Colombia radio host connects hostages with family

BOGOTA, Colombia – On the day she was rescued after six years of jungle captivity in rebel hands, Ingrid Betancourt broke with protocol on the airport tarmac when she was supposed to be taking questions from reporters.

She asked for one journalist by name whose voice was familiar but whom she had never met.

“My brother, forever. Come here for my ‘freedom hug,’” Betancourt said.

As millions watched on live TV, Herbin Hoyos slid through the security cordon, past the defense minister, military chief, Betancourt’s mother and other dignitaries. The two embraced.

For 14 years, Hoyos has hosted “Kidnapped Voices,” a radio program for relatives of Colombian kidnap victims to broadcast messages to their loved ones.

Now Hoyos, a former kidnap victim himself, is being honored for work that has occupied most of the 38-year-old reporter’s adult life.

This month he won Colombia’s highest award for journalists, the Simon Bolivar prize for Journalist of the Year, followed by the National Peace Prize, sharing it with William Perez, a medic held with Betancourt who attended to her and other hostages as they battled tropical illnesses.

“The program has taught me the greatest humility lesson anyone could learn in life,” Hoyos told The Associated Press. “Every day, I experience human drama.”

Since launching the program, Hoyos says, he has received “freedom hugs” from 11,017 people freed or rescued from ransom- and politically motivated kidnappings.

But he worries that after the July 2 rescue of the highest profile hostages — Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors — those they left behind will be forgotten. Mostly soldiers and police officers, some held for as long as a decade, the hostages continue to waste away amid a paucity of efforts to secure their release.

Until recently, Colombia had the world’s highest kidnapping rate, which experts believe has now been surpassed by Mexico. Iraq is also a contender.

According to government figures, Colombia had more than 2,800 unresolved kidnappings through the end of June. The cases date back to 1996 and include people disappeared and presumed dead.

The government attributes 700 kidnappings to leftist rebels. But officials familiar with the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity because superiors will not permit them to publicly clarify the matter, say rebels probably hold no more than a few hundred.

Hoyos was a young reporter when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the same group that held Betancourt, abducted him in March 1994.

He was rescued by the army 17 days later. But during his short time in captivity, Hoyos met another FARC hostage, Nacianceno Murcia, who “chewed me out because we journalists weren’t doing anything for the kidnapped.”

Murcia was released for ransom in 1996 but died two years later of a pancreatic ailment he’d acquired as a hostage.

As soon as Hoyos was freed, he went to his bosses at Caracol radio in Bogota and asked for air time to give kidnap victims radio messages from their loved ones.

And so began a show that Hoyos says has transmitted more than 328,000 messages to thousands of kidnap victims over its 14 years.

“I respectfully request of ‘senores kidnappers’ that you let the kidnapped turn on the radio,” Hoyos says to launch his pre-dawn program every Sunday. “Here begins ‘Kidnapped Voices.’ “

In their jungle prisons, the kidnapped hear heartwarming tidings of marriages and births, as well as heartbreaking news of a spouse’s or parent’s death.

Betancourt’s mother and children hardly ever missed a week to recount the most minute details of their daily lives.

At the end of each show, Hoyos promises the hostages a “freedom hug” when they are released.

Most family members call in their messages by telephone, though many also knock on the doors of Caracol’s studios and await Hoyos to usher them into the studio.

Hoyos says he has no social life. He works 20-hour days, is separated from his wife and doesn’t drink alcohol. To relax, he flies ultralight planes.

Miriam Torres, whose businessman son, Juan Camilo Mora, has been missing for three years, faithfully sends messages through Hoyos’ program each week — even though she has no confirmation that he was kidnapped.

“The families of rich people and politicians have the power to seek freedom for their kidnapped. We only have Herbin,” Torres said.

Then Betancourt, a dual French national, was kidnapped in February 2002 while running for president. A year later, the three U.S. contractors fell into the FARC’s hands when their surveillance plane crashed in rebel territory.

“The subject began to take on international relevance, and people in Colombia began to become a bit more sensitive,” Hoyos said.

Every week, Hoyos repeats that his program won’t go off the air until Colombia’s last kidnap victim is freed. On the day of her release, Betancourt told him, “Let’s put an end to that program.”

But this weekend, like every weekend, Hoyos once again will be at the mike.