Betancourt ally, a former hostage, flees Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia — Like virtually all Colombians, former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez was elated last week when commandos tricked the country's largest guerrilla group into freeing 15 kidnap victims.

But Perez had a special reason to celebrate: He'd been chained to trees in the jungle with the three newly freed Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt until the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials, unilaterally liberated Perez and three other former Colombian lawmakers in February.

Now Perez is on the run, however. He flew to the United States on Wednesday after death threats made it clear that remaining in Colombia imperiled his life.

"It's a very sad situation," Perez told McClatchy from a safe house Tuesday night in Bogota. "I was just getting re-established here."

Perez, a close ally of Betancourt, thinks that the FARC issued the threats after a Colombian general implied that Perez had provided intelligence information to authorities who were planning last week's dramatic rescue. Perez said he'd played no role, and no evidence has emerged to contradict him.

His plight serves as a reminder of the deep and troubling problems that vex this nation, even as a poll shows that 73 percent of Colombians in the four biggest cities think in the wake the rescue that their country is on the right track.

Colombia remains perhaps the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere. Politicians don't dare go out in public without bodyguards, right-wing paramilitary groups kill with impunity and the FARC, while on its heels, still sows violence with 8,000 men and women under arms.

The death threats and killings "show that for many this is how politics are still done in Colombia," said Adam Isacson, who closely follows Colombia for the Washington-based Center for International Policy, a foreign-policy advocacy group.

To be sure, homicides and kidnappings have plummeted since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002 with a hard-line approach against violence financed in part by U.S. taxpayers.

Homicides fell from 29,517 in 2002 to 17,326 last year, according to the government. Kidnappings dropped from 2,882 in 2002 to 486 in 2007.

The FARC is losing guerrillas every day to death, defection and capture.

The latest two guerrillas the military captured — the men who unwittingly turned over the 15 hostages to Colombian commandos in disguise last week — are facing extradition proceedings to the United States, said a U.S. Embassy representative in Bogota, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk on the record.

Known by their aliases, Cesar and Enrique Gafas, the two men face charges of kidnapping the three American military contractors and engaging in terrorist activities with the FARC.

The U.S. Embassy has sent a provisional arrest warrant to the Colombian government, which is the first step toward extraditing the men, the U.S. Embassy representative said.

Under Uribe, Colombia has changed dramatically, particularly in the major cities. People now feel safe to eat out, make new investments and drive on the highways from Bogota to other major cities.

Uribe has doubled the size of the army with a war tax on businesses and the wealthy.

In a sign of progress, only one mayor was murdered last year, said Gilberto Toro, the executive director of the Colombian Municipal Federation. The death toll in 2000: 18.

No mayor has been kidnapped since 2005.

Mayors in 420 towns had to carry out their duties elsewhere in 2002 because of safety concerns. All but two or three have returned home full time, Toro said.

"The police now have a presence in every town in the country," Toro said. "Before 2002, 220 towns didn't."

The FARC continues to maintain guerrillas scattered in remote jungles and mountain hideouts, fueled by profits from cocaine trafficking to the United States. The group averages one attack a day, be it a kidnapping, a bombing or the killing of a presumed government collaborator.

Members of right-wing paramilitary groups still number 3,000 to 9,000 even after Uribe succeeded in getting at least 20,000 of them to turn in their weapons in exchange for amnesty. They, too, play a key role in producing and selling cocaine, in some areas in partnership with the FARC.

Ivan Cepeda, a human rights activist in Colombia, thinks that paramilitary groups were responsible for the death threats he received "before, during and after" marches March 6 that he organized against paramilitary violence.

"The enthusiasm generated by the rescue mission shouldn't allow us to forget that there's another reality in Colombia," Cepeda said.

That other reality plays out especially in rural areas, long beset by violence from the left and right over who'll control local power and the cocaine business.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported last year that Colombia has more displaced people than any other country in the world. The total was more than 3 million out of Colombia's 44 million residents.

For years, Colombia has been the most dangerous country in the world for labor union activists, a major reason cited by Democrats in the U.S. Congress for withholding support for a free-trade agreement with Colombia.

The number of murdered labor-union activists has dropped from 189 in 2002 to 40 last year, a point that the Bush administration emphasized. It remains a dangerous profession, however.

The Colombian government is spending nearly $50 million this year to provide armed guards and armored vehicles to 1,400 union members facing death threats.

The government gave Perez an armored car and bodyguards after the FARC released him in February, just to be safe.

He said he felt relatively at ease. He wrote a book describing his time in captivity, which has become a bestseller.

Perez fled the country at least temporarily, however, after getting four threatening phone calls since Sunday accusing him of collaborating with the government.

"I need to go," he said hours before departing. "The FARC is desperate now. They are capable of doing something crazy."