BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage for six years by Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, said on Tuesday she would run for president of her country.
The announcement comes nearly two decades after Betancourt was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while also campaigning for the position of country leader for the Green Oxygen Party, a movement she founded while she was a member of Congress.
“Today I am here to finish what I started with many of you in 2002,” Betancourt said in a conference room where she announced her candidacy. “I am here to claim the rights of 51 million Colombians who do not find justice because we live in a system designed to reward criminals.”
Betancourt’s bid for president begins months after other candidates have already traveled across the country campaigning for the job, including Gustavo Petro, a left-leaning former mayor of Bogota who is currently leading in polls and who tapped into widespread frustration with corruption and economic inequality. that exploded during the pandemic.
Betancourt’s story is well known in Colombia. She spent six years in guerrilla camps deep in the Amazon jungle, where sometimes rebel fighters tied her to a tree with metal chains to prevent her from escaping. Her proof-of-life videos, in which she asked authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to her own abduction and then pleaded with the government to resume peace talks with FARC rebels, have been widely shared in Colombia and abroad.
The politician has become a symbol of international campaigns for peace talks in Colombia and the release of FARC hostages. But his time in captivity ended in 2008 with a military operation, where Colombian soldiers disguised as aid workers snatched Betancourt and several other hostages from the FARC without firing a single bullet.
Betancourt retired from public life after being released and spent much of her time with her family in France.
“My story is the story of all Colombians,” said Betancourt, 60. “While I and my colleagues were chained by the neck, Colombian families were chained by corruption, violence and injustice.”
“While our captors deprived us of food, mafiosi and politicians continued to steal and waste our resources without caring about the children who are depriving themselves of breakfast here in Colombia.”
Betancourt will run again as a candidate for the Green Oxygen party, which is now part of a coalition of centrist political movements that will hold a primary in March.
In the primary, Betancourt will have to compete against younger candidates who are less known internationally, but who have been more active in Colombian politics in recent years. Among them are Senator Juan Manuel Galan, whose father was assassinated in the late 1980s while running for president, and Alejandro Gaviria, a former health minister who helped implement a ban governmental aerial fumigation of coca crops. Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellin who placed third in the 2018 presidential election, will also face Betancourt in the primary.
Sergio Guzman, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said that with more than a dozen candidates still in the running for the Colombian presidency and only two months left before the primaries, it will be difficult for Betancourt to have an impact.
“She represents reconciliation” and other issues that were important in previous elections, such as the Colombian government’s need to make peace with armed groups, Guzman said. But these are not the main issues that voters are concerned about in this election, according to the polls.
“The main feeling among voters right now is one of frustration with a system that doesn’t provide opportunity,” Guzman said. “And there are other candidates who have done a good job of tapping into that sentiment.”
Yann Basset, a professor of political science at Rosario University in Bogota, said Betancourt’s campaign could boost interest in the center coalition’s primary, where the rest of the candidates are “upper-class white men which did not generate “enthusiasm” among voters.
“It gives the coalition something new to offer,” Basset said.
The polls are currently being led by Gustavo Petro, who backed protests over proposed tax hikes and inequality last year, and said he would stop awarding exploration contracts to oil companies as part of of a plan to reduce Colombia’s dependence on oil revenues.
The second most popular candidate in the polls is Rodolfo Hernandez, a real estate magnate and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, who promised to sweep away corrupt bureaucrats and also said in a meeting with the US ambassador in Colombia that he would like to legalize drugs, as part of an effort to reduce violence in the country.
The FARC, which kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt in 2002 and has long funded its operations with drug money, signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016.
But rebel groups like the National Liberation Army and recalcitrant FARC groups that refused to sign the peace accord continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal mines and other assets in the pockets. rural areas of the country where killings and forced displacement of civilians have increased.
Betancourt said she would fight crime and prove that Colombia can “change course”. She added that each week her supporters would be invited to “have a beer” with her at her campaign headquarters.
“We’ll split the cost,” she said, after being asked who would pay for the tab.