In Colombia, freedom nears after 14-year captivity

BOGOTA, Colombia-- Sgt. Luis Alfonso Beltran has endured 14 years of jungle prisons as a captive of leftist rebels while three of his aunts and uncles died and eight new nieces and nephews have been born.

Now, finally, he is expected to be freed.

Beltran, 43, and fellow Sgt. Luis Arturo Arcia are the longest-held captives of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, taken in a March 3, 1998, rebel ambush that killed more than 60 soldiers.

The FARC announced last weekend that it will shortly release all remaining "prisoners of war" and halt all ransom kidnappings, which along with the cocaine trade have funded its nearly five-decade-old insurgency.

No one could be happier than Beltran's 70-year-old mother, Virginia Franco, who keeps vigils in a small, concrete home with light green walls in a poor barrio in Bogota's south that she shares with another son and his family of four.

"There hasn't been a single party in my house in 14 years, because all the happiness died," said Franco. "All that keeps me alive is the hope that my son returns, and my grandchildren."

This past week there was more heartache. Beltran's favorite aunt died.

In contrast to such celebrated FARC hostages as former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was freed along with three U.S. military contractors in 2008 and went on to write a highly praised memoir, few Colombians know the faces of the plebeian Beltran and Arcia.

The last proof of life for both men, who were bachelors at the time of their capture, came in September 2009 in video obtained from a captured FARC courier.

Cristina Arcia says her brother, who is now 41, barely speaks in the video and looks "mistreated, aged, ruined because they didn't let him enjoy his youth and have a dignified life."

Her brother and Beltran were among more than 40 soldiers captured by the FARC in a malarial southern jungle outpost called El Billar. Their unit was surprised and overrun when it ran out of ammunition.

It was a terrible time for Colombia. The president, Ernesto Samper, had been stripped of his U.S. visa after being elected with contributions from Cali cartel drug lords. The economy was in recession.

"The security forces were demoralized," said Camilo Gomez, who was peace commissioner during the 1998-2002 government of Andres Pastrana and held failed peace talks with the FARC.

It took the military more than 24 hours to get reinforcements to a counterinsurgency battalion pinned down under high-canopy forest in El Billar, something that today could be done in a matter of minutes.

The FARC was at its military apex, capable of amassing a superior force that could and did overrun remote garrisons. Those defeats are painful embarrassments for the military: Mitu, Las Delicias, Patascoy, Miraflores.

Retired armed forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla, who oversaw Betancourt's rescue and dozens of other victories, remembers the feeling of "desolation and impotence" from El Billar.

As he and others built up and professionalized Colombia's military in the aftermath with the help of sophisticated U.S. technology, Green Beret trainers and near-real-time intelligence-sharing provided under Plan Colombia, FARC commanders fell and the rebels experienced record desertions.

The insurgents gradually released all but a few of the soldiers and police they had captured in their late 1990s heyday, as well as politicians they kidnapped to hold as bargaining chips.

A rebel army that once controlled about half of Colombia, plucking the weel-heeled from SUVs on rural highways and marching them into the hills to be exchanged for ransom, is now diminished.

Even before the military tracked down and killed the FARC's commander, Alfonso Cano, in November, it began seeking peace negotiations with President Juan Manuel Santos' government.
Santos has demanded, at minimum, that the rebels put a halt to kidnapping as a condition for talks.

On Feb. 26, the FARC said it would end all ransom kidnapping and shortly release the 10 police and soldiers it still holds. Beltran and Acia are presumed be in that group.

Although the FARC hasn't specified a release date, former Sen. Piedad Cordoba says she expects it will be in late March. She has served as a go-between in the FARC's liberation of 20 captives and hostages between 2008-2011.

Beltran and Arcia's families are making preparations. Relatives of other former captives have helped them prepare.

One must know, for example, to have a very firm mattress ready for men accustomed to sleeping on hardwood and soil.

Beltran's mother, meanwhile, will have his favorite dish ready for him: Sweetened rice with milk.

And she will hope they can all help each other heal.

"The scars of kidnapping mark the body and the soul," she said. "All of this makes us old."