Skip to main content

Ingrid Betancourt

Colombian senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. In a country controlled by drug cartels and corrupt government officials, she has spoken out against corruption. Her efforts have earned her and her family death threats. She travels with as many as a dozen body guards, and sent her children away. Betancourt grew up in Paris, the daughter of Colombia ambassador to Unesco. Her mother was a political activist. Betancourt book about her fight against corruption was a bestseller in France where it was first published. It just been published in English under the title, Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia.. Betancourt is 39 years old.

35:40

Other segments from the episode on January 8, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 8, 2002: Interview with Ingrid Betancourt; Interview with Stephen Dudley.

Transcript

DATE January 8, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ingrid Betancourt discusses how she came to her decision
to run for president of Colombia
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ingrid Betancourt, is trying to reform politics in Colombia, a
country famous for the way in which drug money has corrupted nearly every
aspect of society, and those who interfere risk being killed. Betancourt is
running for president on an anti-drug, anti-corruption platform. She's
already received many death threats. In fact, after a serious threat
against
her family, rather than backing down, she sent her children to New Zealand
to
live with their grandparents. Betancourt has already served in Colombia's
Congress and Senate. She has denounced corrupt politicians, and helped lead
a
campaign against Ernesto Samper when he was president, accusing him of
taking
money from drug traffickers. She went on a hunger strike to call for an
independent inquiry. This led to a congressional investigation, but he was
acquitted.

Betancourt has written a memoir called "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle
to Reclaim Colombia." It's already been published in France, where it's
been
a best seller. The presidential election is in May. I asked her what she'd
most like to change if she is elected.

Ms. INGRID BETANCOURT (Colombian Politician): I would like to change the
way
Colombians live. We are, today, in a country, perhaps the most violent
country in the world, where people suffer a lot. And this is this way
because
there is an alliance, a secret alliance between politicians and drug
traffickers. And this system, which is a system of corruption, has taken
away
from the Colombians the right just to live as they would like to live, in
peace with the right of--have a good employment, of being educated, of have
health care. This is what I want to change. I want to give Colombians the
opportunity to live with dignity.

GROSS: What are the risks you're taking to run for president?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, there are many risks. The obvious risk is the death
threats. Colombia is a very violent country, and when you don't fit into
the
interests of the violent people, you can get killed. But there are other
risks; the risk of confronting the establishment. The establishment is very
powerful, and it has been defending the status quo by disinforming
Colombians,
by not telling the truth, but lying to the public. By also covering, and
there's a camouflage of reality towards Colombians, and also towards the
world.

So I think the purpose is to reveal what is covered, to make people
understand
what is happening in Colombia so that Colombians, and also the people
outside
Colombia, can help us in recovering and rescuing our democracy.

GROSS: How many people do you know who have opposed drug money and the drug
lords--how many of those people that you know have been assassinated?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Tho ones who have really fought against drug trafficking
have been killed. I speak in my book about Luis Carlos Galan, which is I
think is the figure that we all--Colombians--have in our hearts when we talk
about the situation. There are others; people that have worked in the
judicial system have been killed. Journalists that have spoken against the
Mafia, the Colombian Mafia also have been killed, innocent people. Hundreds
of anonymous Colombians that have been killed because they have said what
they
thought, and they have been killed because they hadn't the right to speak
out
loud.

GROSS: How do you protect yourself?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, I protect myself first because I've been trained to
behave in a certain way in order to protect myself the best I can. I have
sent my children away which is, for me, the best protection in the sense
that
whatever could harm my children would be too much for me. I couldn't live
with that. So the first thing was to have my family safe, then to live with
a
behavior that would diminish the risk. I have bodyguards. I have more than
20 bodyguards every day with me in Colombia, following me and living with
me.

GROSS: Now I've read that your chances of winning the presidential election
are close to around zero. I don't know if you'd agree with that analysis or
not. But even if you did win, how could you overpower the drug interests if
you did become president?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Terry, I want to tell you something. What you're saying is
the truth, the bare truth. If we see the polls, I have like 5 percent; it's
nothing. But I want to tell you something. In the best elections, when the
polls were known to public opinion--for example, when I was running for the
Senate, I wasn't even in the 15 first senators that were going to be
elected.
And when I saw the polls that time, I thought, `I have no chance. I'm not
going to be elected.' And then I was elected with the highest score of the
country.

What I want to tell you is that when I see the results of the poll, I always
think that perhaps they are being manipulated and that this is an instrument
to do politics. It's also a way of putting pressure on me, because then I
can
think, `Well, I won't have any chance, so I will quit.' And this is
something
that I'm never going to do.

GROSS: You've also mentioned you sent your children away from Colombia
because you were threatened with death by the drug lords, and your family
was
threatened as well. So in 1996, you sent your children to Australia to live
with their grandparents. What exactly was the warning that you received?
What exactly was the threat?

Ms. BETANCOURT: I was in my office, and I was going to the legislative
chamber; we had a session. And I had a few minutes before leaving to that
session, and a man came to my office. He was--I mean, he looked friendly
and
he was well dressed. I thought he was going to ask me a favor. Like almost
everybody that wants to talk to me when I'm in the Congress asks me favors
and
things. So I had a few minutes, I talked to him, and then he began to tell
me
that he was very concerned about my safety and that I had to be careful with
what I was saying. And this is something that people in Colombia say a lot
to me, because they are concerned about my safety, they know that I am at
risk, so they will say, `I'm praying for you. I asked the Virgin Mary to
protect you,' and all those kind of things.

So I thought it was a nice thing to say. So I was--well, I was kind of
touched by this guy telling those things. And then, as time passed by, I
realized that he wasn't there to ask me a favor, but just to say to me that
I
had to be careful. And then I told him, `Look, I'm doing what I can with my
safety. I think I'm well protected, but tell me why you're here.' And then
he said, `You are not understanding what I am telling you. I am telling you
you have to be careful because we have already paid the killers to kill you,
the sicarios.'

And then it was like, you know, a cold shower. Because I didn't really
think
that this was possible, to have someone in front of me telling me this like
in
a so cold way. And I ask him if it was a threat, and he said it wasn't a
threat, it was a warning, which I thought it was very cynical. And then he
said they would go after my family, my children and me, if I don't left the
country. The next day I took a plane and...

GROSS: You took the plane to...

Ms. BETANCOURT: To New Zealand.

GROSS: To leave your children with their grandparents...

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes.

GROSS: ...your ex-husband's parents. That must have been a terrible
decision
to have to make, because you were deciding between your life in politics and
saving the life of your children. I mean, you decided to return to Colombia
and leave your children in Australia. And in choosing to stay with your
country and to stay with your political career and to stay with your
ambitions
to reform your country, you also had to make the decision to be separated,
you
know, by a great distance from your children. Was that a difficult--I mean,
I'm sure it was a difficult decision to make. Did you ever seriously
consider
the other option of giving up politics, or was that just something you were
going to steadfastly refuse to do no matter what?

Ms. BETANCOURT: It has been the most difficult thing of my life. I mean,
my
daughter was 10, my boy was seven. They are teen-agers now, so we have gone
a
long way together. And I have never, never, never thought that I could have
taken another decision. I think that whatever sacrifice has to be made in
order to fight for what I believe is the best thing also that I can inherit
it
to my children. I think that they have to live with the example of a mother
that has given a fight so that they can return to their country and to a
free
Colombia, a Colombia free of violence, free of drugs, free of corruption.
That's why I'm doing what I'm doing.

GROSS: My guest is Ingrid Betancourt. She's running for president in
Colombia on an anti-corruption, anti-drug trafficking platform. She's
written
a memoir called "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ingrid Betancourt. After
serving in the Congress and Senate of Colombia, she's now running for
president. She also has a new memoir which is called "Until Death Do Us
Part:
My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia."

You were born into a political family. Your father was Colombia's
ambassador
to UNESCO, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, and
later
was minister of education in Colombia. Your mother served in Colombia City
Council, in the Senate, and she was also well known for her work with
homeless
children. But you actually spent your formative years in France because
your
father was stationed there when he worked for UNESCO. What was the image of
Colombia that your parents gave you when you were living in France with
them?

Ms. BETANCOURT: For us, Colombia was paradise. I was in France and I was
told that Colombia was the best country in the world. And I was very proud
of
being Colombian. When I was a child, my parents used to receive at home
very
influential people--politicians, ex-presidents, former presidents of
Colombia,
ministers--that would come to Paris and that would stay at our home and they
will talk about Colombian politics. And what I remember is that I was a kid
and they were saying things that disturbed me a lot, like, `If this guy wins
the presidency, it will be a catastrophe for Colombia,' or `If this person
is
elected in the Senate, the Mafia, the Colombian Mafia, will have a spokesman
in the Congress.' Those kinds of things I didn't really realize what that
meant, but as a child I could envision that Colombia was really into deep
problems.

And my parents had those discussions late at night, and they used to send us
to bed. And then I would come out and hide myself under a piano that was in
the living room just to hear what they were saying. And I remember that
everything that they were telling about Colombia moved me in a very powerful
way. And what I do today, I think it's the same thing. I am moved by
Colombia. I really love my country. And...

GROSS: Do you think that part of the reason you feel so strongly about it
is
because you were at a distance from it and knew people who were so
passionate
about the country--your parents and the political dignitaries who they
welcomed into the house. I mean, did that, do you think, increase your
passion for your country?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes, but also the impression that I was responsible for my
country. You see, my father brought us up with the idea that we have had so
many opportunities in life. He used to say, `Colombian children cannot live
as you live, cannot have the education you have. So because you've having
these opportunities, you have to give back to your country, because Colombia
need for you to work for Colombia. You have to prepare yourself. You have
to
work. You have to go to the university. You have to really make yourself
available to serve your country.'

And this is something that I really--I mean, it's marked me deeply in my
heart. And I could have lived another life. Actually, I married a French
diplomat. I left my country for many years. I lived a very comfortable
life.
But there was this bell ringing in my heart, and every time something was
happening in Colombia, I was feeling guilty not to be there trying to help.
So when I came back to Colombia after many years, then I discovered that
that
was the meaning of my life.

GROSS: And you returned to Colombia and started to get involved in politics
in 1990. Shortly before that, in 1989, your mother was a senior member of
the
campaign team of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, and he was
campaigning against the drug lords and against politicians who took money
from
them. He was assassinated by hired killers; your mother was at his bedside
when he died. You were, I think, still living in France then. What was the
impact of that assassination on you?

Ms. BETANCOURT: You know, this was a very horrible, and at the same time,
very strange experience, because I couldn't sleep. I had this very awkward
sensation that I couldn't sleep, and I had this nightmare all night long.
And
then in the morning, very anxiously, I took the telephone and I tried to get
my mother in Colombia. And then she answered the phone and she was crying.
She was crying. I mean, she was desperate. And she was telling me, `They
killed him. They killed him.' She just had arrived from the hospital, and
the incredible story that she's going to tell me that same morning is that
she
was with him--they had to go to a campaign event. It was very cloudy and
there were thousands of people waiting to hear Galan, and she was with him.
He had already had an ambush. There was a bomb that was put in his route
and
exploded few minutes after he passed. He was saved by a miracle.

And my mother was very concerned, because she knew that Pablo Escobar and
the
Medellin Cartel wanted to kill Luis Carlos Galan. And so she told him that
he
was to be very careful. And he said to her, `Touch here. You see, I have
this bullet-proof jacket. Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen. I'm
safe.' And so they went down to get onto the podium, and my mother was
following him, but she fell down, because she was wearing high-heel shoes
and,
I mean, she just fell down. And at the precise moment she fell down and
Luis
Carlos Galan was climbing the stairs to the podium, the guns and the--I
mean,
they killed him. And if my mother would have been behind him, as she was
supposed to be, she had been killed there with him.

And she was telling me this by the phone. And I was in France. She was in
Colombia. I mean, it was hell for her. And I thought that I had to be with
her, that I had not the right of living outside of Colombia.

GROSS: When you did return to Colombia shortly after that, you decided to
enter politics. One of the things your mother advised you was that in order
to get anything done you had to learn to work with corrupt politicians. Did
she have to do that in her work with homeless children in order to get what
she needed?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, she didn't say that that way, you know? What she
said
is that the system was corrupted, but the only way to try to help was to get
inside the Congress in order to have power and in order to change things.
But, of course, all her colleagues were people that were into dirty things,
and she knew that. But at the same time, she thought that by doing things
differently and by showing Colombians that it was possible to do things
different, that would help.

GROSS: Ingrid Betancourt is running for president in Colombia. Her new
memoir is called "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Ingrid Betancourt tells us why she handed out condoms the
first time she ran for office in Colombia. And we talk about Colombian
politics with journalist Steven Dudley, who's based in Bogota.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ingrid Betancourt.
After serving in the Congress and Senate in Colombia, she's now running for
president on an anti-corruption, anti-drug trafficking platform. She's
faced
many death threats. She's written a memoir called "Until Death Do Us Part:
My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia." Her mother has also served in Colombia's
Senate and advocated reform. Her father was Colombia's ambassador to
UNESCO,
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. I
asked
Ingrid Betancourt how she got started in politics.

Ms. BETANCOURT: I went into politics in a very different way as normally it
is done in Colombia. I had no buzz. I had no experience. I was alone, all
by myself with my dreams and with my friends that wanted to do the same as I
was doing, because we thought that we had to run for what we thought it was
good for Colombia. And then everybody would tell us, `It's impossible. You
will never be elected. You have to buy votes in order to be elected in
Colombia. This something that nobody has done.'

And I did a very scandalous, perhaps, campaign, because in this country,
which
is very conservative in a moral way, I was in the streets giving condoms to
the people and saying to them, `Look, normally we use condoms to protect
ourselves to AIDS--against AIDS. Now corruption is as harmful as AIDS is.
It's the AIDS into society. It's the AIDS into politics. So we have to
preserve ourselves against corruption. And the only way to protect
ourselves
is to vote for honest people. And I hope that the day of the election, you
will remember me because I gave you this condom.'

And people were laughing at what I was saying. They thought it was like,
you
know, kind of weird to have a young woman giving condoms in streets. But at
the same time, it made them think. The result was that I was elected with a
very high score that nobody expected. And then I realized that Colombia is
ready for the change.

GROSS: And here you are. You were very young. You were--What?--in your
early 30s at the time?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes.

GROSS: You're very attractive. And this is in a country where there aren't
that many women politics in the first place. Was it considered very
suggestive to use condoms in your campaign?

Ms. BETANCOURT: I'll tell you something. My father was really angry
against
me. He thought I was harming his name; that it was a shame to do what I was
doing, and he was really, really upset. He didn't want to talk to me.
Really. I mean, he was very, very concerned about what I was doing. And
then
what happened is that people at the first time they reacted, like, shocked
by
what I was doing. But in a second thought people began to think, `Well,
she's
right. I mean, we have to react and we have to vote for people that will
defend our rights.'

GROSS: Well, the condoms got you a lot of media attention.

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes.

GROSS: On the first TV show that you did, you not only talked about the
condoms, you named names of several politicians who you accused of being
corrupt. Now it's one thing to just talk about corruption in a general way;
it's another thing to actual name names. In retrospect, was that a naive
thing to do or a smart thing to do?

Ms. BETANCOURT: I think it's the only thing you have to do, and you have to
do in order to confront corruption. What you have said, Terry, is the most
deep thought, really. Everybody can talk against corruption. It's very
nice
to talk against corruption. All the presidential candidates will talk
against
corruption, but the real thing is you have to point out the people. And
this
is the hard thing to do, because then you're not talking in abstract. You
are
facing a human being that will become your enemy and that will track you
down
because you are pointing your finger at him. And this is what we have to
do.

GROSS: What about the voters? You've said that votes were often bought by
politicians in Colombia. How do they buy votes? And how influenced do you
think voters are by corruption?

Ms. BETANCOURT: You know the corruption system has become very
sophisticated. Some years ago, they would buy votes from the poor people,
the
people that would be starving. And for them having some money the day of
the
elections was something good, because it was probably the only day they
would
have a party. They could eat meat and they could drink alcohol or whatever.
And so it was a way of giving to the starving ones something the day of the
elections, knowing that the government doesn't anything to give them what
they
have to--they're entitled to have just by being Colombians. So for
Colombian
peoples, if government doesn't exist because it doesn't give education, it
doesn't give health care, it doesn't give protection, it doesn't give
employment, then the only thing they will have is the bribe the day of the
elections.

But today the thing is I would say more sophisticated, because today they
are
not buying the votes from the hungry people. They are buying the system.
They are paying the officials to count the votes in a way that will favor
them. So it's a virtual election. There can be no vote at all; they will
appear in numbers and they will favor the guy that will pay the officials
that
are counting the votes. So we have fraud through officials. We have fraud
in
the software that is used to count the votes. We have fraud everywhere.

So if you ask me: What is the best way to help Colombia? The best way to
help Colombia is that the aid, the money that America is very generously
giving to Colombia to fight drug trafficking, the first step is to combat
the
alliance between politicians and drug dealers. And to face this--to combat
this alliance, we need to have true democracy. And true democracy is
transparent elections.

GROSS: If the election system is that corrupt, how could you stand a chance
in the presidential election?

Ms. BETANCOURT: I believe in miracles, Terry. You know, I'm a miracle
in--whatever I have done until now is something that no one could expect.
The
first time I was elected, it was a miracle. The second time that I was
elected in the Senate as a senator with the highest score in the country,
beating the corrupted system, with their own rules, in their own game, in
their own play field, that means that there is another country that is
awakening; that is waiting for somebody to tell them, `Look, let's react.
Let's do it in another way.'

GROSS: One of the paradoxes of your life is that you're risking your life
to
be in the country that you love to try to save it from corruption. On the
other hand, because there are so many death threats against you, and because
there are so many people who are out to get you, you probably have to be
suspicious of so many people who you come in contact with because you know
which one of them might actually be a killer or a messenger delivering you
another death threat. How do you handle going about life having to be on
the
lookout every minute of the day? I know you have 20 bodyguards who are
helping you look out, but that doesn't relieve you of the responsibility of
having to be careful.

Ms. BETANCOURT: I do have this responsibility. And I am being very careful
the most can. But I decided that I have to live in another way. I don't
know
if you have seen--this is--there was a cartoon when I was a child which I
liked very much. It was "Mr. Magoo." Mr. Magoo was this old man, blind
man,
and he used to walk in the street and everything would happen around
him--the
buildings will fall off and there were holes in the streets and everybody
would fall into the holes except him. I think that there are situations in
the life where you don't want to know too much. You just want to know what
you need to know to continue. I know that I am at risk, but I rely on the
people that are protecting me. I know that they are protecting me because
they are paid by the government--that's a fact--but I have developed a
relationship with them in which I know they support me in a political way.
They are proud of what I am doing. They are with me. And this is something
very important because I feel that they are--we all know what we're risking.
And they know that by being with me, they're not having the protectionship
they should have; they have a higher risk. And even in that situation, they
want to protect me. So I feel very lucky to have all those beautiful people
around me helping.

GROSS: Do you get to hire the bodyguards yourselves, or are they chosen for
you by the government?

Ms. BETANCOURT: They are chosen by me by the government, but I have--in the
beginning some years ago, I had many problems with my bodyguards. Perhaps I
wasn't prepared to live with bodyguards. And also I was very suspicious.
And
I had to change them a lot. And today, probably because I change also my
attitude, and because I rely deeply on them, we are a team. And I feel
confident. And also I have a very deep respect for them, because I
understand
that they are willing to put their lives at risk for me. And I think that
this is something that nothing can pay. There is no price for that.

GROSS: I thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. BETANCOURT: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ingrid Betancourt is the author of "Until Death Do Us Part: My
Struggle to Reclaim Colombia." She is running for president. The election
is
in May. Coming up, we talk about Colombian politics with journalist Stephen
Dudley. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Colombian politics as the country prepares for
presidential elections in May
TERRY GROSS, host:

We just heard from Ingrid Betancourt, who's running for president in
Colombia
on an anti-drug trafficking, anti-corruption platform. My guest, Stephen
Dudley, is a journalist who has been based in Colombia for about five years.
He's reported for NPR and the Public Radio International news program "The
World." We called him in Bogota and asked him how seriously Betancourt is
being taken as a presidential candidate.

STEPHEN DUDLEY (Reporter, NPR and PRI): She's taken seriously in that she
brings up important issues, in particular for marginalized communities:
indigenous groups, people who are affected by the war in terms of being war
refugees, and mostly talking about people who have been greatly affected by
corruption, people who complain about corruption in public services. And
she,
indeed, led campaign, or was part of a campaign, to bring that to the
forefront. So in that sense, she's taken seriously.

In terms of being a serious presidential candidate, I don't think so. I
think
in the last polls, she may have topped 1 percent. But you know, I don't
necessarily think that that's her objective, either. I think her objective
is
to bring some of these issues that I mentioned to the forefront.

GROSS: Who are the leading candidates in the race for the Colombian
presidency?

DUDLEY: Right now, it's shaping up into pretty much a two-person race.
They
happen to be from the same political party, which is one of two parties that
has run Colombian politics for the last 150 years. They're both from the
Liberal Party. One is, interestingly enough, sort of looked upon as kind
of,
let's say, a progressive liberal. And the other is looked upon as more a
conservative, or even right-winged liberal.

One man is named Horacio Serpa. And Serpa, as some of your listeners may
remember, was the minister of the interior for former president named
Ernesto
Samper. Samper was president in the mid-'90s, and he basically could do
nothing during his four years in office because he was accused of, and had
to
admit to, receiving $6 million--or at least $6 million, from the Cali
cocaine
cartel. Serpa, therefore, does not have the best relationship, obviously,
then with the United States. He's taken great pains to make trips to
Washington and Florida to try and drum up some support in the exterior for
his
campaign.

The other candidate is named Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe Velez is a former
governor of the most important economic state here, the governor of
Antioquia.
He's also studied abroad. He's studied at Oxford with a guy named Malcolm
Deas, which some of your listeners may also know. He's a very prominent
historian. And he's one of these guys who kind--he can manage crowds. He's
very charismatic, he speaks English perfectly and he is saying the right
things right now. He's very critical of the FARC rebels. He's very
critical
of the other rebel groups, as well. And he's one of these guys who's
promoted
things like putting guns in civilians' hands so that they can protect
themselves from guerrilla incursions or from guerrilla attempts to kidnap
them.

So these are the two front-runners right now. And it looks like, most
likely,
there'll be--they'll have the first round in May and then they'll have a
runoff then, again--I think it's in August.

GROSS: How much does drug money control politics in Colombia?

DUDLEY: I would say that drug money controls a lot of different facets of
Colombian life, and to sort of just single out politics is really hard. Let
me explain myself. I think that drug money seeps into all corners of
Colombian society; Colombian businesses, Colombian banks. It seeps into the
Colombian war to a great extent. Both the guerrillas and their archenemy,
the
right-wing paramilitaries, make huge profits from the drug trade. Whether
or
not they're directly involved in the drug trade or whether or not they're
just
taxing big drug traffickers is up for debate, but they're making a huge
amount
of money from that. And I think that to sort of say, `Well, then politics
would be excluded from that entire spectrum that I just mentioned would
be ludicrous.' I don't think there's any question that drug money seeps
into
these campaigns.

GROSS: Ingrid Betancourt was talking about the threats against her life,
and
she's been subjected to many death threats over the years. She even sent
her
children to another country to be with their grandparents so that they would
be safe after they were threatened by people connected to the drug lords.
I'm
wondering if that's pretty common now, if you hear a lot of death threats
against people who oppose drugs and corruption?

DUDLEY: Death threats are common in Colombia for anyone who gets involved
in
politics, not just those who have spoken out against corruption and drug
money
seeping into campaigns, you know, and into businesses and banks and all the
rest. Death threats are common for those who are speaking out for their
rights as unions. Death threats are common for those who are speaking out
for
their rights to have palatable water. Death threats are common for those
who
are, you know, speaking for disenfranchised communities, like I mentioned,
displaced communities, indigenous communities. Death threats are just about
a
daily dose here. I mean, if you are a politician and you don't get a death
threat, you might start thinking that you're not necessarily doing a good
job.

Recently, there was a major death threat and a very credible report that
emerged that there was going to be an assassination attempt on a leftist
candidate here, or the most leftist candidate here, a guy named Luccio
Garcon(ph). And that would be--I would be very surprised if Luccio Garcon,
you know, even makes it to the May elections. I mean, death threats here,
and
also killings, are a very, very common occurrence, and have been for the
last
100 years in Colombian politics. So it doesn't surprise me at all that she
was threatened with death, and that she will continue to be threatened with
death.

GROSS: And I should mention, too, the press often faces death threats also.

DUDLEY: The press definitely does. This is something that people have
looked
at pretty closely in the last few years. But it's all locals. These are
local Colombian journalists who have been threatened for the most part. I
only know of one case of an international journalist being threatened. And
many of the cases are local in the sense that these journalists have exposed
things, like Ingrid Betancourt has exposed, on a very local level. They may
expose a lottery scam. They may expose a, you know, kickback scam at the
local mayor's office, and then they will subsequently be knocked off. So
this
is the type of thing that happens on all levels, so not just the
politicians.

GROSS: And you haven't had any threats against you?

DUDLEY: No, I haven't had any threats against me. Like I said, there's
only
one case that I know of--where a friend of mine had got a direct death
threat,
and since then things have cooled off.

Now so far--I mean, they seemed--the armed actors, anyway, and the people
who
would get angry at reports that I would write, which mostly had to do with
the
war here, they seemed to understand that there's a cost-benefit here. And
the
cost of knocking a person off like me, or any of my colleagues for that
matter, is much higher than the benefit.

GROSS: My guest, journalist Stephen Dudley, is speaking to us from Bogota,
Colombia. We'll talk more about Colombian politics after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, journalist Stephen Dudley, is joining us by phone from
Bogota, Colombia. He reports on Colombia for NPR and the PRI news program,
"The World." He's a freelance journalist. Colombia's presidential election
will be held in May. Earlier we heard from Ingrid Betancourt, who's running
for president in Colombia on an anti-drug trafficking, anti-corruption
platform.

Do you feel that Ingrid Betancourt has really accomplished much in her
campaign against corruption and drug money?

DUDLEY: Well, I think Ingrid is, as are all who are fighting that fight,
they're fighting a huge, uphill battle. She's accomplished something in
that
she and her cohorts were able to put it on the agenda enough to where the
president had to address the issue, to where Congress had to address the
issue
in a way that hadn't been seen in a number of years.

But things seemed to roll right back into place. We haven't heard much from
the campaign in the last few months, anyway, even though they may be making
a
lot of noise. They're certainly not making it to the national agenda
anymore
as they were when they first started out with this huge campaign. So it's
one
of these things that you see, and it's kind of sad, because, you know, her
campaign is very important. It is very important to, you know, rid this
country of these corrupting influences. But they're all over, and they're
very powerful people. And so for her to be able to accomplish things in the
short amount of time that she perhaps wants to is probably a little bit too
ambitious. And like I said, I think the things have a way of just sort of
turning back to where they were, you know, very quickly.

GROSS: Well, when you refer to the campaign, do you mean her presidential
campaign or her anti-corruption campaign?

DUDLEY: I'm referring to her anti-corruption campaign. And, again, I mean
her presidential campaign is kind of launched from on that same basis. But
certainly, you know, where she began the campaign, or where the campaign
held
the most influence, was when they first started it. And then at the time,
she
wasn't a presidential candidate. She and a number of others, very important
people, were launching this anti-corruption campaign. And it reached a
point
where the president himself was announcing that they would have a referendum
of sorts and look at the possibility of having new elections in Congress;
there was so much corruption going on in Congress at the time. But again,
that amounts to nothing. The president had to back down, there were no
elections for Congress, or re-elections for Congress, and, you know, Ingrid
has continued her campaign, but probably, you know, with less of an impact
than she had initially.

GROSS: I don't know how long you've been in Colombia, but do you think that
things have improved at all since the days of the Medellin Cartel? Improved
in terms of corruption, violence in the street, assassinations?

DUDLEY: I've been in Colombia off and on since 1995, probably for a total
of
five years. In my time here, things have gotten substantially worse.
People
do still make references to the Medellin Cartel time period. When they talk
about that, they talk mostly about bombs, indiscriminate bombs that were
placed by Pablo Escobar and some of his associates, to protest the
possibility
of them being extradited to the United States. The situation we have here
now
is a much wider scale of violence, I would say, than the Colombians had in
the
late 1980s and early 1990s.

The recent report that I saw in terms of numbers of homicides kind of made
my
jaw drop, where--when I came here, it was about 25,000, and that's for a
country of 40 million. Now they're talking about closer to 40,000. So
that--just in the last five years--I mean, we're talking about--What is
that?--I mean, 60 percent rise in homicides, and that's homicides across the
board. You know, that's homicides of people, you know, being robbed; that's
homicides of people who are killed for political reasons; that's war-related
deaths. I mean, this is across the board. So things, at least since I've
been here, have gotten substantially worse.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Dudley, thank you very much for talking with us.

DUDLEY: OK. No problem.

GROSS: Stephen Dudley is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Questlove spins the soundtrack of his life in 'Music is History'

In his new book, Roots co-founder Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson starts in 1971 and moves year-by-year through his life, writing about memories, turning points and the songs he listened to.

42:18

In 'Maid,' a single mother struggles to make it on minimum wage

While raising her young daughter, Stephanie Land cleaned houses to scrape by. It was back-aching work for low pay. Her memoir inspired the Netflix series, Maid. Originally broadcast Jan. 29, 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue