NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Just a few hours ago, Colombian rebels freed two women that they had held hostage for about six years. Consuelo Gonzales, a former member of Colombia's congress, and Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. They were among hundreds held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known as the FARC - Marxist guerillas who've been at war with the Colombian government for over 40 years now.
The most prominent hostages remaining include three American defense contractors and Ingrid Betancourt seized by the FARC as she campaigned to be the president of Colombia. Her husband joins us in just a moment.
If you want to talk with him about his wife's status, about efforts to set her free and about what the last six years have been like, our telephone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail, email@example.com. And you could join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And joining us now from Radio Caracol in Colombia - in Bogota, Colombia - is Juan Carlos Lecompte, - president - husband of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
And I know this has to be an emotional day for you. We thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Mr. JUAN CARLOS LECOMPTE (Husband of Ingrid Betancourt): Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon. And I wonder, what have you heard about the release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzales?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, that happened like half an hour ago, they land in Venezuela - a border between Colombia and Venezuela. And there were two helicopter and the helicopter took them from the jungle in the Colombian jungle, in the middle of the Colombian jungle. The guerilla released them. And they flew in those helicopter and they land in the border and they took an airplane to go to Caracas. And we just saw those image on TV. That was very exciting because I saw Clara Rojas, which is a very good friend of mine. And she was kidnapped with my wife six years ago.
CONAN: And this - does this give you some more hope that your wife will soon be release?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes. This is in a huge door than just opened today. And this is a result of the Mr. Chavez - the president of Venezuela - works. He has been working in the past three, four months doing a mediation between the Colombian government and the guerilla. So the guerilla wants to release these two womans. And the only condition that they put was they only wants to send them to Venezuela, to President Hugo Chavez. So the Columbian government let them do that. And that's the story.
After six years, it's the first time that the Colombian guerilla released a hostage without any conditions. So I hope that this freedom of these two hostage develop in the negotiation between the Colombian government and the guerilla in order to release the other hostage like my wife, Ingrid Betancourt.
CONAN: And I know this has had to have been an emotional rollercoaster for you because, just a week ago, an earlier effort to have these women released was fumbled, I guess, is probably the best way to put. And it didn't happen. And then it must have been very depressing.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes. I think it was because there were too many military operation from the Colombian army in the jungle last month. So the guerilla preferred not to put them in risk because the guerilla has the order to kill the hostage if they see some patrol of the Colombian army approaching, they kill the hostage and they disappear. That happen every single year here. And they prefer not to take that risk the months before because there were too many military operation from the Colombian army in the jungle. And I saw it because I was in the jungle last month, in the little airplane, with the picture of my kids. I threw away 25,000 of them with the hope that Ingrid can see them. And I saw the operation. I have a Colombian air force plane approaching to me very aggressive and I have to land in a very small airport in the middle of the jungle. And I think because of that, the guerilla decide not to release them last month and they already released a couple of hours ago.
CONAN: The guerillas had also promised to release a third person they said was - they were holding hostage a 3-year-old son of Ms. Rosa - Rojas and it turned out they did not have him.
Mr. LECOMPTE: No, because that little boy was found in Bogota because the guerilla take away the son from Clara Rojas a few years ago, like three years ago and then put in some benefits office here in Bogota and we just found out last week that the boy was here. And they did a DNA a proof of Clara Rojas' mother and it matched with the DNA of the boy so the boy is already free here in Bogota. We didn't know that. Nobody knows that. The Colombian government found out a couple of weeks ago that - but the promise of the guerilla is okay because they already released the two womans a couple of hours ago.
CONAN: And in addition to President Chavez of Venezuela, who you've already given some credit to, I think probably President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, your wife is a dual citizen of both Colombia and France and he has mattered a considerable effort to see her released as well.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes, the President Sarkozy is like the engine of all these negotiation because he was the one who talked with President Chavez and asked him to get involve like four or five months ago. And the president of Colombia give to Chavez the approval, so that happened in a last August. So Mr. Chavez asked for a proof of life of the hostage like my wife and they came out last November 30. And before that, we wait for the proof of life four years without any proof of life. And now, Mr. Chavez acts for them and the guerilla approve them we receive us in November 30 - last November 30 - and now, the guerilla released these two womans and the only condition than they put is they want to give it to Mr. Chavez so they are already flying to Caracas and the family of the hostage are waiting for them and Mr. Chavez waiting for them, too.
We, I mean, we are very happy with the - with Mr. Chavez because he is the only person in the world than the guerilla pay attention. They respect him, they admire him and that's why Mr. Chavez became the perfect man for the job because he's the only person in the world than the guerilla is going to hear and he's going to pay attention and going to respect him. So that's why Mr. Chavez is the perfect man for the job.
CONAN: We're talking with Juan Carlos Lecompte, the husband of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who's been held hostage by the FARC in Colombian jungle for almost six years now. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And this is Mike(ph). Mike's on the line with us from Destin in Florida.
MIKE (Caller): Yeah. Hi there. My question is have you heard anything about your wife as far as how she's been treated, is she okay? Have you have any communication with her? I'll take my answer off the air please.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mike.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, we have a proof of life in December 1st, a months and a week ago. It was a five-minute video and a letter for Ingrid Betancourt, my wife, a 20-pages letter. And before that, we have four years without any news, so that's the only proof of life that we have that happened five weeks ago. And she says - and she looked in terrible shape, and she says that in the letter than they treat her very bad and he says, she says than - he, she's not able to eat because her stomach closed, I don't know why, and she looked very skinny and in a terrible shape in the video.
CONAN: It was also - there were points of it that were very sad. She said…
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes.
CONAN: …she did not know long - how much longer she could take this.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes, yes. She says then she doesn't want to live any longer because it's like living in hell.
CONAN: There was also one of her fellow hostages who escaped a while ago and came back with an account of what she was like in custody and painted a picture of a woman who was defiant right - everyday.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Yes. The guy that's the policeman who escaped seven months ago, he was with my wife and he says than she tried to escape five times and because of that, the guerilla punish her very hard they put a chain in her neck for days and nights and she doesn't obey them and she always confront them. And because of that, they treat her worse than the other hostage and - so she looks very sad, as you see it in the video and they treat her very, very bad.
CONAN: Have you had any contact with the FARC at all? Have you been able to communicate with them about appealing for your wife's release or at least for better treatment?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, the only chance than I have is talking to Colombian radio because it's very powerful and they have a program here called "The Kidnap Boys(ph)" is in the Sunday morning and is in Caracol Radio, the biggest radio where I am right now talking with you and I send message to Ingrid. And in her letter, she says than is the best - the only thing than she love in the jungle is when she hear my message and I talked with the guerilla and I ask them to give her better treatment. And I go to the Colombian jails to talk with some guerillas who are prisoners in the Colombian jails and I tried to tell them that, well, you must treat her like you are here in the jail but they treat you well. You said that my wife is like a political prisoner you have to treat her like that, but we have no answer of them.
CONAN: Again, we're talking with Juan Carlos Lecompte, the president of Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate who's being held hostage in Colombia by the FARC.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this is Rex(ph). Rex is with us on the phone from Gilbert, Arizona.
REX (Caller): You know for 40 years, the struggle's been going on. I've never heard the list of demands that these guerillas are fighting for. Are they fighting for some sort of communist domination? Are they fighting for land reform? For school, medical? What are they fighting for?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, at the beginning, it was that. I mean, they were like this Latin America romantic guerilla of the '60s like Che Guevara. But like 12 or 15 years ago, they start being involved in the cocaine business. At the beginning, they take care of the coca trees but - and then, they figure out than it's a good business and they start moving into a new cartel. Because right now, there is now cartel of Medellin, there is no more of Pablo Escobar, no more Cali cartel.
The new cartel of the drug in Colombia is the guerillas, so they are making a lot of money with the coca business. And so they became the new cartel of drug in Colombia, so they are making money. I think because of that, they are very strong, they are very well armed, they have good weapons, good communication and they don't need money because they are making a lot of money and I think they lose all the political will and they are just a new Colombian cartel.
CONAN: Have they - excuse me - have they issued any specific demands for the release of your wife? Is there an exchange that they want or money or what?
Mr. LECOMPTE: No. They want to exchange her and they have they call political prisoner like my wife and some other politics and they have soldiers and policeman from the Colombian army, who have been in the jungle as hostage for 10 years and they want to do in exchange between those and, like my wife, and a guerillas who are in the Colombian jails.
CONAN: Obviously, I know you want your wife back, humanitarian impulses might want all the prisoners exchanged, but do you understand why the Colombian government does not want to do this?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, the Colombian government used to do that in the past, but this is a new government doesn't want to do it. But they did at exchange and a peace talk with the paramilitaries, which are the same corrupt and drug dealers and kidnappers like the guerilla. Only then, they have from the right wing and they talk with them in the Desmilitary Zone. But the Colombian government refused to do that, Desmilitary zone to talk with the guerilla in order to release the hostage and the prisoners.
They - in all the worlds, I mean, in the world, I mean, like in Vietnam, John McCain has spend like, I think five years as a prisoner. Well, here, there is Colombian soldier from the Colombian army who has been as a hostage for more than 10 years. And we don't think that that's fair than the - a government send the soldiers to the war. And if the other force like the guerilla took them as a prisoner - we say hostage, but they say prisoner - and they are going to spoil in the jungle forever because they already have 10 years.
CONAN: Finally, we just have a minute or so with you left. It's been six years. You and your wife also have two sons. What has been life like for your family?
Mr. LECOMPTE: Well, it's very sad because our son, when she was kidnapped, they have 13, 15 years and they have already 19 and 21 years so they grew up without their mother and that's very sad for them and for me. It's very painful, too. And the only thing I can do, I take picture of them and I rent a little plane, a Cessna mono - one engine and I flew the jungle and I threw the picture of my kids 25 pictures in - 25,000 picture in the jungle with the hope that Ingrid is going to receive them and is going to see how beautiful and how big they are because in the last letter than she send to us like a proof of life, she says than he - she doesn't remember how they are right now, so she wish to have like a picture so the only thing that I can do is fly into the jungle and threw away launching those pictures.
CONAN: We hope that your wife is released very soon. Thank you so much for your time today.
Mr. LECOMPTE: Thank you.
CONAN: Our guest was Juan Carlos Lecompte, who joined us in the studios of Radio Caracol in Bogota, Colombia.
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