During seven years as a guerrilla hostage Colombian politician Sigifredo Lopez endured forced marches, abusive guards, and the constant threat of execution. He was freed in 2009, but his nightmare continues. Lopez has been arrested for allegedly helping Marxist guerrillas plan his own kidnapping, an operation that led to the deaths of 11 Colombian lawmakers.
Back in 2002, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, kidnapped Lopez and the other lawmakers in the southern city of Cali. The FARC wanted to swap them for jailed guerrillas, but the Colombian government refused, so the hostages languished in the jungle.
In a 2007 FARC video, Lopez read a letter to his wife to prove he was alive. Soon afterwards, the FARC executed 11 of the 12 hostages; the rebels panicked when they thought the Colombian army was launching a rescue operation.
Lopez was the only survivor. He said he was being punished for bad behavior and was in another part of the camp during the massacre. Two years later, the FARC released him.
At his homecoming, covered by Colombian TV, his wife and sons were so excited they nearly knocked Lopez to the ground in a group embrace. But now, government prosecutors claim Lopez helped pull off the mass kidnapping. Their main evidence is a 2002 rebel video.
In the video, a man provides the rebels details of the layout and security of the legislative building in Cali shortly before the guerrilla raid. The man’s face is partially obscured, but prosecutors claim it is Lopez.
Carlos Orozco, who was elected to replace his brother — one of the 11 lawmakers killed by the FARC, told me that he is not sure whether Lopez is innocent or guilty.
“The raid was very well planned,” Orozco said. “There had to have been lawmakers, or people close to them, who gave information to the guerrillas.”
Lopez has also come under suspicion because he once served as town mayor in a rebel stronghold where politicians were forced to collaborate with the guerrillas. In addition, he emerged from captivity looking better fed than other newly freed hostages.
Prosecutors say Lopez may have helped the FARC in exchange for money and that he may have been double-crossed by the guerrillas, which would explain his seven years in captivity.
But other factors cast doubt on his colluding with the FARC.
Olga Lucia Gomez, head of the Free Country Foundation, which counsels relatives of hostages, said it defies logic that Lopez would take part in a crime that would confine him to a jungle prison for so long.
“To think that someone would kidnap himself, and then to make the crime look real, stay separated from his family for seven years, I just can’t get my head around that,” she said.
A voice test conducted by the FBI at Lopez’s request showed that his voice does not match the voice on the FARC videotape. What’s more, intercepted guerrilla e-mails refer to Lopez as just another hostage rather than a FARC collaborator.
Speaking to reporters from a Bogota detention center, Lopez predicted he would be exonerated. But he worries his reputation has been damaged beyond repair.
Lopez’s lawyers claim ambitious government prosecutors pounced on the Lopez case to make a name for themselves. Colombia’s Attorney General recently acknowledged that the case could fall apart.
Fabiola Perdomo, who’s the widow of FARC victim Juan Carlos Narvaez, said she dreams about her husband all the time. For Perdomo, the liberation of Lopez was bittersweet. She is envious that Lopez survived while her husband did not, but Lopez provided something precious by telling her daughter about the last five years of her father’s life.
Perdomo is convinced that Lopez is innocent. She wonders whether her husband, had he survived, might have found himself in the same legal limbo.
“It’s scary and painful to see how fast a victim can be recast as a perpetrator,” Perdomo said.