Our editor published a column Sunday saying that Ingrid Betancourt has “a legal if not a moral right to compensation”. As the editor’s opinion in this matter is contrary to that of most people I have talked to, I was surprised by the article. Indeed, Ms. Betancourt may be the most disliked politician in Colombia today, so I thought it was pretty ballsy to write an op-ed piece defending her position. Our editor must be commended for looking at the other side of this matter.
Alas, I have to disagree with him. Ms. Betancourt does not have a legal right to compensation from the Colombian government. There are two important reasons why this is so. First, Ms. Betancourt is directing her claim at the wrong target, as the state is not to blame for her kidnapping. Only the FARC is guilty of her suffering. Second, it was Ms. Betancourt who put herself in danger. Against the state’s advice and her better judgment, she decided to visit an area that was de facto a war zone.
I am aware that our editor has addressed these two points in his column. He rightly points out that these are the main arguments used against Ms. Betancourt, but he maintains, incorrectly, that neither of them has legal validity. Here we will see why he is wrong. To claim that Ms. Betancourt has no right to receive compensation from the government, because it was the FARC who kidnapped her, does not “immediately dismiss reparation claims by any victim” of any armed group in Colombia, as the editor claims. There is no reason, legal or otherwise, to arrive to general conclusions about all other victims given this particular case. For one, precedent in Colombian law is not as important as it is, for example, in the American legal system. Two similar cases may have different outcomes. Furthermore, since when did criminal responsibility (which in this case falls entirely on the FARC) cease to have legal validity?
The whole affair seems pretty straightforward to me. To determine whether an individual deserves compensation from the government, I believe that at least two questions must be answered. First, was the individual a victim of violence by the state? In other words, was the state the perpetrator? If the answer is affirmative, the individual deserves compensation, but if the answer is negative, then a second question arises: did the state fail to protect the individual from a third actor, when the state had the capacity to do so? In other words, was there negligence on the state’s part? If the answer is affirmative, the individual deserves compensation, otherwise, she does not.
In Ms. Betancourt’s case, the state was not the perpetrator, and there appears to be no negligence on its part. Some disagree on this last point. Our editor argues that the presence of armed groups in Colombia “does not change the state’s duty to do all it can to protect its citizens.” The crux of the question is whether the state did “all it could” to protect Ms. Betancourt. I strongly believe this was the case. At the time of her kidnapping, the military forces were trying to regain control of a FARC-dominated area, and, therefore, the presumption is that the state did not have the capacity to prevent her from being kidnapped or harmed if she went there. The same occurs with nationals of any country in regions where there is active armed confrontation. Therefore, in order to protect Ms. Betancourt, the state had no better choice than warning her about the risk and advising her not to go, and the warning took place. The state was not avoiding its responsibility to protect Ms. Betancourt, but it simply had no capacity to go beyond the warning.
This leads us to the second main reason why Ms. Betancourt’s case has no foundation: she threw herself into the FARC’s arms. Just as any other Colombian, Ms. Betancourt was aware that just three days before her kidnapping, President Pastrana had ordered a remilitarization of the area. The zone had been a FARC sanctuary for years, while the fiasco of the peace negotiations took place. Other presidential candidates had decided to obey the advice to stay away from those unfortunate towns, and everybody knew that the area was filled with guerrillas, landmines, and crossed fire.
Nevertheless, Ms. Betancourt decided to take the risk and enter the area, and she probably foresaw some political gains from that action. If she could leave the zone unharmed, she would be hailed as a courageous politician, unafraid to visit hell and share some time with the communities living there. The state may have forgotten them, but she had not. Plus, the mayor of San Vicente del Caguan, the name of the municipality in question, came from her political party, adding to the sense of purpose of her visit.
But Ms. Betancourt’s plan backfired miserably, and we all know the outcome. She was warned, but she did not listen. Contrary to what Ms. Betancourt claims, her bodyguards were not ordered not to accompany her, but they decided not to do so, given the circumstances. And they were wise, for if they had followed Ms. Betancourt, they would have certainly been killed. Against everyone’s advice, and against simple common sense, Ingrid Betancourt walked directly into the FARC’s trap and she lost six and a half years of her life in the hands of terrorists.
Apparently, there is a piece of paper where Ms. Betancourt wrote that she would take full responsibility for her actions the day she was kidnapped. I do not believe that this document, if it indeed exists, is important at all. There are numerous witnesses that confirm that Ms. Betancourt was warned, there is footage of reporters asking her whether she really wanted to go given the dangers, and her own bodyguards decided that the risk was too high for them to go. Finally, Ms. Betancourt would have to be living under a rock if she did not know that she was putting herself at an unnecessary risk.
In other words, Ingrid Betancourt’s claim has no legal basis. The state was not the perpetrator of the aggression against her (the FARC is to blame), and the state, absent its capacity to control the region at the time, fulfilled its responsibility to protect her by giving a warning. Nobody should forget that taking care of oneself is first an individual duty and then a duty of the state. If I do not take proper care of myself or my property (by smoking, eating unhealthy foods, running across a highway during rush hour, leaving my front door open at night, or going to a zone full of Marxist terrorists known for kidnapping high profile politicians) I have no right to receive other people’s money in compensation for the consequences. Ms. Betancourt says she regrets having filed her claim, and as she seems to be coming back to her senses, I hope she cancels it entirely. Right now.