High-profile kidnappings brings war's danger to Colombia elite

BOGOTA, Colombia - A former Cabinet minister is snatched while jogging in one of Colombia's safest cities. The teenage daughter of a business leader is abducted in broad daylight near a Bogota campus. The general manager of a foreign carmaker is taken from a getaway home outside the capital.

Each case - including the kidnapping Monday of former economic development minister Fernando Araujo in the tourist seaport of Cartagena - occurred in just the past two weeks.

With at least 2,754 abductions reported through October, Colombia's kidnapping industry is breaking its own records this year - and bringing home the danger of the 36-year guerrilla war to an elite that once felt immune from the conflict.

The South American nation is expected to register more than 3,000 kidnappings this year for the first time ever, according to a private monitoring group, the Free Country Foundation.

Statistics don't give a sense of how pervasive the problem has become, nor of the heartbreak it causes for victims and their families.

But turn on a radio on any given night on Colombia and you can hear wives and children of kidnap victims sending teary messages to their loved ones in captivity. The ''kidnap radio'' programs have become a form of national group therapy.

Go to any bookstore in Bogota and pick up a copy of two of the year's best sellers: ''How To Survive a Kidnapping,'' by a psychologist who counsels victims, and ''Kidnapped'', a teen-ager's first-person account of her abduction last year by guerrillas who hijacked a domestic airliner.

Or observe the armored cars packed with gun-toting bodyguards waiting every afternoon to pick up children - a growing target - from private schools in Bogota.

''What all this is generating is panic and fear, said David Buitrago, an analyst at Free Country who believes the media learn about only a fraction of the kidnappings hitting prominent families. ''Colombia feels kidnapped.''

The Avianca airliner hijacking was followed by two other large-scale rebel kidnappings in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. Guerrillas snared nearly 300 people from a Roman Catholic Mass in a wealthy neighborhood and along a strip of roadside restaurants that were a weekend getaway for that city's well-to-do.

Most of the abductions are committed by guerrillas or common criminals. But rightist paramilitary groups have been getting into the act, and kidnapping rings have operated out of the military.

The armed groups' voracious demand for hostages has even given birth to free-lance gangs who abduct people in major cities or on their country estates and sell them to the insurgents.

And with peace negotiations between rebels and the government faltering, the industry will likely keep booming.

Multinational corporations working in Colombia typically insure top executives against kidnappings. They are not being overly cautious, as illustrated by the Nov. 25 abduction of Hyundai Corp.'s general manager from his weekend home outside Bogota.

Police freed the Colombian executive, Lazaro Montes, on Tuesday from kidnappers allegedly belonging to the nation's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Visiting Colombia on Monday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called the kidnapping surge ''extremely alarming'' and urged government security measures.

Guerrillas say their ransom kidnappings are a way of ''taxing'' the rich to finance their fight. But hundreds of middle-class people have been kidnapped in the past few years at rebel roadblocks placed randomly along the highways.

Many wealthy Colombians dare not venture to weekend estates for fear of being snared at one of the roadblocks, operations nicknamed ''pescas milagrosas,'' or ''fishing for miracles.'' Colombians who can obtain foreign visas are leaving the country in record numbers.

The kidnapping of Araujo in Cartagena on Monday showed that even one of Colombia's safest places - the pastel-washed colonial seaport President Clinton visited in August - is not without danger.

Araujo, 44, was taking an evening run in an area of hotels and luxury apartments when five men forced him into a car and sped away. Police said they had no clue who kidnapped him.

Pastrana replaced Araujo one year into his administration, after prosecutors named him in corruption investigations surrounding a government land sale in Cartagena.

Authorities also have been mum about the Nov. 28 kidnapping of 19-year-old Juliana Villegas, a political science student whose father, Luis Carlos Villegas, heads the National Association of Industries and has been involved in peace contacts with the guerrillas.


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