GAULA, Pais Libre and University of La Sabana help families of kidnapping victims
By Dialogo June 24, 2014
While Colombian security forces have succeeded in reducing the number of kidnappings by cracking down on gangs responsible for abductions, the military’s elite anti-kidnapping unit, a non-governmental organization (NGO), and a major university are working hard to assist kidnapping victims.
The organization, País Libre, has a Victims Support Center which provides information to victims about their legal rights and connects them with agencies which provide mental health services. País Libre also serves as a bridge between victims and authorities in the criminal justice system.
“We developed several projects focused on victims of kidnapping and mental health in coordination with state agencies,” said Dr. María Consuelo Jáuregui, executive director of País Libre. “We also provide direct and indirect assistance to victims of this scourge.”
País Libre also educates the public about the impact kidnapping has on victims, and the need to provide resources to people who have been abducted and their loved ones.
“Our mission is to ensure that in Colombia there is awareness of the severity of the crime of kidnapping and the importance of fighting and studying it,” Jáuregui said.
País Libre was formed in August, 1991. Since it was founded, the organization has helped about 9,000 victims of crimes against personal freedom. These would include victims of kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes.
Security forces reduce kidnappings
Kidnappings were once widespread in Colombia, but have declined dramatically in recent years, thanks to the work of security forces.
Then-President César Gaviria Trujillo ordered the creation of an anti-kidnapping unit, known as the UNASE (Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Units), in 1990. Gaviria created the UNASED after the number of kidnapping surged from 789 in 1989 to 1,274 the following year.
In 1996, UNASE evolved into the military’s elite anti-kidnapping unit and extortion unit, the Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA).
Kidnappings, many of which were committed by organized crime groups which demanded ransom, continued to climb for several years. In 2000, there were 3,752 kidnappings reported in Colombia, according to the military.
Over time, GAULA officers became more affective as they gained experience investigating abductions and improved their training and intelligence-gathering. In the 2000s, the number of kidnappings dropped steadily, then dramatically.
In 2013, there were 299 kidnappings reported in Colombia, according to a report from the Colombian Defense Ministry. In 55 percent of these abductions, the kidnappers demanded ransom.
Since 2007, the GAULA has dismantled 47 gangs of kidnappers.
País Libre works with GAULA
País Libre works closely with the GAULA. Many kidnapping victims are reluctant to report abductions because they fear retaliation from the kidnappers. The NGO encourages kidnapping victims to report abductions to the GAULA and to cooperate with investigators.
“We work closely with military GAULA, which is led by Colonel José Angel Pirela. It is very important to us that victims are assisted by them about their rights,” Jáuregui said. “A fundamental part to combat this scourge is that the victims dare to report the crime. They are afraid to report it.”
País Libre works with soldiers, providing guidance on how to communicate with fearful kidnapping victims, Jáuregui said.
“We have a close link with soldiers whom we have trained in the subject of kidnapping victims and how to serve them best and the military GAULA has made a great effort to win the trust of the people,” she said. “There is better confidence in them by the people today.”
‘Adopting’ kidnapping victims
Students at the School of Communications at the University of La Sabana engage in an innovative program to help victims of abduction.
The program, known as “Adopt a Kidnapping Victim,” invites members of the public to recognize kidnapping victims by symbolically adopting them and demanding their freedom.
People who symbolically adopt people who have been abducted try to help relatives of victims by providing emotional support and accompanying them to public events to honor victims of abduction.
“We tell our volunteers to value their freedom first and secondly to think that there are many people who do not have their loved one at home. We invite volunteers to break through indifference,” said Diana Patricia Molano coordinator of the program at the University of La Sabana.
The brother of a kidnapped soldier told Diálogo that a woman who has adopted his family has helped him and other family members.
“Our adopter is a young woman. She calls my mother on a regular basis. They do fun things and together keep my brother’s memory alive,” said the brother, who declined to be identified by name to maintain his privacy. “We are so grateful that my mother is in better spirits and her faith and hope has been renewed.”
“This means a world of difference for our family,” the brother said.
The program began in 2008. Since then, volunteers have adopted 20 families of kidnapping victims.
Transition to quote: Dr. Jáuregui cautions “efforts against kidnapping and violence in Colombia should not be only on security but on social investment and education of children and youth in Colombia without it we will not achieve peace.”
Thousands of kidnapping victims need help
Though the number of kidnappings has plunged in recent years, there are tens of thousands of kidnapping victims, according to a study published in 2013 by the Center for Historical Memory in Colombia.
Kidnappers abducted at least 39,000 people between 1970 and 2010, according to the study. More than 21,100 of the victims, or 79 percent, were children, the study found.
Organized crime groups committed most of the kidnappings. Terrorists from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) committed 37 percent of the kidnappings, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) committed 30 percent of the abductions. Other organized crime groups committed 20 percent of the kidnappings.
Good. No one is exempt from being a victim of kidnapping. Let us all pray for those who are kidnapped, lost and who have lost their freedom.