NYT: Former Colombian Hostage Is Suspected of Helping Plan His Kidnapping

May 21, 2012 10:14 am0 commentsViews:

CARACAS, Venezuela — The expression of overwhelming emotion on the face of Sigifredo López, freed after almost seven years as a hostage and about to clutch his two sons in a fierce embrace, is one of the most enduring images of Colombia’s nearly five-decade guerrilla war. That made the shock even greater for many Colombians last week when Mr. López was arrested on suspicion of helping to carry out the kidnapping in which he and 11 other provincial lawmakers were seized a decade ago.

The transformation of Mr. López, 48, has transfixed Colombia in the days since his arrest, in part because his story, in all its vertiginous phases, is so emblematic of the senseless brutality of this country’s long conflict. Mr. López has not yet been charged, and prosecutors said they were continuing their investigation. A lawyer for Mr. López said he was innocent.

Mr. López was one of a group of 12 provincial legislators who were seized in Cali in April 2002 during a brazen daytime raid by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. The guerrillas entered the provincial legislature building disguised as a military bomb squad, herded the legislators into a vehicle and whisked them away. A police officer was killed in the raid.

The legislators were held captive in the jungle until FARC announced in June 2007 that all but Mr. López had been killed in what the group called a military encounter. It was later revealed that guerrillas holding the hostages had mistakenly clashed with another group of FARC fighters; thinking that they were under attack by government troops, they killed their captives to prevent a rescue.

Mr. López later said he survived because he was separated from the others as punishment for arguing with his captors. He was freed by the rebels in February 2009.

Colombians watched on television then as Mr. López got off a helicopter, smiling and waving. Once he saw his two sons running toward him, though, his face changed to a mask of agonized emotion. His sons’ bear hug almost knocked him over.

Afterward he denounced the killings of his colleagues, wrote a memoir of his captivity and sought to resume his political career, running unsuccessfully for a Senate seat last year.

He also sued the Colombian government, accusing it of failing to provide adequate security at the legislature building where he was kidnapped.

Then came his arrest last Wednesday in Cali.

News reports said that the authorities began investigating Mr. López last November after finding a video on a computer that was captured when the military killed the top FARC commander, Alfonso Cano.

In the video, according to news reports, a man who sounds like Mr. López talks about the layout of the legislative building and describes the security arrangements there. The man’s face is only dimly seen, but prosecutors say they believe the man is Mr. López, according to the reports. The Associated Press reported that prosecutors also have testimony from former guerrillas saying that Mr. López helped in the kidnapping.

The news stunned Colombians, including relatives of the 11 dead legislators. To many, the accusation seemed simply illogical.

“I can’t get it in my head to think that a person could not only plan the kidnapping of his colleagues but also his own kidnapping,” said Fabiola Perdomo, the widow of one of the victims, Juan Carlos Narváez. “No one is going to spend seven years suffering in the jungle, not seeing their children grow up, not being with their mother, with their wife.”

She said there was never any indication in videos or messages that the rebels allowed the hostages to send to relatives that the other captives considered Mr. López a traitor.

The kidnapping was part of a FARC strategy of taking politicians, soldiers and police officers hostage in the hope of trading their freedom for that of rebels held by the government. The group, which is a major drug trafficker, also carried out many kidnappings for ransom to help finance its activities.

At the time of Mr. López’s release, he was said to be the last politician still held by the group. In April, FARC released the last group of soldiers and police officers it held, some of whom had been captive for 14 years. The group has pledged to stop kidnapping for ransom, but it said recently that it was holding a French journalist, Romeo Langlois, who was taken captive after a firefight with government troops that he was accompanying.

The Colombian weekly newsmagazine Semana said that the allegations against Mr. López had stunned “a country that thought it had seen everything when it came to irrational violence” and that if they were proved true, the development “would be one of the most bizarre in 50 years of armed conflict.”