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Colombia rebels' hostage recalls friendship with wild pig

Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero, who was freed by FARC rebels in April, says Josefo, a little wild pig he kept as a pet, helped keep him sane during his jungle ordeal.

May 22, 2012|By Chris Kraul
  • Former hostages Jose Libardo Forero, left, and Jorge Romero, with Forero's pet pig, Josefo, arrive in Villavicencio, Colombia, accompanied by medical personnel after their release by FARC rebels.
Former hostages Jose Libardo Forero, left, and Jorge Romero, with Forero's… (Fernando Vergara / Associated…)

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A little wild pig named Josefo, abandoned by his mother, helped keep Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero sane.

For nearly 13 years, Forero was one of the "forgotten" hostages held by the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. During that unending stretch of his life, spent chained to other prisoners round the clock or confined in barbed-wire pens, he found mental escape in bonding with jungle animals.

The career police sergeant tells of the tiny bit of happiness he found befriending monkeys, parrots and, finally, Josefo, whom he initially kept alive by feeding him milk with a syringe (and who later got hooked on coffee). He says he identified with the pig who had been left behind by his herd.

He felt like he'd been forsaken too, as his FARC captors slowly released all their other political and military hostages. Through it all, he said, one question kept hammering inside his head.

"What about us?"

His ordeal didn't end until seven weeks ago, when he and nine other men became the last military hostages released by the FARC, bringing to a close a terrible chapter in this country's long civil conflict.

Speaking this month at a police recreation facility where he is temporarily billeted as he undergoes psychological analysis and counseling, Forero seemed wound tight but in good spirits — and eager to joke in the English he learned from another hostage in the jungle camps.

"Josefo helped make up for the loss of my wife and family," said Forero, 43, who at 5'2" is short but athletic. "We all need to give and receive affection, and having a little animal to take care of was a distraction from all the stress we lived under."

But Forero also described the dark side of his time away, the "many humiliations" he suffered in FARC captivity, such as never being given toothpaste, insect repellent or decent clothing, and the 5-foot chain that bound him to a comrade on forced marches, in the latrines, in their bunks.

The rebels never beat him, he said, but their killing of fellow prisoner Edgar Byron Murcia in 2001 for trying to escape was all the intimidation he needed.

"I have more sympathy now for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust," Forero said. "Before I was captured, I saw pictures of them looking out from behind the wires, of their suffering. Now I see myself in their faces."

Most of all, he spoke of wanting to make up for time lost with his three children. He last saw one of them as an 8-year-old boy; now the son is himself the parent of a boy.

"That's my purpose in life, to see them … advance, to become professionals, to travel abroad, to make the most of their lives," Forero said.

Over the last 15 years, the FARC has taken about 500 military and political hostages. The practice of kidnapping for political ends gained the rebels little public sympathy, however, and served to discredit their movement in the eyes of many Colombians. The group still holds as many as 400 civilian hostages, according to the Free Country Foundation, a hostage advocacy group.

Forero's release in April came amid renewed hopes for a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, which have been at war since the mid-1960s. But as often happens here, optimism was soon eclipsed by terror. On May 15, former Interior Minister Fernando Londono was wounded and his driver and bodyguard killed by a bomb as he drove through a Bogota shopping district. Some officials are blaming the attack on the FARC.


Captured in July 1999 when rebels overran his base in the central state of Meta, Forero spent the first few years in a jungle prison camp with up to 60 other captives. For a time they included Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors who were kidnapped in 2003 when their reconnaissance plane crashed.

In the latter years of captivity, he and his nine fellow prisoners were constantly on the move and taken on forced marches every few days, chained in pairs, as the FARC tried to elude detection and "smart" bombs funded by theU.S. militaryaid program known as Plan Colombia.

He and his comrades worried they had been forgotten as the higher-profile politicians, officers and the three Americans were released or rescued.

"It took four years for them to get to us after Operation Jaque," Forero said with a smile, referring to the raid in which Colombian commandos posing as humanitarians rescued Betancourt and the Americans. "Maybe we were too far away, or too unimportant."

The frustration finally drove him and a fellow prisoner, Sgt. Jorge Trujillo, to escape in late 2010. They spent a month on the lam, chained together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the film "The Defiant Ones," trying to reach an army outpost before the rebels found them.

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