Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was held as a hostage for six years by the country's largest guerrilla group, said on Tuesday that she will be running for her country’s presidency.
She enters a crowded field of candidates in which Gustavo Petro a leftist former mayor of Bogota is currently leading polls, but where moderates like Betancourt stand a chance to do well, if they can unite their efforts and tap into voters' frustration with corruption and growing inequality.
The announcement comes almost two decades after Betancourt was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while also campaigning for the country’s top office for the Green Oxygen Party, a movement she founded while she was a congresswoman.
“Today I am here to finish off 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 are not finding justice, because we live in a system designed to reward criminals.”
Betancourt's run for the presidency starts months after other candidates have already been travelling through the country to campaign for the office and some critics questioned whether she could make an impact on the presidential elections that will be held in May. But others said her campaign could also boost interest in a centrist coalition of political parties that will be running a primary in March to select their presidential candidate and could pose a serious challenge to Petro if it presents a united front.
In the primary Betancourt will compete against half a dozen candidates who have been more recently involved in Colombian politics but have struggled in opinion polls.
“It gives the coalition something new to offer,” said Yan Basset a political science professor at Bogota’s Rosario University who said that the other candidates in the centre's primary, where “white upper class men” that have not generated “enthusiasm” among voters.
Betancourt on the other hand has a well-known story that many Colombians who have been victims of violent groups can relate with: She was held for six years in guerrilla camps deep in the Amazon jungle, where sometimes rebel fighters would tie her to a tree with metal chains to prevent her from escaping. Her proof of life videos, in which she asked officials to investigate the circumstances that led to her own kidnapping, and then pleaded with the government to resume peace talks with the FARC rebels were aired widely in Colombia and abroad.
The politician became a symbol of international campaigns seeking peace talks in Colombia and the liberation of FARC hostages. But her time in captivity ended in 2008 through a military operation, where Colombian soldiers disguised as humanitarian workers snatched Betancourt and several other hostages from the FARC without firing a single bullet.
Betancourt withdrew from public life after being freed spending much of her time with family in France.
But she returned to Colombia’s political scene last year as the country prepared for the upcoming presidential elections. While announcing her run for the presidency Betancourt said she would fight to end impunity for corrupt politicians while addressing economic disparities that have long afflicted Colombia, where protests against inequality shook up local politics last year.
“My story is the story of all Colombians,” Betancourt, 60, said. “While me 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 for children who go without breakfast here in Colombia."
Betancourt will be once again running 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 have been more active in Colombian politics in recent years. They include Sen. Juan Manuel Galan, whose father was murdered in the late eighties while running for the presidency and Alejandro Gaviria, a former health minister who helped to implement a government ban on the aerial fumigation of coca crops. Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellin who placed third in the 2018 presidential election, will also compete against Betancourt in the primary.
Sergio Guzman, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said that with just two months left until the primaries, it will be difficult for Betancourt to make an impact.
“She represents reconciliation” and other issues that were important during previous elections, like the need for Colombia’s government to make peace with armed groups, Guzman said. But those are not the main issues that voters are concerned with in this election, according to polls.
“The main feeling now among voters is one of frustration with a system that does not provide opportunities,” Guzman said. “And there are other candidates who have been doing a good job tapping into that feeling.”
Polls are currently led by Gustavo Petro, who announced his campaign for the presidency the same day that he lost the 2018 election to President Ivan Duque. Petro has been visible in Colombian media since then, backing protests against proposed tax hikes and inequality last year, and saying he will stop granting exploration contracts to oil companies as part of a plan to decrease the country's dependency on oil revenues.
The second most popular candidate in polls is Rodolfo Hernandez, a real estate tycoon and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, who has promised to sweep corrupt bureaucrats out of office and also said in a meeting with the US ambassador to Colombia that he would like to legalise drugs, as part of an effort to reduce violence in the country.
The FARC, which kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt back in 2002 and long financed their operations with drug money, signed a peace deal with Colombia’s government in 2016.
But rebel groups like the National Liberation Army and FARC holdout groups who refused to sign the peace deal continue to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal mines and other assets in rural pockets of the country where homicides and the forced displacement of civilians have increased.
Betancourt said she would fight criminality and prove that Colombia can “change its course.” She added that every week her followers would be invited to “have a beer" with her at her campaign headquarters.
“We will split the cost,” she said, after she was asked about who would pick up the tab.