The way it's being told by news sources, it was like something out of Biggles or Boy's Own. Six years after being kidnapped by FARC guerillas, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was today dramatically rescued by the Colombian military along with four US military contractors and eleven members of the Colombian police and armed forces.
Ever since she and running mate Clara Rojas wandered into FARC-controlled territory during the 2002 presidential campaign, Betancourt has been by far the most high-profile hostage of the guerilla group. With her political profile and dual French/Colombian citizenship, she went beyond just being a long-suffering hostage trapped in the jungle, to become a centre of political intrigue. French president Nicolas Sakorzy had personally sworn to secure her liberty. Hugo Chavez aimed to win kudos by leading the negotiations to free her and the other hostages, and was furious when Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe froze him out of this role in November 2007.
Uribe was then seen to have made a faux pas when he authorised the cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC leader 'Raul Reyes' in March. Not only did this create an international incident, but Reyes had also been the main point of contact for international representatives -- including Chavez and Sakorzy -- that were seeking to negotiate Betancourt's release. With the FARC put on the defensive and Betancourt's health rumoured to be deteriorating, hopes of a timely negotiated solution had been deflated. Yet now it's Uribe and the Colombian military who have come up trumps.
Here's the story of the rescue, as told by official news outlets, and narrated in a press conference by Betancourt herself, shortly after her release, clad in army fatigues and looking in remarkably good order for someone who has spent so long in jungle captivity.
Members of the Colombian armed forces infiltrated the FARC unit responsible for holding the key hostages. The infiltrators managed to have three separate groups of hostages brought together in the jungle south of Bogota, and to convince the local FARC commandant 'Cesar' that the hostages were to be transferred to another site in the helicopter of a fictitious organisation that was supposedly negotiating with current FARC chief Alfonso Cano.
As narrated by Ingrid Betancourt herself, early on Wednesday morning, two white helicopters landed in the jungle clearing. Men identifying themselves as delegates of an unknown international organisation, but wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, got out and spoke with the FARC leaders. But no sooner had the helicopter which was transporting the hostages taken off, than it was revealed to belong to the Colombian armed forces. The four FARC guards were quickly overpowered, and the crew of the helicopter announced; "we're the Colombian army; you're freed". According to Betancourt, the helicopter then nearly crashed, as all the hostages jumped up with joy.
Of course, the release of the hostages is great news. And as a victory for law and order without a drop of blood being spilled, it ranks alongside the Peruvian police sifting through the garbage behind a Lima apartment to track down Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. Betancourt glowingly speculated that only the Israeli special forces could have pulled off a comparable operation.
For Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, it's a massive victory, for him personally and for his no-compromise approach to the FARC. He and the Colombian army were made to appear magnanimous and humanitarian, as they reportedly left untouched another 60 or so guerillas that were in the same area, and which they had surrounded.
But I wonder if anyone else thinks there is something too good to be true about the story? How did the army operatives infiltrate the FARC so successfully? Were they on the ground with the other guerillas in the same zone, and if so, how long had they been there? And how were the battle-hardened FARC guerillas tricked so easily into delivering their crucial bargaining chip into the hands of an unknown group? Why did the freed American contractors not appear before the Colombian media but were flown straight to the US?
I wonder if there isn't a more complicated tale to be told -- and whether in fact the full story will ever be known.