A Scripted Release
Die Welt 24.09.1998
Colombian guerrillas kidnap Senator Espinoza – Bonn intervenes
Bonn – At crucial moments it was not always very clear where the centre of activity was nor with whom the initiative lay – Minister of State Bernd Schmidbauer at the Chancellor’s Office in Bonn, the Colombian government, secret agent Werner Mauss, somewhere in Germany, or the Colombian guerrilla organisation ELN in their constantly changing headquarters in the jungle.
Only one thing was sure: For Carlos Espinoza Faciolince, senator and former parliamentary president of a country torn by drug wars, guerrilla fighting and state inspired and bloody terror, it was a matter of life or death.
Even a few days ago, nobody would have been prepared to offer very good odds on the balance of events shifting in the liberal politician’s favour. Today he will arrive safe and sound in Germany.
It all began on the 2nd of August. As he was on his way to Valledupar, Espinoza’s car was held up by armed rebels. He was pulled from the car and carried off into the jungle. The taking of hostages is an everyday event in Colombia, as is state-sponsored murder. The peasants are given only 48 hours to clear out of their villages by the death squads. Anyone who refuses to go is murdered. Since October 1997, a total of 408 massacres have brought the deaths of over 1,600 people.
Espinoza found himself in the hands of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest guerrilla group in Colombia. He was carried off quickly to a hiding place in the jungle. From fear of rescue attempts mounted by the military, the guerrilla group constantly changes its hiding places.
Following his release, the 45-year-old recalled: “I was well treated. But these were 51 hard days. I received no information and had no idea about what they were planning to do with me. Every new day became another day of suffering and there were many times when I came close to giving up.”
Espinoza’s kidnapping has caused quite a stir in Colombia. The ELN is demanding an end to the massacres and help for the peasants who have been driven from their villages. The government remembers earlier mediation attempts made by Bonn in this undeclared war in the jungle: the first round of peace talks between the conflicting parties took place in the Himmelspforten monastery in July. President Andrés Pastrana activates the contacts with Bonn.
On the 22nd of August – Espinoza had already been languishing three weeks in captivity – “peace minister” Victor Ricardo heads for Germany. His objective, to talk with Minister of State Bernd Schmidbauer in Bonn about ways of getting the peace process in his country moving forward – and about the fate of Espinoza. Schmidbauer and Ricardo meet on the 24th and 25th of August. Also present at the negotiating table is Eduardo Espinoza, brain surgeon brother of the hostage. During the talks, a telephone link, requiring a great deal of technological expertise and know-how, is set up with ELN commander Antonio García in his jungle hide out. Schmidbauer and García speak on two occasions.
The script for release is ready. The ELN wants to hand over their hostage to a Colombian delegation on September 20th, and make it a condition that German journalists should be present to witness the handing over. ZDF (TV), the magazine Focus and Deutschlandfunk (German World Service) send teams.
Sunday September 20th: Around midday, Espinoza is brought from the camp. Suddenly he is there – in the middle of the Sierra de Perija – facing his brother, the official delegation and the journalists.
Eduardo Espinoza describes the moment of reunion: “He was unshaven and dirty, with his clothes torn and his shoes worn out by the hours of forced marches through the jungle. We just looked at one another, then fell into each other’s arms.”
“I felt as if I’d been reborn”, said Espinoza himself to DIE WELT. And without being asked, he adds: “Without the help of the German government and Herr and Frau Mauss I’m sure I would have had to suffer many months more of captivity.” Espinoza returns to Cartagena, to his wife Elsa and his three sons. “The first thing I did was to pour myself a large Scotch”, he says.
Espinoza has brought a mission and an obligation with him from his captivity. He wants the subject of peasants driven from their villages and the murder of civilians in Colombia kept on the agenda. To DIE WELT, he commented: “With my unconditional release the ELN made it clear that they are serious about the peace process. Now the government must make sure that the peasants are really helped, that the massacres are brought to an end, that support is withdrawn from the paramilitary groups, and that those responsible are brought to book.”
A document intended to achieve these things was already negotiated with the government prior to his release. “We hope that the German government will continue to assist us in the realisation of the peace process.”
Comandante Garcia too is relying on Bonn’s help. On the telephone he confirmed to DIE WELT: “It was only due to the intervention of Bonn that Espinoza was so quickly released. The objective in taking him prisoner was to bring the massacres and the plight of the refugees to the attention of the entire country. In this aim we were successful.”
According to Garcia, Schmidbauer has pledged to continue his support. Today, the drama where each has his role to play, will reach its happy conclusion. Espinoza thanks Schmidbauer – somewhere in Germany.
Because this too must be played with understatement, just like the rest of this dramatic operation which could so easily have turned to tragedy.