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Colombians Take Up Cause of High Profile Kidnap Victim - 2002-05-28

One of the most painful aspects of Colombia's 38-year civil conflict is the practice of kidnapping, an action frequently carried out by the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. As a result of the abductions carried out by FARC and other groups as well as common criminals, Colombia is the world's number one country for kidnapping. One case in particular has gained international attention.

In the hours before last Sunday's election here in Colombia, presidential candidates were given time on television to present last-minute recordings of interviews, speeches and advertisements. One of the candidates featured was a young woman with long dark hair sitting at a table with representatives of the FARC guerrillas.

She told them that their continuing war has made it impossible for the country to change for the better. She asked them to stop attacking civilian targets and to stop kidnapping people.

The name of the woman featured in that recording is Ingrid Betancourt and only a few weeks after that meeting with the rebels, she herself was kidnapped by them. The 40-year-old candidate of the Oxygen-Green Party has not been heard from since the day she was abducted, February 23, but her name remained on the ballot. Her family and friends carried on her campaign and at least 50,000 Colombians voted for her.

Many people here in Colombia and in other nations have taken up the cause of Ingrid Betancourt and she has become a sad symbol of the suffering of this nation.

Victoria Bruce, a documentary film producer from Annapolis, Maryland, is currently in Colombia making a film about Ms. Betancourt. She says the original idea, when she met the candidate more than four months ago in the United States, was to make a film about Ingrid Betancourt's election campaign and her articulate call for peace and justice in her country.

"When I met Ingrid I saw that there was a way to put a face on the story of Colombia and all the problems that are here, but with a really kind of positive spin," she said. "We hear so much negativity about Colombia and here was this woman who was fighting. She had death threats against her and yet nothing was stopping her. I wanted to follow her on her campaign trail and that is what she and I talked about when she was in Washington, D.C. this January."

Since the kidnapping, Victoria Bruce and her co-producer, Karin Hayes, have been working on a different kind of documentary, one that focuses on the struggle to achieve Ingrid Betancourt's release.

Ms. Bruce says the Betancourt family sustained a hope that the FARC might release Ingrid before the election on Sunday. When that did not happen, it left them fearful that the rebels might never release her. The FARC has murdered a number of high-profile kidnap victims, including women, in recent years. The rebel leaders seem to have no concern about the reaction these atrocities have produced in Colombia and on the international scene.

Still, Victoria Bruce says she, the Betancourt family and others who care about Ingrid remain hopeful that the FARC leadership will not harm her.

"Ingrid is definitely their highest profile kidnap victim and killing her they know would be a big mistake, at least according to the journalists down here I have talked to and the family and people who have dealt with the situation before," she said.

But every day without word from Ingrid Betancourt or her captors deepens the pain felt by her family and friends. Victoria Bruce says election day was the hardest day of all.

"It was a very sad day for everyone who had worked on that campaign including her mother who has been politically active for years but this is the first time she has really been in the public eye, and her husband who went from being an advertising executive selling beer to selling his wife as a candidate and then trying to get her released," she said. "It is very sad for everyone."

President-elect Alvaro Uribe says he is very interested in the Betancourt case, but that she is just one of the hundreds of Colombians who remain in rebel hands. He says he has close friends who have also been kidnapped. Mr. Uribe's own father was killed in a botched kidnapping in 1983. He says he would like to involve the United Nations or other international organizations in an effort to mediate the conflict in Colombia and that the release of kidnap victims would be a top goal of that effort.