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Three-a-Day Kidnappings Put Colombia on Edge

The mothers of 60 government soldiers held prisoner by guerrillas in the south of Colombia have waited three months with no sign of their sons' release. Now, they are tired of waiting.

With official negotiations at a standstill, the mothers pledged to begin a hunger strike today if their children weren't returned by midnight yesterday - the deadline agreed upon by the guerrillas and the government. The strike comes after months of fruitless negotiations and a trip to the United Nations in New York and the Organization of American States in Washington last week by two mothers to appeal for international support.

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"We want President [Samper] to be sensible and find new alternatives to get our sons home before Christmas," says Angelica Toro, whose son is held by the FARC, a guerrilla group that has been fighting for land reform since 1966.

Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) overran Las Delicias military base in the southern province of Putumayo on Aug. 30, 60 young soldiers have hung in the balance of seemingly endless negotiations between the FARC and the government. The Army has alleged that the soldiers suffer inhuman conditions, while the FARC warns that the Army plans an all-out rescue attempt of "blood and fire." Right-wing paramilitaries linked to the military have started kidnapping the mothers and sisters of FARC guerrillas in retaliation.

The mothers have criss-crossed the country in the last three months, bearing posters of their children and appealing to the guerrillas to release the prisoners. The tour is sponsored by a group with close ties to the military. But the 60 soldiers are not the only people held hostage in Colombia.

Right now, at least 450 people rest in the hands of kidnappers, says Alberto Villamizar, Colombia's head man in fight against kidnapping. He estimates that 1,000 people are kidnapped each year in Colombia - three each day - the highest figure in the world. In contrast, about a dozen people are kidnapped for ransom in the US each year.

Official figures state that Colombia's kidnapping "industry" is worth about $150 million per year. The unofficial figures - the majority of cases go unreported - rate around $530 million, according to the Colombian weekly newspaper Semana.

Mr. Villamizar estimates that 99 percent of kidnapping in Colombia is strictly for profit.

"It's sure business - very profitable and low risk," says Francisco Santos, editor of the country's largest newspaper, El Tiempo, and the founder the Free Country Foundation, a group that supports families of kidnap victims. Mr. Santos's own abduction in 1990 is the basis of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's latest book, "News of a Kidnapping."

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Colombian kidnapping cartels are organized in specialized units so that the abductors may have no idea who the eventual captors or negotiators will be. It is sometimes possible to arrest one group of criminals, but those in command remain out of reach, Santos says.

"The families feel victimized first by the kidnappers and then by the judicial process," says Juan Mesa, a lawyer for the Free Country Foundation. In Colombia 92 percent of kidnapping goes unpunished. For those kidnappers who are prosecuted, the punishments are usually lenient, says Santos.

A law in 1993 sponsored by the Free Country Foundation outlawed the payment of ransom and raised the maximum penalty for kidnapping to 60 years. But Colombia's constitutional court overturned the ban on ransom payment, on humanitarian grounds. To date, no kidnapper has received a sentence of 60 years.

"If paying [the ransom] was outlawed, it would be at least a great bargaining tool," says Mr. Mesa. "Victims' families could argue that they couldn't pay, and the public prosecutor could freeze their assets." During the short period when paying ransoms was prohibited, the amounts demanded fell dramatically. When the law was overturned, the ransoms returned to their previous levels. The average ransom is $250,000, but some international executives have fetched ransoms of more than $4 million. This huge transfer of foreign capital to guerrillas and criminals has caused considerable resentment in the country.

"Kidnapping is only a number in their gains and losses," says Santos. He points out that the ransoms finance weapons and supplies for the kidnappers - ultimately funding more abductions.

The Free Country Foundation has recently embarked on an anti-kidnapping march, visiting seven cities around Colombia. Paramilitary groups released two of the eight kidnapped FARC family members Dec. 1 - the day of the first march. Santos acknowledges that the publicity caused by the soldiers' mothers has helped his cause, but he fears it may have also confused the issue.

"They are putting a military issue in a civilian light, so it doesn't benefit the cause of civilians getting out of the conflict," says Santos. "What we are saying is: 'You guys kill each other, but leave us out of it.' "

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