A French-led humanitarian mission to save Colombia's highest-level hostage began Thursday amid persistent rumors that she is near death.
Information emerging from a number of villages on the edge of the jungles of Guaviare Province prompted the French government to send an air ambulance with a medical mission to Colombia to aid Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician held for more than six years by leftist rebels.
President Álvaro Uribe said he would suspend military operations against the guerrillas to facilitate the mission, but it was unclear whether the rebels had agreed to allow the medical mission to treat her.
While the mission awaited coordinates to go after Ms. Betancourt, organizers put the finishing touches on plans for nationwide demonstrations Friday demanding the release all hostages. Betancourt has become the international icon for the nearly 40 high-level hostages being held by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as political leverage to press the Colombian government for concessions.
But while campaigns demanding her freedom have highlighted the plight of the hostages, it has also made Betancourt more valuable to her captors. "If the FARC let her die, it will be devastating for them, politically," says León Valencia, a political analyst and former rebel of the smaller National Liberation Army. "But it'll also be hard for them to let her go without anything in exchange."
Mr. Valencia suspects the French will be coming with more to offer than medicine. "They are going to come with some sort of attractive offer for the FARC – which could include granting them political status – so they [the French] can take her," he says.
In a televised appeal to the most senior FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda, French President Nicolas Sarkozy challenged the FARC to release Betancourt at once. "Don't miss this opportunity, or you'll be committing a grave political mistake," he said. "You would be responsible for the death of this woman."
Rumors swirl in the jungle
Rumors of Betancourt's precarious state began circulating in February in the tiny village of El Capricho deep in the southeastern province of Guaviare, where cattle ranches and coca farms have been carved from the thick jungle.
Villagers told Manuel Mancera, a parish priest in the nearby town of La Libertad, that in late February – around the same time the FARC was releasing four other hostages – Betancourt was taken to El Capricho's bare-bones health clinic for treatment.
Today, a handwritten sign on the gate reads "No doctor." The resident physician left town when the rumors that he treated Betancourt began to spread. The nurse went on leave after being grilled by Army, police, and prosecutors. They both denied ever treating Betancourt.
Álvaro, the ambulance driver for the government health service is emphatic: "Ingrid Betancourt was never here." He, too, was questioned by prosecutors and says he was offered asylum in another country and cash. "If I had known something, I would have taken the money and started a new life," he says.
But, Álvaro admits, "Where there's smoke there's fire. The truth will all come out once she's released ... if she's released."
Silence is golden
Father Mancera says that the guerrilla presence in the region is so strong that, despite the government offers of cash, most residents of the villages are afraid to speak out. "They know that if they say something, they are digging their own grave," he says.
But sitting outside his tiny church in La Libertad, sipping coffee between Sunday masses, Mancera, who has worked in the area for more than 20 years, says he's overcome his fear. The priest says he spoke to one person who claims to have been with Betancourt as recently as March 23. "He said she was very weak and in the last stages of depression. When she opens her mouth to speak, she breaks down in tears," the priest says.
The rumors, to which the government gave credibility, led Mr. Uribe to issue a decree offering the immediate release of rebel prisoners if the FARC hands over Betancourt, and said there was a $100 million fund available for rebels who turned themselves in along with hostages.
But while schisms within the FARC have been growing, the leadership is likely to hold out for more that the government's offering in exchange for the most high-profile of their hostages, Valencia says. "Once they give her up, their leverage is gone, and you can pretty much forget about the other hostages, because international pressure will die down," he says.
The FARC reportedly has more than 700 hostages, most for ransom. Some 40 higher-level hostages, including Betancourt, are being held to try to press the government to agree to swap them for jailed rebels.
The rebels unilaterally released six politicians in two separate operations earlier this year, handing them over to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The other swappable hostages include three American defense contractors captured when their plane went down over rebel territory in 2003, three other Colombian politicians, and dozens of police and Army officers.