BOGOTA, Colombia – Ingrid Betancourt was a brash, in-your-face presidential candidate whose style angered both leftist rebels and Colombia’s entrenched political class before she was kidnapped more than six years ago.
A cause celebre in Europe and the rebels’ most-prized hostage, Betancourt was freed Wednesday with fourteen other hostages.
Before her abduction on Feb. 23, 2002, Betancourt blasted the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for trafficking drugs and kidnapping innocents in the name of socialism and equality. But she was equally hard on corrupt Colombian lawmakers.
An earthy and informal politician who usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, Betancourt had a penchant for offbeat publicity, like handing out Viagra pills to give the political class “a lift” and condoms to suggest that voting for her would protect against corruption.
Betancourt insisted on campaigning in southern Colombia even when others said it was too dangerous. Rebels stopped her on a road and marched her off at gunpoint into the jungle, where she was held captive in a series of camps, at times chained to a tree by her neck to keep her from trying to escape.
Winning her freedom became a European obsession, particularly in France, where she is also a citizen. French President Nicolas Sarkozy vigorously sought her release, and her family campaigned to keep her plight in the public eye.
Before her kidnapping, death threats prompted Betancourt to ship her children, Melanie and Lorenzo, off to New Zealand to live with their father.
“I’ll go all the way for the Colombian people, whom our political class has despised and robbed generation after generation,” she wrote in her 2001 memoirs. “I won’t give up, whatever price has to be paid.”
She paid a very high price, as it turned out. In her jungle prison camp, Betancourt found out that her father had died. Her children grew up without her.
Proof-of-life videos, letters and reports from released hostages described a once-vibrant, confident woman slowly succumbing to hepatitis B, tropical skin diseases and depression.
Betancourt was born to a politically connected family, and her childhood was one of privilege.
She gained national prominence in the 1990s when she took a leading role in efforts to prove former Colombian President Ernesto Samper received campaign contributions from drug traffickers. She won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1994 and won her 1998 senate campaign with the most votes of any senator in the nation.