At the height of Colombia's conflict, kidnapping became so common that nearly everyone knew someone – or of someone – who had been abducted. Some people were held for days, others for years. Almost invariably, a ransom was demanded; in most cases it was paid.
In the first-ever comprehensive attempt to quantify the scourge, a new study found that at least 39,058 people were kidnapped between 1970 and 2010. Titled "The Kidnapped Truth," the study found that at least 301 people had been kidnapped more than once, and that one person was abducted five different times. (The study is available here in Spanish)
The figures represent only an approximation of the scope of the problem as "there is no way to know with certainty how many kidnap victims there were," according to the study.
One of the most striking revelations of the report is that only 8 percent of the cases have seen a conviction, leaving the remaining 92 percent in "absolute impunity," says César Caballero, the lead author of the five-year study commissioned by the Center for Historical Memory.
Although kidnappings have been registered since 1970, the problem began escalating in the 1990s and peaked in 2000, when more than 3,500 kidnappings were reported. The number of abductions has leveled off but still remains high at more than 1,000 in 2010, the last year under review in the study.
Of the 9,082 cases where captors were positively identified, a full 37 percent were attributed to the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation's largest rebel group. The second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), was responsible for 30 percent. Rightwing paramilitary groups were blamed in 4 percent of the cases. Criminal networks, with no political affiliation, were responsible for 20 percent.
Both the FARC and the ELN historically have used kidnapping for ransom – as well as extortion, drug trafficking, and involvement in illegal mining – to finance their struggle, which began in the mid 1960s. The FARC, however, publicly denounced the practice of kidnapping for ransom in February 2012, a precondition set by the government to begin the peace talks launched last October.
Journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was kidnapped and raped by paramilitaries in 2000. Eight months into the FARC-government peace talks, she says what victims want most from the FARC is information. "They need to start revealing where the bodies of those who died in captivity are," she says. According to the report, more than 2,287 are known to have died in captivity, but the fate of 10,466 kidnap victims is uncertain.
The latest round of peace talks between the FARC and government, which are taking place in Havana and under strict confidentiality, resumed June 18, amid tensions over how to involve the Colombian public. The current round of talks is due to last until June 25.
The tensions emerged last month after the much-celebrated announcement of a draft agreement on the first of five negotiating points, rural development. Since then, both sides have engaged in a public debate on how any agreement reached at the negotiating table will be taken to the Colombian public for approval. The FARC insist that a constituent assembly should be called to rewrite the constitution, while the government has flatly rejected the possibility, saying a referendum on the points of an eventual agreement would suffice.
A diplomat who has direct knowledge of the talks but who has asked to remain anonymous due to a lack of authorization to speak on the topic says that despite the public friction, negotiations are continuing on track. "But there is still a long way to go," the diplomat says.