In a gripping passage in Ingrid Betancourt's Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia (HarperCollins/Ecco, Jan.), the current Colombian presidential candidate describes a surreal meeting in 1995 with the heads of the Cali drug cartel. Sitting face to face with the Rodriguez brothers, who played a major part in the U.S. and Colombian efforts that eventually resulted in the killing of notorious druglord Pablo Escobar in 1993, she was rudely awakened to the fact that nearly half of her nation's legislators were on the payroll of the cartel, which was also funding then-candidate Ernesto Samper's presidential campaign. This incident inspired Betancourt, who become a senator in 1996, to go on a hunger strike to demand an independent corruption inquiry into Samper's dealings; to form her own political party, Oxygen; and to run for president of Colombia in an election this May. Though she is currently far behind in Colombia's official polls, she is accustomed to being an underdog who comes out on top.
An attractive woman with a slim build, Betancourt knows how to draw attention: she first gained recognition by passing out condoms to symbolize the need for protection against rampant corruption in Colombia. Her expressive eyes, gentle voice and fearless drive have proved to be magnets for an unusual degree of attention for a foreign political candidate. After launching her book with a January 7 appearance on NBC's The Today Show, she was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN. On NPR's Fresh Air, Betancourt broke into tears when Terry Gross mentioned her children, who are living in New Zealand to insure their safety after Betancourt's political enemies took a contract out on her life in 1996. Shortly afterward, ABC's Nightline booked her for an upcoming show. Meanwhile, features about her have appeared in the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. After three trips to press, Harper has printed 30,000 copies.
This isn't the first time Betancourt has been the toast of an admiring media. In France, the book shot to #1 for four weeks last March, remained a bestseller for 13 weeks and sold 120,000 copies. The Spanish-language version is currently the #1 bestseller in Colombia. There, publishers were initially hesitant to publish her book because it boldly accuses former president Ernesto Samper of taking money from narcotraffickers to fund his campaign, and implicates him in the deaths of several political opponents.
"Colombians face death every day of their lives," said Betancourt, who travels with 20 bodyguards when in the country. In her book, the 41-year-old Liberal Party candidate offers a riveting look at her political transformation and explains how she proposes to solve Colombia's thorny political problems.
Betancourt's refreshingly earnest political memoir may affect the outcome of the election, since she is tirelessly promoting the book around the world (it has been translated into nearly 20 languages) as she campaigns for office. An international media figure comparable to New York Senator Hillary Clinton, she has lofty goals. "Americans have to do their homework on Colombia if they want to protect their streets from drugs," said Betancourt. "We need American help to restore a true democracy."