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Criminals and Extremists Boost Colombia Kidnapping Rate

More than 3,000 people are kidnapped in Colombia every year giving the country the dubious distinction of leading the world in kidnappings. Most of the victims are seized by the country's two main leftist guerrilla groups, but rightist paramilitaries and common criminal gangs are responsible as well.

"You never think it is going to happen to you," says Mayibe Ardila, "even though we live with this problem all the time. And when it happens, it is a huge blow."

Mrs. Ardila's husband, Armando, was kidnapped two years ago by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Despite paying a ransom of several thousand dollars, he was not released and Mrs. Ardila has not heard whether he is dead or alive. Not knowing his fate has been agonizing.

The truth is, she says, as her eyes fill with tears, is that loneliness, sadness, and anguish are my constant companions. From the time you open your eyes, she says, until you close them you are living with this.

Mrs. Ardila is among thousands of Colombians whose family members have been kidnapped. During the past five years, more than 13,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia. Last year, 3,700 people were seized and held captive by Colombia's armed groups and criminal gangs. Through August of this year, close to 2,000 people were kidnapped.

These statistics are compiled by "Pais Libre" a non-governmental group in Bogota that monitors kidnapping and helps victims and their families.

David Buitrago, who heads the organization's legal department, says Colombia holds the world's record for kidnappings.

In other countries, he says, there may be 200 or 300 kidnappings a year here it is more than 3,500. So the social and economic impact, he says, is much greater in Colombia because it is so widespread.

According to Pais Libre's figures, about 80 percent of the kidnappings are carried out by the FARC, and a smaller leftist guerrilla group the National Liberation Army. Rightwing paramilitary units seize another nine percent, and common criminals are responsible for the remaining 11 percent.

University professor Arlene Tickner says these criminal gangs often sell their victims to the insurgent groups. "It does not involve just armed insurgent actors, but in fact has led to increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations dedicated to kidnapping, in the cities in particular, and then which sell their victims to both the FARC and the ELN, and the paramilitaries," she said.

This mix of different armed groups engaged in kidnapping makes life and travel in Colombia extremely hazardous. The FARC has specialized in mass roadside kidnappings known as the "pesca milagrosa", or miracle fishing. Guerrillas set up a roadblock and seize whoever comes along in hopes of catching a big "fish".

But on October 5, the FARC agreed to stop the practice of miracle fishing, as part of a nine point accord aimed at reviving peace talks with the government. But absent in the accord was a promise by the FARC to stop selective kidnapping.

Political scientist Arlene Tickner, who teaches at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, says it was a telling omission. "Although the FARC has also agreed not to continue with the 'pesca milagrosa', it also has stated explicitly that the Law 002, which is a FARC tax imposed on those having a certain amount of money, more than a $1 million, and kidnappings in a selective manner are not going to stop because this is one of their primary sources of financing," she said.

Pais Libre legal specialist Buitrago agrees that little will change because of the FARC decision to stop "miracle fishing." He says the FARC decided to stop the roadside kidnappings because the practice proved to be both unproductive and dangerous for the guerrillas.

Last year, he says, there were mass kidnappings, and everyone was in danger of being seized. But what the guerrillas found, he said, was that it was very unpopular, very little money was made, and it was too burdensome logistically too many fighters had to be used as guards. Mr. Buitrago went on to say that by holding so many people captive the guerrillas ran the risk of being pursued and captured by the army.

As a result, Mr. Buitrago says the FARC has returned to the practice of selecting its kidnap victims focusing on businessmen, foreigners, and others whose ransoms will be more lucrative. This means that for now, there is no end in sight in the kidnapping trade in Colombia.

No one deserves to be kidnapped, says Alexander Olivos, a government bodyguard who spent nine months in captivity. No one deserves it, neither the poor, the rich, the soldiers, the police - no one, because it is one of the hardest things for a human being to experience.

Mr. Olivos was captured by guerrillas of the leftist National Liberation Army in northern Colombia last year, when his bus was stopped at a rebel roadblock. He was held for nine months before being freed last December in a prisoner exchange between the government and the ELN.

He was one of 3,706 people kidnapped last year in Colombia, a country where armed groups like the ELN, the leftist FARC and rightist paramilitaries have turned kidnapping into an industry. Kidnapping provides more than $350 million a year to these groups, money they use to finance their fight against the Colombian government.

Mr. Olivos, who is 37 years old, says he was held with 39 other people, mostly captured soldiers, in a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire. Life in the camp was grueling.

It's hard, he says, to live with 39 people. You fight to survive, you fight for food, you fight to keep your faith, you fight for everything. It's the law of the jungle, where the strong try to impose their will.

One of the things that kept his faith alive was the sound of his wife's voice over the radio. Several of Colombia's main radio stations have weekly programs in which relatives of kidnap victims send out messages of hope to their loved ones in captivity. In this broadcast, a woman tells her captive husband about the First Communion celebration of a relative, giving details and anecdotes about the party.

Radiodifusora Nacional began with a weekly 15 minute program in 1998. Now, its show, called In Search of Lost Freedom is broadcast twice a week and fills 3.5 hours of airtime.

Often, guerrilla captors give their kidnap victims radios, which they use to tune in to these programs on the chance of hearing their loved ones.

Giselle, a young woman who was kidnapped by the FARC and held for 10 months until freed recently, says time would pass more quickly as she waited for the programs to air each week.

You're anxious, she says, for the day to come when the program airs - and then after it does, there's a kind of letdown. But still, she says, there's the emotion of waiting to hear what they will say to us.

For the relatives, the radio programs are a way to feel they are doing something to help. Alfredo Cifuentes, whose elderly in-laws have been held captive for the past 17 months, expresses frustration over the constant uncertainty that occurs when a family member is kidnapped.

The kidnapping not only affects the person who has been seized, he says, but the whole family. You cannot even go out of the house, he says, because you might miss a phone call with news about the grandparents, or a message about the negotiations for their release. So you too live as if you were indirectly kidnapped.

In Mr. Cifuentes' case, he has had little news about his father and mother-in-law since they were kidnapped in April 2000. He does not even know if the couple, who are both 69, are dead or alive.

This is a common dilemma experienced by thousands of Colombians, whose relatives have been seized and held by the country's warring armed groups. Through August of this year, there have been almost 2,000 kidnappings - a pace that may not surpass last year's record high of 3,700, but is likely to come close.

Faltering peace talks between the government and the country's largest leftist rebel group, the FARC, show no sign of producing concrete results. In early October, the FARC promised to stop its mass roadside kidnappings, but did not include a halt in its practice of selective kidnapping. So with no end in sight, there is little the kidnap victims or their family members can do, but to wait and hope for the best.