BOGOTA, Colombia — Ingrid Betancourt was smiling ear to ear. It was 1998, and she had just emerged as the biggest vote-getter in Colombia's congressional elections.

Betancourt cut an elegant, forceful figure. Her clean-government crusade had badly rattled bought-and-paid-for careerists in Congress. Now she was reeling off ideas for countering drug-trafficking, corruption and the leftist-rebel FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Nine years later, an ashen-faced Betancourt barely moves her bowed head.

A video delivered by her kidnappers shows her sitting in a jungle clearing on a rough-hewn bench. Her chestnut hair drops over a shoulder to her waist.

She has been a prisoner of the FARC for nearly six years, since venturing into rebel territory while campaigning for the presidency. Meanwhile, she has become an international cause celebre, with foreign leaders from Nicolas Sarkozy of France to presidents across Latin America pleading for the release of the French-Colombian dual national.

With Betancourt are 45 other hostages whom the FARC wants to trade for hundreds of its fighters in Colombian jails. They include soldiers, police officers, a former senator and three Americans, civilian Pentagon contract workers whose plane crashed in 2003 during a surveillance flight over guerrilla territory thought to harbor cocaine labs.

She speaks not a word in the brief proof-of-life video, but in a 12-page letter to her mother that accompanied it and was made public Nov. 30, she gives voice to her frustration.

"Life here is no life, it's a dismal waste of time," she writes. "Here we are the living dead."

Having tried at least five times to escape, Betancourt is often chained by the neck to other hostages, sometimes all night, sometimes for 24-hour stretches, recounts Jhon Frank Pinchao, a police sergeant who got away in April after eight years in FARC hands. He spent the last three years in Betancourt's company.

"I try to keep quiet," Betancourt wrote to her mother. "I speak as little as possible to avoid problems. The presence of a woman in the middle of so many prisoners — who have been held for eight, 10 years — is a problem."

A fitness buff, she mentioned in her letter how she enjoyed swimming early on in her captivity. But no longer.

"I'm physically unwell. I haven't resumed eating. My appetite is gone. My hair is falling out," she wrote.

Ingrid Betancourt and her sister, Astrid, grew up in Paris, where their father was a UNESCO delegate. Their mother, Yolanda Pulecio, is a feisty former congresswoman and former Miss Colombia.

They lived in an immense apartment with 18th-century furniture and paintings by great masters.

Now, home is "a hammock strung between two posts, covered with mosquito netting and with tent above that serves as a roof," Betancourt wrote her mother. "I have a shelf for my things, which is to say a backpack for clothing and the Bible that is my only luxury."

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, she turns 46.

"I despise Christmas," Betancourt's mother said recently. Ever since the kidnapping "there's no Santa Claus, not even a single ornament" in her house.

Betancourt graduated from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and married a classmate, the French diplomat Fabrice Delloye. They have two children, Melanie and Lorenzo.

The couple separated when Betancourt returned to Colombia after the 1989 assassination of anti-corruption presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, a friend and political ally of her mother's.

Betancourt first ran for Congress in 1994, distributing condoms as symbols of protection from corruption. Death threats prompted her to send her two children to live with Delloye two years later. The children would never again live with her full time.

She railed against the private right-wing militias known as "paramilitaries" and against the FARC.

Betancourt, a 2002 presidential candidate, made a fateful, characteristically headstrong decision on the night of Feb. 22, 2002. After peace talks broke down, President Andres Pastrana ordered troops into an area of southern Colombia he'd ceded to the FARC. Betancourt called Nestor Leon Ramirez, mayor of San Vicente, the area's biggest town, to say she was coming.

"I told her there were problems getting here because of guerrilla attacks, but she was firm," Ramirez told the Associated Press.

Betancourt and her running mate, Clara Rojas, flew to the state capital of Florencia, hired a car and headed for San Vicente.

Then they disappeared.

The video and letter never mention a prisoner exchange, though hopes were raised after President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela became involved in mediation efforts in August.

Carlos Alonso Lucio, a former M-19 rebel and schoolmate of hers who later sat with her in Congress, said Betancourt's daily struggle with her captors must be "like that of a chess player with a boxer."

It appears that the boxer is wearing down the chess player.

"I've been thinking that as long as I'm alive, as long as I continue breathing, I have to keep storing hope," she wrote her mother.

"No longer do I have the same strength." *