Colombia's vice-president on the freeing of the FARC hostages

Harry Forestell interview with Francisco Santos Calderon
Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt embraces her son Lorenzo, right, and daughter Melaine upon their arrival at a military base in Bogota, Thursday, July 3, 2008. Betancourt embraced her children for the first time in six years, saying the thought of them helped her stay alive until a daring rescue plucked her and 14 other hostages from the jungle on Wednesday. ((Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press))

In a daring rescue this week, Colombian military agents posing as members of FARC managed to free former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 other hostages. Betancourt had been in captivity since 2002 when she was kidnapped at a roadside checkpoint. Colombian government officials hope this rescue will prompt the rebel faction to release the rest of their hostages, believed to number around 700.

Around the World host Harry Forestell spoke to Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, known as Pacho Santos, about the military operation, the remaining hostages and surviving captivity himself.

Santos,  a former journalist and editor of El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper, often spoke out against the massacres, kidnapping and violent civil conflict that have plagued Colombia for decades. He was equally critical of right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerillas. He was among several journalists kidnapped by the Medellin drug cartel in 2000, led by Pablo Escobar, and held captive for almost eight months.

Colombia's Vice-President Francisco Santos, left with President Alvaro Uribe, centre, and Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, during a military ceremony in Bogota, Friday, June 1, 2007.

Once released, he founded the organization Fundacion Pais Libre (Free Nation) to assist the victims of kidnapping and their families. He was first elected vice-president in 2002 and re-elected for a second term alongside President  Álvaro Uribe in 2006.

Forestell spoke to Santos by telephone.

Forestell: Mr. Santos, Colombia has managed to free 15 hostages, but there are still more than 700 people held hostage. What about them, are their lives in greater danger now?

Santos: first of all, let me clarify — a lot of those 700 are people the [left-wing rebel group] FARC kidnapped 10-15 years ago, 8 years ago, and nothing has been known about them. Most of them, we think, are already dead, and the FARC [has] cut all contact with the family. So I would say at this precise moment, we still don't have the numbers. No more than 50-100 — and I know that's a big range — hostages are alive.

In that sense, we'll keep working, day in and day out, to get them free, to return them to freedom. But if you compare them to the situation we had six years ago, when we had 3,000 kidnappings a year, you see that things have improved dramatically.

In one of the most difficult circumstances, which was the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, our politicians and the members of the police and armed forces, in what you could only call a magnificent, superb, clean intelligence operation, … were able to free them without firing one shot.

It shows how much the intelligence of the Colombian Armed Forces has improved. It shows that the way we wage this war, if you call it so, is with all the contents of the Geneva Conventions, and it's something that shows the end of FARC. …

It's the beginning of the end, and this is the last episode of a situation that's been dramatically improving for the Colombian people and has been becoming worse and worse for the FARC every day since we started the democratic security policy on Aug. 7, 2002.

You mention there's maybe only 50-100 hostages left alive, but that is still a significant number. This operation, though successful, was really a poke in the eye for the FARC. They're not going to fall for this again, so how do you go about negotiating the release or accomplishing the release of the remaining hostages?

Obviously, we have to stand firm on the principles that we have, which is no demilitarized zone and not freeing anybody who is going to keep doing harm to Colombians. We think that being tough is the only reason that they're here.

I would say it's a lot more than a poke in the eye. I would say this just shows what bad shape they are [in] … and how strong we have become. I think we will design all the mechanisms we can to get them free, either negotiations [under] … the conditions that we've put forward or in rescue attempts similar to these ones or others that will not hinder the persons that are kidnapped, that will allow us to rescue them alive.

You have been a kidnap victim yourself. You were abducted by Pablo Escobar. What would you say if you could talk directly to the remaining hostages?

Hang tough. When you speak to those who have been held captive for 5, 7, 20 years and then been freed, they always get hope. This is just a very clear signal that things are improving and that they can rest assured that we will not rest one day until we get them back home.

How did you feel when you heard about the release of the 15, what did you think?

Let me tell you, every night for the past six years, as a former kidnap victim, my heart has been broken … in the knowledge that they were being mistreated in the jungles. So I felt a huge relief.

I can only thank the Colombian military, the resolve of President Uribe for standing firm and not allowing pressures from all over to make him waiver in his principles, and be very glad for the families, which I know for the first time in many, many years, are able to rest.

But nonetheless, there's still people in there, so we have to keep working day in and day out, to get them out. It's a mixed feeling. It's a big sense of relief, but it also re-affirms our conviction that we have to work 24 hours a day to get even the last of them out.