A Colombian's quest

GRANADA, Colombia — With chains on his wrists and an eight-foot-long wooden cross bearing down on his left shoulder, Gustavo Moncayo stopped on the side of the road to catch his breath and massage his aching muscles.

But the 57-year-old high school teacher insisted his burden was light compared to the suffering his soldier-son has been subjected to for nearly 12 years as a hostage of Marxist guerrillas.

Angry at what he views as the Colombian government’s lack of interest in the case, Moncayo set off last week on a five-day, 70-mile march from an army base to Bogota where he intends to stage a theatrical protest across the street from the presidential palace.

“I intend to crucify myself,” said Moncayo, who has become a local celebrity for his cross-country walks to call attention to the plight of Colombia’s hostages.

Though his act is symbolic, Moncayo’s outrage is real and profound.

His son, Army Corp. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, was taken prisoner during a 1997 firefight and is one of 23 soldiers and policemen still being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest rebel group known as the FARC.

But in the wake of last year’s dramatic sting operation by the Colombian Army — that freed three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — the FARC no longer holds any big-name prisoners and the hostage issue has faded from the spotlight.

“It’s a terrible thing because no one is paying any attention,” said Olga Gutierrez, who offered Moncayo cold soda and a block of cheese as he marched through Granada, a village just south of Bogota.

Government officials claim they are doing all they can but insist they will never give in to rebel blackmail, which they say would simply embolden the rebels to take more hostages. The FARC has long kidnapped civilians for ransom to fund its 45-year-old war against the government. But the group began taking so-called “political hostages” in the late 1990s. By seizing politicians, policemen and soldiers, the FARC tried to force the government into trading them for imprisoned rebels.

In a proof-of-life video released in June 2007, a crew-cut Corporal Moncayo, looking depressed but otherwise healthy, pleaded with the Bogota government to cut a deal for his freedom.

“Why not negotiate with the FARC?” he said. “Why rely on force when that’s not the solution?” he said.

But Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983, has refused to give in to the rebels’ demands and has instead ratcheted up military pressure on the FARC.

 

To a large degree, his strategy has worked. Amid a fierce army onslaught, the FARC has retreated into remote regions of the country. Following last year’s rescue operation, in which the FARC lost its most high-value hostages, a prisoner exchange has been ruled out.

So now, in an effort to rehabilitate its image, the FARC has begun to unilaterally release some of its hostages.

On April 16, the rebel organization announced it would free Moncayo — under two conditions. The FARC asked that the elder Moncayo as well as Senator Piedad Cordoba, a left-wing politician who has often clashed with Uribe, be present for the jungle handover.

But Uribe feared the event would generate TV coverage and a publicity bonanza for the FARC, so he imposed his own conditions. He insisted that the FARC release all 23 of the kidnapped soldiers and policemen at the same time.

This time, the FARC said “no.”

“How much longer do we have to wait?” Moncayo said as he used a green towel to protect his shoulder from the weight of the cross. “We waited 11 and a half years for the guerrillas to agree to free my son. And we’ve now we’ve been waiting months for the government to cooperate. It’s the most unjust thing in the world.”

Still, most Colombians appear to support Uribe’s hard-line policies which have led to a sharp drop in kidnappings. Improved security has boosted Uribe’s popularity and he’s is now trying to change the constitution so he can run for a third term next year.

Moncayo’s critics, in turn, say he focuses all his wrath on the government while rarely saying a bad word about the guerrillas.

Over the past three years, Moncayo has logged more than 1,600 miles in protest walks, including a two-month trek from Bogota to Caracas, where he pleaded with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — who openly admires the FARC — to lobby for his son’s freedom.

On the road, he wears sturdy running shoes and a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Pablo Emilio. A length of chain connects his wrists and he has vowed not to remove the links until his son comes home.

Accompanied by a police escort, Moncayo logs about 15 miles a day. As he walks, he recites poetry, answers his cell phone, gives interviews and admires the Colombian countryside.

The spectacle of a bearded man dragging a cross — which is made of two bamboo poles and stuck together with masking tape and rubber bands — has caused traffic jams by gawking motorists. And Moncayo receives the occasional insult.

But as he trudged up the final mountain pass into Bogota, Moncayo smiled as a car whizzed by and the driver stuck his hand out the window to give him the thumbs-up.