Rice is a staple served with most Colombian meals, but over a steak lunch at a sidewalk café, Juan Carlos Villegas didn't eat a bite of the fluffy white mound on his plate while he told his story.

Villegas, 28, was leaving a Sunday afternoon church retreat in his pickup truck on April 28, 2002. As assistant pastor at Family Christian Church in the hardscrabble Medellín suburb of Bello, he had just helped baptize 50 people in a stream running through a parishioner's ranch in Barbosa, a village 24 miles from Bello.

A few yards down the road from the ranch, guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) took Villegas hostage and demanded his church pay $25,000 for his safe return. He joined the ranks of perhaps dozens of Christian clergy that rebel groups have held for ransom or for political reasons in Colombia's four-decade-long civil war.

During his 12-day captivity, Villegas marched over mountains eight hours a day with the guerrillas, often soaked by driving rain, wearing the same clothes he wore at the baptism. He endured biting cold. He never knew where they were going or when his ordeal would end.

And he ate the only thing available to the guerrillas: "Rice, rice, rice," Villegas said.

Colombia is kidnap capital of the world, with more than 3,000 abductions in 2001. More than 600 were snatched in the department (state) of Antioquia and its capital, Medellín. Kidnappings fund insurgents' fight against the government and help them achieve political gain. A few hostages have been released through negotiations without ransom payment. Many more are released after paying ransom. Others are killed or die in captivity.

More than a year after Villegas was released, he is still rebuilding his life. The ordeal has left scars.

For ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.