BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — When leftist rebels earlier this month freed a former governor held captive more than two years, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed the release as a hopeful sign that the National Liberation Army had finally sworn off kidnapping as peace talks with the group were getting under way.
But now a darker truth has emerged: Far from a peace gesture, former Gov. Patrocinio Sanchez Montes de Oca says his captors agreed to his release only on the condition that his older brother, Odin, replaced him in captivity.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Thursday from a hospital where he is recovering, the former governor of Choco province credited his brother with saving his life after he lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds) due to a gallbladder infection while a prisoner. He said his only regret was that during the brief handover three weeks ago his armed captors didn't give him more time to express his gratitude to his brother for the selfless gesture.
"I was very emaciated, very thin. I looked like one of those people in Africa dying of hunger," Montes de Oca said. "The first time I saw myself in a mirror I was scared."
The release came less than a week after Santos and the ELN announced that they had agreed to a formal peace process to end a half-century of bloodshed in the Andean nation.
But news of the ELN's requirements for the swap has those talks at risk even before they've started. The biggest member of Santos' governing coalition is calling on the president to freeze talks until Odin Sanchez Montes de Oca is released. At the time of the announcement, Santos admonished the rebel group for kidnapping, which he said was incompatible with the peace talks.
The ELN is Colombia's second-largest rebel group, with an estimated 1,500 fighters, and largely finances its insurgency through extortion and kidnappings. The biggest and far-stronger rebel movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been in peace talks with the government for three years.
Herbin Hoyos, a journalist who runs a radio program that broadcasts messages from loved ones to captives held in the jungle, said it's not uncommon for armed groups to exchange prisoners. Sometimes it is out of compassion when a hostage is severely ill while other times it is necessary because the captive manages a family's finances and is the only one who can raise the necessary funds to pay a hefty ransom.
"The problem is sometimes those who are exchanged aren't returned," said Hoyos.
Montes de Oca said he doesn't harbor resentment against his captors, and even recalled fondly acts of humanity from some of his jailers, like the husband of the guerrilla unit's commander who would frequently give him a hug to boost his spirits.
"My only goal now is to maximize every second of my life," said the former governor, who is 53.