A newly freed hostage expressed frustration Thursday that his inability to keep up with captive presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt frustrated an attempt to flee the leftist rebels who held them.
"Ingrid saw I was doing badly, and the truth is I failed. ... I can see that I failed in front of Ingrid's immense capacity to endure this situation," Luis Eladio Perez said, his voice choking with emotion.
Now he's free and Betancourt — a model of fortitude and stamina until recently, according to freed hostages — remains in the jungle. Perez and others who recently saw Betancourt say she is very ill and they fear she'll soon die.
In her six years as a captive of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the 46-year-old Betancourt tried to escape at least five times, said Perez, a senator when he was abducted.
It was July 20, 2005, when he and Betancourt decided to risk escape. He had been a prisoner for four years, she for more than three.
"We managed to stay outside (the rebel camp) for five or six days," the 57-year old Perez said in an interview with Caracol radio from Venezuela. They had fled with a block of brown sugar, some crackers and three hooks for fishing.
Fish are plentiful in the rivers splicing the expansive jungles that surrounded their camp. But river travel was dicey. Too many rebels.
"Ingrid fished, but I have to admit that I wasn't capable of lighting a fire, so we ate raw fish," said Perez. "We would say ... that we were eating sushi."
But the hooks quickly vanished in river weeds, the food ended and they became disoriented in the thick jungle.
By now, guerrillas were everywhere looking for them, particularly Betancourt, who has dual French nationality and was running for president when the FARC abducted her in 2002. The rebels consider Betancourt their most valuable bargaining chip, "their crown jewel," Perez said.
Chained to trees, sent to different camps
With no food, suffocating jungle humidity during the day and cold nights threatening hypothermia, Ingrid apparently determined that Perez would likely die if they kept going.
"The truth is that Ingrid saw that I was in a bad way, and we decided to hand ourselves back to the guerrillas," said Perez, who said after his release Wednesday with three other Colombian politicians that he had suffered from heart problems and bouts of diabetes during captivity.
Their captors immediately set about punishing the hostages for their escape.
"We were chained, her to a tree, me to a tree, 24 hours a day. They took away our boots. We had to march barefoot," making them vulnerable to the snakes and wide variety of biting insects of Colombia's jungles.
The two hostages were sent to different camps in July 2007.
It wasn't until Feb. 4 of this year when they saw each other again, as the two guerrilla units guarding them crossed paths, giving the hostages a chance for a quick chat.
"She had deteriorated a lot, both physically and her morale," said Perez. Another hostage freed Wednesday, former Rep. Gloria Polanco, said Betancourt had contracted hepatitis B.
Perez remembers his final meeting with Betancourt: "The last thing she said to me was: 'Enjoy it, enjoy every minute of freedom, enjoy it.'