Life Learnings from Being Held Hostage for Six Years in the Colombian Jungle – A Conversation with Ingrid Betancourt.

Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt’s story, her exemplary courage, spirit and resilience, has captured the world’s imagination. She is a politician (former Colombian presidential candidate) who is celebrated for her determination to combat the corruption and climate of fear which was endemic in her nation. In 2002 she was taken hostage by FARC, a terrorist guerrilla organisation. Ingrid was held captive in the depths of the jungle for six and a half years, chained day and night for much of that time, constantly on the move and enduring gruelling conditions. She was freed and reunited with her children and relatives in 2008.

Since her release, Betancourt has become a memoirist and fiction writer. Her first book, Even Silence Has Its End, which lyrically recounts her six years in the impenetrable jungle, was published in 2010. In 2016, she published a second work — this time of fiction — called The Blue Line, about the disappearances in Argentina during the Dirty War from 1976 to 1983.  Betancourt has received multiple international awards, including the French National Order of the Légion d’Honneur, the Spanish Prince of Asturias Prize of Concord, the Italian Prize Grinzane Cavour, and was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to democratic values, freedom and tolerance.

Ingrid Betancourt has become a global symbol of the freedom and the resistance of the human beings in the face of the most serious adversities. His struggle for democracy, freedom and peace has been a shining example of dignity and courage for the whole world. In this exclusive interview, I speak to Ingrid Betancourt about fighting corruption, her six and a half years in captivity, and what it takes to create change.

On Corruption

Q: How does corruption take hold?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: Corruption is a collective mindset, anchored around a cultural mindset that shifts to become tolerant to corruption, and increased levels of corruption. When we talk about corruption it’s easy to think of it as governments, but for corruption to work- and to be effective- it has to contaminate all the bodies of society. It has to be present in government, judiciary, media, business, religious organisations and civil society. It becomes a way of life. When a country or society adopts corruption as a ‘norm’ it tends to be because it’s the lesser evil of something else. That’s when things get complicated as there is a cynicism that justifies the corruption existing.

In poorer countries, like the experience I had in Colombia, corruption is so embedded that people don’t think of life without it. If you have a business or project, you include corruption in your working plan.

In the richer countries, corruption is developing as a consequence of ideological politics- it comes with the polarisation of society- with the development of ‘us and them’ and an acceptance of corruption as a way of getting and maintaining power for your political group. I think that’s one of the major threats we are facing right now.

What is obvious is that when corruption is embedded in a state, it looks for places where it can hide. It keeps itself in the darkness. It doesn’t go after people with power, or the rich. The victims of corruption are always the anonymous- those who tend to need the most help from the state. We see in the poorest countries that corruption is targeted in contracts or funds which go to serve poor populations – they don’t have the means to fight back. In richer countries, corruption has other targets and objectives. It avoids confronting the law and takes the form of schemes that deter justice and responsibility. In richer countries, corruption becomes a weapon against political enemies.

At some point, corruption destroys the trust in a society so much that it has an impact on unity, and the social fabric of a country or nation. It affects wellbeing. It affects the capacity of a nation to be happy.

Q:  What can we do to fight corruption?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: The first thing we need is activism. Corruption is a system, and to fight it we must first change the mindset of the population, and that can only happen through activism, through being present in politics, through being elected. You have to be in the media, you have to have a voice, you have to be able to convey your message strongly.

Q:  is it realistic to ever expect a society free of corruption?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: I think we can deter corruption. We can dismantle the networks and systems of corruption but there will always be people trying – as individuals – to beat the system… to cheat, steal and avoid their responsibilities such as paying tax. The important thing is that the behaviour is punished – you have to show that corruption has a cost.

In Colombia, being corrupt was seen as being clever. It came with a social reward. This is why we see such a culture of people getting rich through corruption, and the growth of narcotrafficking and violence. You have to change the culture so that people don’t think, ‘oh wow, he’s clever, look at what he did!’ but instead have the tools to condemn corruption. There has to be condemnation because we’re social and everyone does what he or she thinks will get them some recognition. If you take away the social recognition, you take away a big incentive to being corrupt.

On Her Kidnap Ordeal

Q: How did you cope with the early days, and as time progressed during your abduction?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: The early days of my kidnapping were not the problem- I was still thinking that something would happen, that the government would react, that the guerrilla would liberate me for political reasons. It made no sense to me that they would be willing to keep me abducted. I remember the blow I experienced however when I completed a year of being abducted. That day, suddenly something broke in my head. I realised that it was going to be a very long time before I was free. My mindset changed from thinking that tomorrow I may be freed, to realising that unless I did something myself, nobody would come and rescue me.

One of the ways I gathered strength was by constantly plotting my escape. I managed- on around 10 occasions- to leave the camp, but then I had to learn how to survive the jungle. My prison was not only the guards around me, but the jungle where I had to learn to survive with no food, no water, no weapon.

I have always thought that if you are abducted for a week, 2 weeks, even a month- you don’t know what abduction is. It’s only after a certain time that you understand the weight of abduction.

Q:  What was the relationship between you and your captors?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: The Stanford Prison Experiment was one where they divided a classroom in two. One group were the prison guards, and one group the prisoners. In the beginning, this group were all friends but after 15 days of being immersed in this relationship the behaviours change in a powerful way. The prisoners become submissive, and the guards become abusive. I had been exposed to this research and so I knew this was something that could happen to me. I was aware of this, of Stockholm Syndrome, and so I had to be aware of the shifts in my own minds so I could avoid adapting. I had to remain in war mode. I had to continue confronting my captors, not accept what was happening to me. The relationship I had with my captors was based on suspicion. I knew they would kill me if they could. I knew they wouldn’t hesitate. If the army staged a rescue, I would be the first to be killed. I knew that. They also knew I would do everything it took to escape. This was our daily relationship – one made more difficult because I was the epitome of everything they hated. I was a politician, I was Colombian, I was French, and I was a woman. The culture of the guerrilla was extremely ‘macho’ – women were used as sexual objects. It was extremely difficult to witness how these girls were treated. Many of the girls didn’t even realise they were being mistreated as it had become such a norm for them.

I had to confront these guys on a daily basis and in every situation. For example, food. We were in pain from starving. They would serve the other hostages, but when they got to me, they would throw the food away or spit on the food. They also prevented me from even going to relieve myself physically.

This was a fight against them of course, but it was mostly an inner fight to keep my dignity. Human dignity can seem abstract, but when you are transformed into merchandise, something to be exchanged or bargained with, you need the intellectual, emotional and spiritual tools to cling to your humanity. That’s the only way you can retain value in your own eyes,

Q:  How were you able to reconcile, and make sense of what happened to you?

[Ingrid Betancourt]: One of the transformations you go through in this type of experience is the discovery of who you are inside yourself. You discover a very dark side of yourself in extreme situations where your basic instincts are not the ones you want to accept as being within you. When I look back at my captors, I find myself seeing them through the lens of my own experience and as a result I judge them because what they did to me was horrible. I don’t want to judge them though. The conditions they found themselves in were not favourable for them to be good people. The system they were in brought them up to be abusive and sadistic. They were victims as I was.

I truly believe humans have the capacity to change. That’s the definition of freedom… our ability to choose who we want to be.

At some point, those guys chose to be guerrillas – abusive, macho, horrible people that became my torturers. In Colombia now, we’ve had a peace process and some of these guerrillas have given-up their arms and signed a peace agreement. I do not say this with a light heart, but I want to give them the benefit of being free human beings and to choose to be somebody else, somebody new.

Q:  What can we learn from your story?

[Ingrid Betancourt]:  We are always confronting ourselves – in our emotions and thoughts – like the yin and yang. We can be loving and hateful simultaneously.

I very literally lost my freedom. I was chained to a tree. Even in those very difficult moments, I had enough freedom to choose who I wanted to be in the face of that circumstance. For all of us, the challenge is to rise above our experiences and make choices to choose light over darkness. It’s a spiritual way of thinking of very concrete things. In our daily lives we can choose to be supportive or not, judgemental or not, kind or not. We can also decide to say no, that those dark things are not who we are, and we can choose to not be that person.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.