Kidnapping has become a thriving industry in Colombia Abductions have quintupled since 1987. 1,400 people held for ransom in 1991.

May 13, 1992|By Mary Speck | Mary Speck,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The last time Ana saw her husband, he was being forced into the back of a car at gunpoint by seven masked men. "You will hear from us," one of the kidnappers shouted as they drove down a deserted country road.

On that day last November, Ana's husband became one of the more than 1,400 people kidnapped in Colombia during 1991. In the first four months of this year, police have registered 400 more kidnappings, an average of more than three a day.

Since then, Ana has mortgaged her small farm and her home to pay for her husband's release. She has memorized secret codes, negotiated with strangers in three towns and twice left packets of cash with masked men who appeared at meeting places on the roads that wind through Colombia's western mountains.

But her husband has not been freed. Three months have passed since she last heard his voice, on a cassette tape, begging her to secure his release.

In a country long plagued by political and criminal violence, kidnapping reports have more than quintupled in the past five years. In 1987, police recorded 250 abductions. The next year, it was 683. Two years later, the number had nearly doubled again, to 1,200.

"We never imagined this could happen to us," said Ana, who asked that her full name not be used. "It makes no sense. They must know we aren't rich."

But in Colombia, kidnapping is no longer just the fear of the multimillionaire businessman, the rich landowner or the controversial public figure. It has become an illegal industry, second only to smuggling as a source of financing for an underground ranging from common criminals to leftist guerrillas.

Like good entrepreneurs, Colombia's professional kidnappers -- whether rebels or ex-rebels, common criminals or drug traffickers -- have diversified their sources of supply.

"No one can really feel safe; no one is exempt," said Magdalena Pabon de Trujilla, one of the founders of the Fundacion Pais Libre (Free Country Foundation), an organization created to push for tougher penalties for kidnapping. "Kidnapping in Colombia is big business. There's no political or ideological justification for it. It's just a way to make money."

Ms. Pabon's father, a prominent lawyer, was taken away by armed men who burst into his home in a quiet neighborhood of Ibague, the capital of the Department of Tolima in central Colombia, on a November evening in 1989. Alfredo Pabon, who has been blind for 15 years, turned 90 last year in captivity.

Many of those kidnapped, like Ana's husband, are ranchers or merchants, snatched by armed men as they travel along country roads. Officials say guerrilla groups are getting bolder and moving into more developed areas previously untouched by rebel activity. But about half of all kidnappings occur in urban areas.

About 40 percent of those kidnapped in 1991 were released after paying ransom; about 10 percent turned up dead, according to police figures. Police managed to rescue 13 percent, and about 2 percent escaped on their own. The remaining 35 percent are listed as still in captivity.

Police say a little less than half of the kidnappings are committed by some of the 8,000 or so guerrilla rebels still active in Colombia. Ana said her husband's captors identified themselves as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known in Spanish as FARC, a communist rebel group that has fought in the Colombian countryside since the 1940s. The other major rebel group involved in abductions is the National Liberation Army, the ELN, which emerged in the 1960s, inspired by the Cuban revolution.

The ELN has been especially active in the remote areas where national and multinational companies are drilling for oil. In addition to blowing up pipelines, the ELN has amassed a substantial war chest through the extortion and kidnapping of oil company employees.

Colombian officials attribute the revival of rebel activity since the mid-1980s in part to their share in the country's oil boom. "We know that huge payments have been made by some oil companies," said Fernando Brito, head of the DAS, the Colombian equivalent of the FBI. "Some even make their payments abroad through foreign bank accounts."

Rebel leaders deny that they kidnap for ransom, admitting only to the capture of a few politicians and police officers. Government officials tried to get the release of kidnap victims at the top of the agenda in peace talks held with guerrilla leaders in Mexico. The rebels abruptly suspended the negotiations last week.

"They have no incentive to negotiate," said a senior government official. "They are well-funded and well-armed. And although the army is becoming more effective, the guerrilleros have not yet been very hard hit."

Police say kidnapping has become a sophisticated enterprise, with increasing cooperation between guerrilla bands and common criminals.

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