A high-level Swiss diplomat is the source of the $480,000 in FARC money discovered in a Costa Rican home earlier this year, Colombian authorities told Colombian news media.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Santos told El Tiempo and El Espectador dailies that Jean-Pierre Gontard delivered $500,000 to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2001 as payment for the release of two hostages “in a safe place” in San José.
E-mails recovered from computers belonging to FARC’s then-No. 2 leader, Raúl Reyes, who was killed in a Colombian army raid in Ecuador on March 1, led police to raid the home of academics Cruz Prado and Francisco Gutiérrez in Santa Bárbara de Heredia, north of San José, in mid-March.
There, police found $480,000 in rotting cash in a safe the couple said was given to them by FARC.
According to an Oct. 4, 2002, FARC e-mail published by El Tiempo, $20,000 of the $500,000 delivered to FARC by Gontard was sent to Cuba to Olga Marín, who was Reyes’ wife, and then-FARC leader Manuel Marulanda’s daughter. Marulanda died of an apparent heart attack in March.
Prado and Gutiérrez have maintained they thought the safe contained only documents relating to a potential peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government.
They said the safe was delivered to them in 1997 by a FARC representative, who they said they later learned was Rodrigo Granda, FARC’s foreign minister (TT, March 28).
Contrary to the couple’s statement on the timing of the delivery, recent Colombian press reports, which include additional Reyes’ e-mails relating to the money transfer, indicate the money was left with Prado and Gutiérrez in December 2001.
Citing potential prosecution in Colombia, the couple has declined to comment further to reporters and Prado recently declined to answer questions from members of the Legislative Assembly’s FARC Commission, which was created to investigate claims former Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal made about certain “political sectors” in Costa Rica being involved with FARC. President Oscar Arias fired Berrocal after that statement.
After the March raid of the couple’s home, Costa Rican Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese said he would not prosecute the couple because in 1997, it would not have been illegal to hold money for FARC unless it could be proven to be drug money.
Dall’Anese, who is on vacation outside the country, could not be reached for comment on whether the couple could be prosecuted if the evidence indicates the money was left there in 2001 and was ransom money.
The two FARC hostages released in 2001 after the $500,000 was allegedly delivered to FARC — Hector Valle, a Mexican, and André Zoltan, a Brazilian-Polish national —were employees of the Swiss-based Novartis pharmaceutical company. They were kidnapped in 2000 and held for one year before they were released to Mexican Embassy officials in Colombia, the Costa Rican daily La Nación reported.
Immigration Director Mario Zamora told La Nación there is no record of Gontard being in Costa Rica in 2001. But he conceded it is possible the man could have traveled under a fake name or entered the country illegally.
According to The Los Angeles Times, which has a bureau in Bogota, Gontard has represented Switzerland for many years in efforts to broker a peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government.
Mission Chief Doris Balchli of the Swiss Embassy in San José said Gontard is a paid consultant, not an official employee, of the Swiss Embassy in Colombia. She referred all further inquiries to the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
Georg Farago of the Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern, Switzerland, declined to provide contact information for Gontard, but he told The Tico Times Novartis had denied paying the ransom.
Novartis spokesman Eric Althoff, however, said he could not confirm or deny the ransom was paid. He referred further inquiries to Maria Hurtado, an employee of Novartis in Bogota.
But Hurtado would only read The Tico Times a corporate press release that states the company will not comment about sensitive matters regarding the safety of its employees.
A press release from the Swiss Embassy in Bogota, however, states: “For many years and under difficult conditions, Gontard has carried out actions favorable to the liberation of numerous kidnap victims, always in permanent contact with the Colombian government. However, his mandate requites a certain margin of independence.”
The statement, signed by Swiss Ambassador to Colombia Thomas Kupfer, says the Swiss Embassy was acting on Novartis’ behalf and that Gontard was their intermediary.
“(Novartis) contacted the Swiss government to facilitate (their employees’) liberation,” the press release states. “According to our information, Gontard succeeded in convincing FARC to liberate these two hostages.
Given that it was a kidnapping matter involving extortion, it can’t be discounted the possibility that (Novartis) agreed to pay a ransom.”