter the southern, demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Caqueta in order to pursue her campaign. She was repeatedly advised not to campaign in the DMZ, but nonetheless their warnings went unheeded. Lack of cooperation from the government and military to fly Ingrid into the DMZ at her request brought the candidate to decide that ground travel into the department was her only option, despite the known risks. After the last security stop before entering Caqueta, she was kidnapped by the FARC. Somehow, it would become the government’s responsibility to liberate the stubborn politician who apparently knew better than her advisors.
Like a child who gets burned playing with fire despite parental warnings, Ingrid’s decision as a severe critic of the FARC to enter the DMZ resulted in a difficult lesson to learn over the course of the next 76 months. She, however, would not be subject to biding her time alone without media coverage as so many captives are forced to endure. Contrary to the majority of hostages being held by the FARC, Ingrid’s victim role took on a new level of media coverage that surpassed any other hostage and resulted in her eventual liberation.
While there are demands from France, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and on around the world that all remaining hostages be set free, the media have seemingly traded in their Colombian jungle captive for the French cosmopolitan, debutante variety. For now, the public will be receiving their news reports on Ingrid from France, and a new star will eventually be born in Colombia for the media cartels.