Former Colombian Hostage Betancourt To Run For President

One of Colombia's most recognizable faces abroad. How popular is she at home?
One of Colombia's most recognizable faces abroad. How popular is she at home?
Alidad Vassigh

BOGOTA — Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian politician held hostage by FARC guerrillas for six years in the jungle, may return from self-imposed exile and become a candidate in the 2014 presidential election, Colombia’s El Pais newspaper reported.

The country’s Green Alliance began to gauge her interest in returning to Colombian politics in recent weeks, and it was confirmed late Thursday that she would take part in a poll the party would hold to find out which candidate would prove most popular with voters ahead of the May 2014 vote.

Betancourt and her aide were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002 while she campaigned in southern Colombia for the presidency. She remained a hostage, kept in increasingly draconian conditions and at times chained to trees, until rescued by the Army in 2008.

She left Colombia after her bid to sue the State for failing to protect her in 2002 provoked a public outcry, and it is unclear how much that might weigh on her current candidacy.

Other people who have agreed to be in the Green Alliance’s electoral poll are former Marxist guerrilla Antonio Navarro Wolff and former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. The pre-candidate with the most votes would presumably become the Green candidate to face off against incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos and the very conservative Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who represents supporters of the former conservative president Álvaro Uribe.

Betancourt, a parliamentarian and senator throughout the 1990s who was campaigning for the presidency when she was kidnapped, remains one of Colombia’s most familiar political faces — as prominent if not as popular as Uribe, the president at the time of her rescue in 2008.

Green Party member Antonio Sanguino described her as someone “with a track record of fighting corruption.” She created a Green party in Colombia for the first time, but is also a symbol of the pain of the victims of the civil conflict with the FARC, the daily Vanguardia Liberal reports.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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