Murders and Million Dollar Ransom Demands: How War Affected Colombians

  • Colombia holds plebiscite Sunday on peace deal with guerrillas
  • Half a century of violence has touched nearly every Colombian

Colombians vote Sunday on whether to accept a peace deal under which Marxist guerrillas hand over their weapons to the United Nations in return for seats in Congress, agricultural reform and reduced punishment for crimes. Polls indicate they will approve.

FARC rebels in El Diamante, Colombia.

Photographer: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg

Virtually every Colombian has been affected by the conflict with the guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in one way or another. Here are four of their stories.

The Wife

Fabiola Perdomo was on the phone with her husband when he was kidnapped. 

“I was talking to him when he said, ‘Darling, you’ll have to call me back, because the army has just come in,’" she recalled. "’They’re going to evacuate us. There’s a bomb threat.’”

It wasn’t the army. It was FARC guerrillas disguised as soldiers. She never saw her husband again.

The FARC unit had driven into the center of Cali, Colombia’s third city, taking 12 lawmakers from the regional assembly, including Perdomo’s husband, Juan Carlos Narvaez.

He spent five years in the jungle as a hostage. Then, one day, in 2007, the guerrillas guarding him ran into another FARC unit. Mistaking their comrades for the army, the guards thought a rescue attempt was under way and murdered 11 of the 12 lawmakers, including Juan Carlos.

This month, Fabiola traveled to Cuba, where peace talks between the FARC and the government took place, to hear the senior FARC leadership apologize to her and the other victims. She says she’ll vote “yes” on Sunday. Her 17-year old daughter, who last saw her father when she was three, also backs the deal.

“We’re voting ’yes’, because we’ve already lived through ‘no’ and we know what it’s like,” Perdomo said. “‘No’ is pain, it’s sadness, it’s loss, it’s war, it’s death. ‘Yes’ for us is hope.”

The Hostage

Nohora Tovar, who worked for a small nonprofit group, was driving between Bogota and her home in Villavicencio, the biggest city in the cattle-ranching plains east of the Andes, when an SUV blocked her way. Four armed men got out and demanded her car. Later, after forcing Tovar and her companions to start walking into the mountains, the men identified themselves as FARC members.

Tovar had been the victim of so-called “miracle fishing” whereby the guerrillas would detain people and then try to work out who they were and whether they would fetch a ransom. In 2000, when Tovar was kidnapped, the practice had become so widespread on Colombian highways that if drivers went for a couple of miles without seeing traffic coming in the other direction, they would often conclude that there was a FARC roadblock ahead, and turn around.

To evade the army, the FARC would force Tovar and her group of nearly 20 hostages to march at night through the eastern range of the Andes. The cold was severe, and a slip could have meant plunging into a ravine to her death.

On one occasion, when her legs gave out and she was unable to walk any further, the FARC left her tied up on her own in the dark for the night, which she describes as the worst day of her life.

The FARC demanded a ransom of $1.3 million, and her husband, whose only capital was a truck, two cars and the family home, met with the commander several times to negotiate. The guerrillas let her go after nearly four months. She declined to say how much her husband paid.

“No one got out without paying,” she said. “For me it seemed like a century, but it was nothing compared to the poor soldiers and police who spent 12 or 13 years there.”

Tovar, now a senator for former President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center Party, is campaigning for a “no” vote in the plebiscite. She strongly objects to the idea of former FARC commanders taking seats in Congress.

“It’s regrettable that the government puts us on a level footing with these bandits, these narco-terrorists,” she said. “It’s a humiliation.”

The Soldier

Lieutenant Camilo Castellanos and his men had spent five days inside FARC territory, as part of a mission to hunt down a unit creating havoc. The soldiers only moved at night through the area, a cocaine-producing region in the southwest. 

Just before dawn, Castellanos and the five soldiers he was leading had the enemy in their sights, and were planning their attack. When he moved to get a better vantage point, Castellanos set off one of the landmines the FARC had laid to protect its positions.  

“I didn’t understand what was happening," he recalled.“A few seconds later, when I tried to get up, my legs wouldn’t react. When I looked, one leg wasn’t there. The mine had ripped it off completely.” 

The men lifted Castellanos out on a stretcher improvised out of tree branches. They came across a local man with a truck, but he didn’t want to help. People in the area are often reluctant to assist the army, either because they support the guerrillas, or because they fear them. Castellanos’ men took the truck by force, and tore off down the unpaved road.
The army didn’t have a helicopter available, so Castellanos was evacuated by a police Blackhawk. His men had to slap him to keep him from falling into “a final sleep” while they waited for the chopper, he said. 

When he landed on the helipad of a hospital in Cali, the pain began in earnest. He lost consciousness, and when he awoke three days later, his other leg had been amputated. Now Castellanos swims with the help of the Matamoros Corporation, a non-profit organization which rehabilitates injured servicemen and which trained several members of Colombia’s paralympic team.
The army is paying for Castellanos to study accounting, and he says he wants to stay with “the very best institution in our country” in a non-combat role. As a member of the armed forces, he can’t vote or get express his view on the referendum, but he would say that “everything starts with forgiveness.” 

“There are wounds that time can’t heal, but if we want to change this history, we have to start with forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “I think that all Colombians want peace, and the soldiers of Colombia want this most of all.”

The Guerrilla

Franco Garcia grew up in a FARC heartland in an impoverished district of Caqueta province in southern Colombia, in a family of small farmers. His parents, three brothers and sister were “totally poor,” he said, and he never went to school.

Franco Garcia

Photographer: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg

The guerrillas who controlled the area told local people that they had been abandoned by the state, which his own experience appeared to confirm. He joined the FARC when he was 20, following his older brother who had enrolled four years earlier.

“After he joined, I didn’t hear anything more from him, until the moment when I joined up myself and I saw him in the ranks,” said Garcia -- an alias name he took -- in an interview. “I felt very happy that I’d found him, and that he was alive.”

The FARC didn’t let the brothers fight together or sleep in the same camps, and it’s been a decade since they crossed paths. Garcia is now 35, so has spent virtually his entire adult life in the movement. He plans to stay with the group as they convert into a legal political party.

“We left the jungles, the mountains, but we aren’t going to disintegrate, we’re going to be more united, because we’re going to continue the political fight,” he said.

Now that he’s no longer being hunted by the armed forces, he wants to try to fill some of the gaps in his education. The FARC taught him to read and write, he said.

“The thing I most desire is to keep studying, and have more knowledge,” he said. “I want to study the basic things that you learn at school, because I didn’t go to school. The little I have learned, I learned here, in the FARC.”

When the peace process is complete, and he’s handed over his rifle to UN monitors and demobilized, Garcia wants to try to track down his brother, who he heard is now in jail, and be reunited with his parents, whom he hasn’t seen for 15 years.

“So far as I know, they’re alive,” he said.

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