safe rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans—Marc Gonsalves,
Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell—together with 11 Colombian soldiers
and police on July 2 is a stunning success for Colombia's armed forces
and President Álvaro Uribe. It symbolizes the huge gains made under
Uribe in partnership with the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia program
and is a major black eye for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) and their rogue insurgency. The liberation of these 15 hostages
could not have been timelier, as the Bush Administration is seeking
approval for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and
Colombia. Furthermore, presumptive Republican presidential candidate
John McCain's decision to visit Colombia only a day earlier now
highlights the Senator's recognition of the need for a strong
relationship between Washington and Bogotá.
"We Are the Colombian Army, and You Are Free"
July 2, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos triumphantly
announced that Colombian military intelligence agents had freed the
hostages from their FARC captors. Aided by U.S. intelligence and
military support assets, Colombian agents infiltrated the FARC's senior
ranks, convincing the leader charged with guarding these high-profile
hostages—an individual identified as César—to assemble three dispersed
groups of hostages. Once the hostages were together, César was to
transport the group by helicopter from a location in south-central
Colombia to the headquarters of the FARC's commander-in-chief, Alfonso
Additional Colombian personnel, also masquerading as
guerrillas, landed a helicopter and boarded handcuffed hostages along
with César and another guerilla. Once in the air, Colombian
intelligence agents overpowered César and announced, "We are the
Colombian Army, and you are free," before piloting the hostages to
safety. The Colombian military chose not to attack the FARC guards left
on the ground as a gesture of peace. Not a shot was fired; not a single
life was lost.
Ms. Betancourt, age 46, was kidnapped by the FARC
in 2002 while campaigning in a rural area for the presidency of
Colombia. She remained the FARC's most visible hostage because of her
upper-class Parisian education, challenging political trajectory, and
dual Colombian-French citizenship, derived from marriage to a French
diplomat. Because of her spirited efforts to escape, her FARC captors
often kept her chained by the neck, forcing her to walk barefoot in the
jungle in an effort to shatter her will to resist.
In 2007, a
high-profile humanitarian effort, headed by French President Sarkozy
and other diplomats, was launched to secure Ms. Betancourt's release.
In exchange for Ms. Betancourt, the FARC hoped to gain status as a
belligerent force, obtain removal from the EU's terrorism list, and
procure a safety zone inside Colombia.
The three Americans
rescued were government contractors engaged in aerial surveillance of
coca fields at the time of their capture. The Cessna aircraft they were
flying crashed into a hillside on February 13, 2002. Surrounded by FARC
guerrillas, the aircraft's American pilot, Tom Janis, and a Colombian
sergeant were executed immediately. The three remaining Americans were
then transported to the FARC's jungle prisons, where they languished
until Tuesday's intrepid operation.
The FARC certainly
considered the three Americans, along with Ms. Betancourt, as the "four
aces" in its game of international blackmail.
The organization sought to apply pressure on the U.S. government and
Congress to release two FARC leaders—Ricardo Palmera (aka Simon
Trinidad) and Anayibe Rojas Valderama (aka Sonia)—both of whom are
serving sentences in U.S. prisons for drug trafficking.
Another Setback for the FARC
far, 2008 has been a terrible year for the FARC. Although it gained
international attention when it released six hostages early in the
year, the advantage swiftly faded.
The FARC's first major set
back occurred on March 1, when a Colombian military strike killed the
FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, as he slept in a FARC base-camp
just inside the territory of neighboring Ecuador. The raid on Reyes's
camp led to the recovery of computers that yielded mountains of
information about the FARC, including material that possibly assisted
the Colombians in executing this week's daring rescue operation.
mid-March another member of the FARC leadership, Iván Rios, head of the
FARC's Central Bloc, died at the hands of his personal bodyguard.
the death of legendary 78-year-old Manuel Marlulanda Vélez, presumably
of natural causes, on March 27 ended the violent career of one of the
FARC's founders and top strategists.
FARC and Friends Rapidly Losing Credibility
rescue is bad news for some of the FARC's closer friends. Individuals
sympathetic to the FARC, such as left-leaning Colombian Senator Piedad
Córdoba, have little reason to celebrate the rescue. Senator Córdoba's
triangular relationship with the FARC, President Hugo Chávez and the
Colombian left routinely blurred the boundaries between acts of
humanitarianism and political support for terrorism. According to
recent information recovered from the computers of Raul Reyes, Senator
Córdoba strenuously opposed releasing Ms. Betancourt last year. The Colombian judiciary is currently examining the legal propriety of the counsel she offered to the FARC.
daring hostage rescue will also be of little cheer to President Hugo
Chávez of Venezuela. A few months back, Chávez posed as a neutral,
third-party negotiator attempting to obtain a humanitarian accord for
the release of hostages. Chávez contended that the FARC's willingness
to negotiate should entitle the group to be removed from the
international community's terrorism list and upgraded to "belligerent"
status. All the while, however, Chavez was conducting secret talks with
FARC leaders, discussing with them the possibility of Venezuela
providing the FARC with aid and arms.
recently, Chávez was forced to "disown" the terrorist organization—at
least temporarily—after evidence was found on FARC laptops seized last
March by the Colombian military, indicating Chavez's intention to fund
future FARC operations. His announcement urging the FARC to enter into
peace talks with the Colombian government, saying that "the day of the
guerrilla is over in Latin America," caught the world by surprise. The
Colombians' ability to achieve what Chávez could not—the release of the
hostages—will surely have political, as well as populist, repercussions
throughout Latin America.
The rescue of the 15 hostages will not
end the FARC's reign of terror or its ongoing threats to Colombia's
security. The FARC still fields an army estimated at 9,000 combatants,
protects Colombia's coca fields and cocaine business, and continues
holding hundreds of ordinary Colombians hostage for purposes of
prisoner exchange and ransom. The support and sanctuary the FARC
receives from Venezuela remains a major cause for concern.
Nevertheless, the rescue leaves the FARC commander Cano and others
worried about their command and control capabilities, their internal
security, and, above all, their international image. Indeed, in the
aftermath of Tuesday's successful raid, France's President Sakorzy
called on the FARC to end its "absurd" and "medieval" struggle.
A Changing Latin American Military
The rescue is a powerful indicator that U.S. assistance and support for Colombia's military through Plan Colombia
continues to yield results in the campaign against the narco-terrorists
of the FARC, stripping away their leaders and military cohesion, and
now their ability to manipulate the headlines through exploitation of
the plight of captives. It also strengthens the already popular
President Uribe and undermines the arguments by Senator Barack Obama
and other opponents of the U.S.-Colombia FTA in the U.S. Congress.
distrust of Latin American militaries has long characterized the
American government's attitude toward the Western Hemisphere. In the
past, Latin American soldiers have often been stereotyped as
right-wing, trigger-happy thugs. The international left has long
condemned them—sometimes with justification—for their repressive
mentality and lack of consideration for the subtleties of conflict
against elusive and often more socially just foes on the left.
success of the Colombian operation to free 15 hostages indicates the
highest levels of professionalism, coordinated actions and sheer
audacity and courage. A likely entry into the annals of notable special
operations' successes, the raid also reflects credibly on the Colombian
soldiers' readiness to fight—successfully—for freedom.
Pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement
As Congress moves to debate continued funding for Plan Colombia,
it should consider the rescue of Ms. Betancourt, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr.
Howe, and Mr. Stansill as a demonstration of the effectiveness of
Colombia's military forces. Well-trained, professional and under
civilian guidance, Colombia's military is willing to partner with the
U.S. to curb the depredations of kidnappers and narco-terrorists. The
levels of trust and confidence established between officials of
Colombia and the U.S. will benefit further by returning the Colombia
Free Trade Agreement to the floor for passage.
to a file recovered from the computer of Raul Reyes, an e-mail exchange
took place on December 11, 2007, between FARC's number two, Raul Reyes,
and César (presumably the same guerrilla leader charged with guarding
Ms. Betancourt). César reported the following summary of his
conversation with Senator Córdoba to Reyes:
- "That Ingrid is thin, but that she's always been thin and it won't kill her.
she [Córdoba] believes someone needs to be released and given to Chávez
on the border and that it shouldn't be Ingrid. They don't give a f***
about the rest anymore.
- "That she had a fierce discussion with Yolanda Pulecio (Betancourt's mother) about the show she put up for her daughter.
she [Córdoba] fully supports the political platform of the FARC. Not so
much the armed struggle. She sees it is a Colombian right, but doesn't
discard it as the right choice.
- "That there's high-level infiltrators that allowed the capture of comrades who brought the evidence of life.
- "She [Córdoba] will create a scandal so that they [the Colombian government] release the imprisoned [FARC] comrades.
- "That she [Córdoba] doesn't give a s*** about [French President] Sarkozy's proposal."
Cordoba denies ever making such statements. See Colombia Reports,
"Cordoba advised FARC not to release Cordoba," June 8, 2008, at http://colombiareports.com/2008/06/08/cordoba
-advised-farc-not-to-release-betancourt/ (July 2, 2008).