Jailing made Colombian relive kidnapping trauma

Sep 13, 2012, 7:21 AM

Associated Press

CALI, Colombia (AP) – Sigifredo Lopez personally paid the cost of Colombia’s bloody civil war when he was kidnapped by rebels along with 11 other legislators, held captive for seven years and became famous as the lone survivor of a notorious massacre of his captive colleagues.

His stunning arrest this year made him a symbol of something else as well: the murky nature of Colombia’s long civil conflict.

Prosecutors alleged that far from being a victim, Lopez was actually in cahoots with the rebels who seized the lawmakers. The former hostage found himself a prisoner again.

“They painted me as the worst criminal in the history of humanity,” Lopez said in an interview with The Associated Press at his home in Cali.

Now 48 and with thick, graying hair, the heavyset lawyer lives with his high school sweetheart, also an attorney, in a middle-class house. He apparently practices little law these days, but ran for the national Senate in 2010 and for mayor of Cali in 2011, losing both times.

Lopez has frequently recounted his ordeal as a rebel hostage to investigators and others, so he didn’t think much about the phone call from prosecutors summoning him to their office on May 16.

But he was floored by what they had to say: “Sir, you are under arrest.”

“I thought it was a joke,” Lopez said.

Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, staged a dramatic raid on the provincial legislature in 2002 and grabbed 12 little-known lawmakers, including Lopez.

He was a member of the center-left Liberal Party, but the rebels apparently gave no thought to his politics. He and his companions were among at least 50 military officers, police and politicians taken captive between 1997 and 2002. They made up a group that the FARC called the “exchangeables”_ hostages it wanted to swap for imprisoned rebels. Successive Colombian governments, however, rejected that idea.

Eleven of the legislators were executed five years later in a confused incident when their rebel captors mistook another guerrilla unit for a government rescue force and carried out standing orders to kill their hostages in the event of such an attempt. Lopez was the only survivor. He was freed by the FARC in 2009 and returned to Cali, the capital of Valle del Cauca.

Since Lopez was released, his story has not wavered: He survived the 2007 executions because on that day the rebels were punishing him by keeping him 50 meters, or about 50 yards, away from the others, separated by a wall of palm leaves.

Lopez said he heard the gunshots but other rebels quickly spirited him away. He said he finally learned of his companions’ massacre two weeks later from the guerrillas and radio broadcasts.

For a long time, nobody had cause to doubt him.

That changed after a military operation killed FARC maximum leader Alfonso Cano in November 2011 and troops recovered his laptop, which contained videos and numerous documents on FARC’s operations.

In one of those videos, a man’s voice can be heard explaining in front of a map of the Valle del Cauca legislature how the 2002 kidnapping raid would be done. Suddenly the speaker shifts position, offering a brief glimpse of his profile.

Prosecutors alleged that the man was Sigifredo Lopez, and arrested him on suspicion of murder, kidnapping, perfidy and rebellion. Besides the video, prosecutors said four former FARC guerrillas had given testimony implicating Lopez, according to a copy of his arrest order.

No motive was offered, leading to speculation that Lopez could have plotted with the rebels and then been betrayed when they kidnapped him as well.

Colombians were aghast. It seemed unthinkable that a man who himself was held captive for nearly seven years could have betrayed his own, and some people, including Colombia’s interior minister and relatives of the slain legislators, expressed hope that somehow it was all a terrible mistake.

“Judas?” Colombia’s leading weekly newsmagazine asked on its cover.

Another former hostage, Gov. Alan Jara of the southern province of Meta, said he felt “absolute disbelief” when the allegations surfaced, though he never met Lopez because they were held in distinct parts of the country.

“It’s two different hells,” Jara said. “And who knows know which is worse: the kidnapping, or being imprisoned for something he didn’t commit.”

After his arrest, Lopez was taken to the capital, Bogota. Behind bars, he was suddenly reliving a nightmare of captivity that he thought was over. Even worse, he was suspected of complicity in the death of his fellow captives.

It wasn’t long, however, before the prosecutors’ case began unraveling.

On May 24, Caracol Television broadcast an interview with a former rebel who took part in the legislators’ kidnapping and said the man on the video was actually guerrilla Milton Sierra Gomez, alias “JJ,” the commander of the assault.

At the request of Lopez’s lawyers, the video was examined by Colombian forensic experts and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was determined the video was too brief and the audio too muddled to tell whether the man was Lopez.

The testimony of the former rebels who implicated Lopez was also thrown into doubt.

One had said Lopez used a cellphone to call then-President Andres Pastrana from the jungle and tell him not to bomb an area where the captives were being held. But Pastrana told Colombian media he was never contacted by Lopez during those years.

A judge rejected the charges brought by prosecutors and Lopez was freed on Aug. 14, though the prosecutors have not formally withdrawn the charges, acknowledged error or apologized.

Other former hostages said his case highlights deficiencies in Colombian justice system, which allows prosecutors to order a suspect detained without charge during an investigation.

“Sigifredo’s case is one of those episodes in which injustice borders on madness,” said Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian who was running for Colombia’s presidency when she was taken captive by the FARC in 2002. An army rescue freed her and 14 other hostages in 2008.

Legal authorities defend their actions, noting they had testimony from the ex-rebels to corroborate their suspicions about the video.

“Prosecutors had no evidence that those witnesses were untruthful,” Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre told the AP. “It was in no way staged.”

Lopez said his 38 days in a Colombian jail did bring a major life change. On June 22, the day he was released from prison and put under house arrest, he asked his partner of 26 years to marry him. Patricia Nieto said yes, and they tied the knot a week later.

“I had several revelations from God,” Lopez said. “In one of them he told me: `Get married by the Holy Mother Church.'”

Today Lopez said he’s happy and trying to move on. He doesn’t know yet whether he will sue the government, but he hopes to see changes in the legal system.

“I hope that what happened to me never happens again to any Colombian.”

___

Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Vivian Sequera in Bogota contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Jailing made Colombian relive kidnapping trauma