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Hostage describes narrow escape from Colombia’s FARC

BOGOTA — Police Sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo was packing his tarp and towel at about 6 a.m. on Saturday — preparing for another long march through the jungle — when he felt gunshots graze his neck and face. Without thinking, he sprinted into the brush as his assassin gave chase.

Laying in a hospital bed in Bogotá on Monday, Erazo, 48, said that split-second decision allowed him to escape the FARC guerrillas who had held him hostage for almost 12 years. It was only when he was back in the capital that he was told his four companions — all of whom had been in rebel hands for more than a decade — didn’t survive. The FARC executed them as troops moved in, the government said.

“I thought they were also going to run toward the jungle,” Erazo said of his fellow hostages.

For years, his captors had drilled home the idea that if they heard gunshots they should stay close to camp or risk punishment. “My companions ran towards them [the guerrillas] and they were killed in cold blood,” Erazo said. “I forgot the rules and ran the other direction.”

In his first interviews since escaping, Erazo looked thin as he laid in a hospital bed wearing blue pajamas. His cheek and neck were bandaged and his face was covered in welts.

The death of the four hostages was a grim reminder that the embattled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC still have the means to deliver powerful psychological blows to this Andean nation. The group is thought to have about 16 military and police officers still in captivity, many of whom, like Erazo, have been hostages for more than a decade.

Saturday’s incident sparked global outrage, as everyone from the Pope to Amnesty International condemned the murders. It was one of the first mass killing of captives since 2007, when 11 politicians from Valle de Cauca, who had been in captivity for five years, were executed.

Erazo’s escape came as the government is poised to reveal a new military strategy to step-up pressure on the group, and less than a month after special forces killed FARC top commander Alfonso Cano.

Erazo said news of Cano’s Nov. 4 death reached his camp but didn’t seem to phase the rebels.

“The guerrillas said that Alfonso Cano had died and that his replacement had been named; that one person went to his grave and another will lead the FARC,” he said. Their attitude is “this is war. Today I die, tomorrow you die.”

Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timoleón Jiménez” or “Timochenko” was named the new leader of the organization the day after Cano’s death.

Timochenko is thought to operate along the border with Venezuela, and military intelligence believes he often crosses into the neighboring country.

During a meeting between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos on Monday, Chávez said his nation’s forces would defend the border region.

“We will do everything within our reach to keep Venezuelan territory from being used to conspire against, strike at or attack Colombia,” he said, according to a statement issued by Colombia’s presidency. In the past, Colombia has accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to FARC operations there.

When the news of the executions first broke on Saturday, there was speculation that it had been a botched rescue attempt.

On Monday, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the encounter had not been planned. Troops had been in the southern province of Caquetá for more than 45 days hunting down the FARC column, which they suspected of holding hostages. But the soldiers were about to leave the area when they spotted a trail and followed it to encampment, he said.

“It’s likely that that’s when they [the guerrillas] made the decision to murder them and run,” he said in a statement. One female guerrilla member was captured in the raid.

The government said it found the bodies of police officers Edgar Yesid Duarte, Elkin Hernández and Alvaro Moreno, along with that of Army Sergeant Jose Libio Martínez. Three had been shot in the head and one shot in the back. The chains, with which they were often bound, were found close to the bodies, the government said.

Erazo said the government should keep trying to negotiate with the FARC even as the military has an “obligation” to rescue hostages.

Pressed on whether he thought rescue attempts might put hostages in danger, Erazo said the government has little choice.

“I had been kidnapped for 12 years and Libio Jose Martínez had been there for 14 years, and they still killed him,” he said. “What do you want us to think?”

In a FARC communiqué published on Anncol, a website that often runs guerrilla press releases, the group said its armed struggle had “profound social, economic and political causes” but it’s open to negotiations.

“A peace deal in Colombia should be preceded by a prisoner exchange,” the FARC’s ruling secretariat wrote, saying there were some 800 guerillas in Colombian jail. “Without a doubt, that would help pave the way for an end to the war and the conflict, which has been drawn out for six decades due to the government’s intransigence.”

Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC has increasingly resorted to drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion to finance its survival. The rebel group is thought to have about 9,000 members. Colombia and the United States consider it a terrorist organization.

As Erazo recalled Saturday morning, he said the FARC guerrillas spotted the military patrol closing in from about 110-220 yards away. That’s when the rebels came back to camp to kill the hostages. He said his would-be executioner shot him from about 30 feet away from behind a palm tree.

That’s when he ran.

“I got ahead of him in the brush and Boom! Boom! Boom! I Could hear the shots behind me,” Erazo said. He finally lost his pursuer and hid in a hollowed out log. After about five hours he said the jungle fell silent and he began walking until he spotted soldiers clearing a landing pad for a helicopter.

Erazo said his fellow hostages dreamed of meeting their grown children and starting family businesses. He said it was miracle that he had lived.

“I know that God exists and I know that evil exists,” Erazo said. “And the FARC are evil.”