Once held by rebels, Ingrid Betancourt now held in high regard in Colombia

MEXICO CITY—Few politicians step into the spotlight with Madonna and the Virgin Mary.

But Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage in Colombia by leftist rebels for six years before a daring rescue in July, has shown the breadth of her appeal during a high-profile tour of Latin America last month.

In Buenos Aires, pop singer Madonna took time from her “Sticky & Sweet Tour” for a photo op with Betancourt, who was meeting with Argentina’s president.

In Mexico City, Betancourt made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to give thanks for escaping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebel group.

Described by one admirer as a “secular saint,” Betancourt has rejected calls to run for president of Colombia in 2010. But as she met with eight foreign presidents in recent weeks, not to mention U2 singer Bono, she emerged as an advocate for global peace.

Meeting with reporters at the French Embassy in Mexico, the French-Colombian politician pulled back the curtain on her years of isolation in the jungle, including insight on captors who wielded iPods as well as rifles.

In discussing her future, Betancourt, 47, spoke of two forces pulling at her.

“Captivity is like a hurricane that passes over one’s life and destroys everything. So I need to rebuild my life. It is a process that takes time, and I need to give myself that time,” she said.

But she added: “I want to pursue the politics that I want, a politics based on emotion, on love, on tolerance, on compassion. I am conscious that because all of you [reporters] are here, there are people behind you who want to hear what I say. I owe them.”

Her reluctance to run may be explained by her last presidential bid. During her 2002 campaign, the former senator was abducted by the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group active since the 1960s.

Betancourt was reportedly near death as she became the most well-known of about 700 hostages in FARC custody.

Colombian soldiers penetrated rebel territory in July and freed Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including three Americans, without firing a shot.

Although Betancourt has seen popularity ratings near 90 percent in Colombia, she now rejects electoral politics as “repugnant.” She polled in single digits during her last run with a minor party.

Still, her recent regional tour let her speak out about Latin America’s challenges.

Betancourt appealed for solidarity to battle kidnappings—”each of our countries has its own agony”—although she rejected calls to implement the death penalty.

She also urged democratically elected leftist leaders, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales, to help marshal international pressure against the FARC.

“Their journey and experience de-legitimize the armed option of the FARC. They present the fact that one can gain power through democratic means, without kidnapping, without killing,” Betancourt said.

Some analysts say Betancourt holds a rare position as one who has condemned the FARC but who shares its stated goal of social equality. She also has credibility among leftist Latin America leaders who could sway the group.

The FARC said last month that it would consider releasing six more hostages.

“Betancourt might be the one person in Colombia able to bring an end to her ravished country’s bitter armed conflict,” wrote Erina Uozumi, an analyst with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.

Steven Taylor, associate political science professor at Troy University in Alabama and author of an upcoming book about Colombia’s democracy, agreed that Betancourt could become an informal ambassador. But her political options are limited, he said.

“Any campaign would be predicated mostly on her being a hostage. That’s ultimately thin glue to build a campaign,” Taylor said.

Any new role will have to wait. In Mexico, Betancourt said she planned to keep a low profile this year by focusing on her memoirs.

Asked whether she forgave her captors, Betancourt replied: “I want the best for my country and I know that the best for my country will happen through forgiveness.”

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