America’s newest prison inmates Guaviare (4) – economic and social assistance
May 192008

After four days with us here in Washington, recently freed FARC hostage Luis Eladio Pérez, his wife and daughter left town on Saturday morning. They still seemed pretty energetic, even after two public forums, a press conference, several meetings in Congress, visits to the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon, media interviews, and visits to think-tanks and NGOs. On Friday, an unexpected but welcome addition to our group was Íngrid Betancourt’s daughter, Melanie Delloye.

The visit took place during what turned out to be a peculiar week, with the extraditions of top paramilitary leaders and the Interpol certifications of the documents recovered from Raúl Reyes’s computer. This meant that Senator Pérez was in a Washington that was unusually attuned to what has been happening in Colombia, though quite distracted from the plight of the FARC’s hostages.

If I had to list the three most important things I learned while accompanying Senator Pérez last week, they would be as follows.

1. The hostages are avid radio listeners, quite informed about what is happening in Colombia and the world. Their guerrilla captors are unspeakably cruel, chaining the hostages by their necks, shooting at their feet to silence them or force them to walk faster, and denying medical care beyond provision of a single aspirin. They at least allow each to have a transistor radio to listen to the outside world, and provide fresh batteries every few weeks.

This allows the hostages to listen to Colombian radio programs that broadcast recorded messages from their relatives. Senator Pérez called these programs “a lifeline,” at times their only reason for staying alive. (While it is impossible for a chained hostage to commit suicide, Pérez said, he or she always has the option of dying quickly at the guerrillas’ hands merely by attempting escape.) One of the worst punishments Sen. Pérez recalls was having his radio taken away for three months.

So many hours of radio listening have made the hostages very cognizant of events in the outside world. They have been following the U.S. primary elections, the para-politics scandal, and the war in Iraq. Though I am only a very occasional guest on Colombian radio, Senator Pérez said he even remembered hearing me once, and wondering if I was related to Carolina Isackson, the wife of former President Virgilio Barco.

2. The three American hostages feel abandoned. Senator P̩rez was held on two occasions Рlate 2003-late 2004, and late 2006 until his February 2008 release Рwith Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, three U.S. citizen employees of a Defense Department contractor who have been FARC hostages since their plane went down in guerrilla territory in February 2003. He spent most of the last year of his captivity attached to Howes by a three-meter-long chain.

According to Sen. Pérez’s account, the three Americans’ morale is low. They still suffer from untreated injuries resulting from their plane crash more than five years ago. They have battled jungle diseases like hepatitis, malaria and leishmaniasis.

Worse, they are convinced that their country has forgotten them, or somehow wishes to sweep them under the rug. Some of this owes to a sensible U.S. strategy to keep their profile low, in order to avoid encouraging the FARC to demand an even higher price for their release. But this strategy has gone so far as to exclude even any official greetings to fellow citizens who, it turns out, are closely following radio reports from their jungle captivity.

According to Pérez, the three Americans noted with despair that during their recent visits to Colombia, neither President Bush (March 2007) nor Condoleezza Rice (January 2008) included in their remarks any message of support or solidarity – “not even a greeting.” They are sadly correct: neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reporters’ questions.

3. A military rescue attempt would be disastrous, but it may be attempted anyway. One of Sen. Pérez’s main pleas was that the U.S. and Colombian governments not attempt to rescue the hostages militarily. The difficult terrain and the guerrillas’ rings of security around the hostage encampments, he explained, make the element of surprise almost impossible to achieve. Meanwhile, as has been tragically demonstrated before, the FARC have strict orders to kill their hostages at the first sign that a rescue attempt is underway.

Nonetheless, Sen. P̩rez came away from some official meetings with a strong feeling Рunconfirmed but persistent Рthat a rescue attempt may be in the offing.

U.S. officials repeated to him the official line that a rescue attempt, though unlikely, is not an option that they are willing to remove from the table. However, there are indications that the U.S. and Colombian governments now have a better idea of where the hostages are being held. This is leading the Colombian military to attempt “humanitarian sieges,” among other military operations, in areas where hostages may be held.

All of the hostages, Sen. Pérez says, hoped that a military rescue attempt would come, “Because that was the culture of death that we lived in. We all thought that even certain death was better than what we were going through.” Now that he is free, however, Pérez is forcefully warning against a rescue attempt, which he is convinced will kill all of the hostages.

Instead, he advocates a creative approach to negotiations involving several other countries both as facilitators and as sources of political pressure. He is confident that, in the very least, such an approach – which he believes led to his release – can win freedom for the guerrillas’ four civilian, non-U.S. “exchangeable” hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, in the very short term. I hope he is right.

5 Responses to “Luis Eladio Pérez’s visit”

  1. rainer cale Says:

    Adam, hate to get OT, especially with such an important topic, but just to clarify re: your comment No. 40 on the previous post, to wit:

    “Beg pardon? Due to the Pérez visit taking up nearly every waking moment, this blog post was the only statement I was able to make about the extraditions last week. My position didn’t evolve at all, I only had time to express it once, and rather hastily at that.”

    Then where did El Tiempo get this?-

    “…(E)l analista Adam Isacson (afirma) que esta (la extradición) podría ser el fin del escándolo conocido como la ‘parapolítica’. ‘Si Uribe o su entorno estaban preocupados estaban preocupados por lo que dijeran los ex ‘paras’, esta sería una forma de callarlos’, agregó Isacson.”
    (”Nuevo cruce de críticas de Uribe con Vivanco” Page 1-6 El Tiempo, Weds. 14 May)

    If El Tiempo did not fabricate your remarks, then your position did evolve, because what appeared in your blog was almost the opposite:

    “Now that they have little to lose…the paramilitary leadership may be more willing than before to talk about who helped them over the years, what their financial and logistical networks looked like, and perhaps what happened to their victims….”

    If El Tiempo fabricated your remarks, or if there has been some other misunderstanding, sorry.

    As for today’s topic-

    “Their guerrilla captors are unspeakably cruel, chaining the hostages by their necks, shooting at their feet to silence them or force them to walk faster, and denying medical care beyond provision of a single aspirin.”

    By and large this coincides with the general body of hostage testimony that is on record. However, once in a blue moon you hear about hostages who were treated well, no chains or razor wire, befriended by their guerrilla captors, treated to barbecues, etc. allowed to sleep with their spouses if the spouses were also taken–I wonder why? If I’m going to be kidnapped, how do I make reservations with those guys and not the ones who shoot at my feet?

    I can’t generalize, but according to one hostage testimony in particular, the conditions in a hostage prison camp depend a lot upon whether or not hostages have tried to flee, or whether or not the guerrillas consider them a flight risk, as they would in the case of Perez or any other high profile hostage.

    I feel quite worried for the hostages in that camp in Putumayo, for example, where that police guy (name escapes me at the moment) managed to escape last year and then wrote a book about it, explaining how he had cut through his handcuffs over the course of several months etc. By going on TV and writing that book, this guy consciously worsened the condition of his fellow hostages by a factor of ten, probably also incited reprisal FARC attacks against surrounding indigenous communities (because he told how he was helped by an indigenous woman during his flight) and ensured that the technique by which he escaped can never be used again. What an asshole. There should be some protocol in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

    Re: the aspirin-I’ve heard that medical provisions are not distributed to hostages because the army controls the entrance of medical supplies into a guerrilla controled zone. I’ll bet most of Perez’s guerrilla captors themselves were suffering from hepatitis, malaria, and so forth.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    I stand by that quote, which I never saw, thanks for alerting me. That is an excerpt from a 15-minute conversation in which, of course, we discussed the possibility that the paramilitaries might be even more willing to talk now that they have nothing to lose.

    Admittedly, my analysis was still primitive at that point, since the conversation with the El Tiempo reporter took place at 8:45 Tuesday morning, just after he told me that the paramilitary leaders’ planes were in the air. The U.S. and Colombian governments had not yet issued any statements.

    But yes – for now, the para-politics process has indeed ground to a screeching halt, and it is fair to wonder whether it will now be able to go beyond the few dozen regional politicians who have been caught up in the investigations so far. It will only recover if the paramilitaries’ access to those investigating non-drug crimes is truly guaranteed. Over the past six days, the U.S. and Colombian governments have been saying the right things about such access. They must be held to these statements.

    On the other point, Senator Perez did not mention any hostages getting treatment that could be considered much kinder. However, he did mention that the guerrilla captors deliberately sought to divide the military and police prisoners – whom they considered to be class allies from “el pueblo” – from the “bourgeois” civilian politician hostages. There appears to be a marginal difference in how the two groups were/are treated.

  3. Camilla Says:

    If anyone had treated me the way the Marxist FARC terrorists had treated Sen. Perez, the last thing in the world I’d want would be concessions to these war criminals or to hand them a piece of my democracy’s legitimate political power. How do you then negotiate with a group like that. Negotiations always involve tradeoffs and to give these Marxist dirtbags anything other than a free planted bullet is immoral.

    The Senator is pretty insistent that the Colombian army (the successful one that gave Raul Reyes what he deserved) not attempt a rescue. Yet at the same time, he says that the hostages themselves pray for one – which is the same thing that John McCain, once a tortured prisoner subject to Marxist war crimes in Vietnam, said he wanted too. McCain said that when he was being held hostage, he was thrilled when the US started bombing Hanoi because it raised the prospects of rescue.

    Why would the Senator not want what the hostages themselves want? I get the feeling he hasn’t sorted everything out in his mind and may still have lingering Stockholm syndrome. Did anyone ask the Senator why he was carefully selected for release and some 800 other hostages, high-value and low-value, were not? Could it be because he’s urging the same ‘let-FARC-off-scot-free’ approach that FARC itself would be happy to see, now that it is on its last legs.

    And did anyone ask the good Senator if he’d be the first to complain if the Colombian army did execute a successful rescue mission, blowing the terrorists to hell, instead of the Marxist appeasement they would like? Would the Senator really complain about that?

  4. Various and sundry « radiocaptivity Says:

    [...] Center for International Policy’s Colombia blog features this entry about discussions with former FARC hostage Luis Eladio Perez, and his revealing thoughts about how [...]

  5. Plan Colombia and Beyond » McCain in Colombia: don't embody "Bush's third term" in Latin America Says:

    [...] in Colombia’s jungles, since February 2003. According to recently freed Colombian hostage Luis Eladio Pérez, who spent more than a year chained with them in 2006-2008, the three men feel abandoned and [...]

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