Monday, July 07, 2008

Rescuing Ingrid Betancourt: Unanswered Questions

If the amazing tale of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others by the Colombian armed forces left me with some lingering doubts, it didn't take long for a concrete conspiracy theory to appear. A French-Swiss radio station claimed to have been informed by a reliable source inside Colombia ('put to the test many times in the past') that the FARC had been paid $20 million for the release of the hostages, and that the dramatic 'rescue' was staged.

This was vehemently denied by Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos, who said the government would have no reason to deny paying for the release of hostages, when it had already established a $100 million fund in recent months to pay rewards to guerrillas who released hostages, also offering them legal benefits. Santo said it would "look worse for the FARC" for them to have sold their comrades out.

France, Switzerland and the United Stated likewise denied they had paid a single cent for the release of the hostages

Claims that Operation Jaque ('Operation Check' -- as in chess) had been run by the Americans or even the Israelis were also dispelled. Although the army has admitted recieving training and technical assistance from the US, Israel and even the British SAS, Minister Santos swore that the operation was '100 percent Colombian'.

For the curious among us, the Colombian authorities have been drip-feeding some more details about how the operation was set up and run. Apparently, it started in April when a group of military intelligence operatives who had since December been tracking the guerrilla group that held Ingrid Betancourt, infiltrated the FARC's security ring and managed to gain the confidence of 'Cesar', the guerrilla leader directly responsible for the hostages.

By May, the the infiltrators were able to move freely in the zone, and reported the co-ordinates of the FARC camp to the Colombian Special Forces.

Military intelligence then began to hatch the cinematic plan that was agreed to by army chief Mario Montoya at the beginning of June and kept secret from all but the president and a few officials.

According to reports in El Tiempo, the inflitrators got a high-ranking guerrilla, whose indentity hasn't been revealed [my italics], to convince 'Cesar' that FARC leader Alfonso Cano had ordered the hostages to be brought to him by an international humanitarian mission to discuss a prisoner exchange. The contact with the international group had supposedly been made by another top FARC leader, 'Mono Jojoy'.

The key, according to the Colombians, was the FARC's fear of using the radio, ever since the raid into Ecuador in April that killed 'Raul Reyes' in a pinpoint bombing attack. 'Cesar' was thus unable to directly confirm the arrangement with his superiors. As the time of the operation drew near, the army surrounded what was thought to be the location of 'Mono Jojoy' to intensify this nervousness about going on air.

At the same time, the goverment circulated a false report -- picked up by the BBC -- that French and Swiss representatives were in the zone where 'Alfonso Cano' was thought to be located, to give extra veracity to the story of the exchange negotiation.

Meanwhile, from the middle of June a select group of soldiers had began to rehearse the roles they would have to play as representatives of the supposed 'humanitarian mission'. They developed details such as ensuring at least one woman was among the group (as had been the case in previous unilateral liberations by the FARC), bringing a 'cameraman' and 'journalist' along on the mission, and having a couple of the crew wear Che Guevara t-shirts to inspire confidence in the guerrillas. On the morning of the 2nd of July, army chief Montoya dispatched the entrusted few from their base with inspiring words and a reading from the Acts of the Apostles -- the one where Peter is rescued by an angel from the clutches of Herod.

The rest is history, with the moment of the hostages' liberation now available around the world in this edited video.

It's a fascinating account, but there's still something about it that seems not quite complete. There's a logistical void between the story of the 'infiltrator' bringing supposed messages from the FARC leaders to the hostage camp, and the detailed arrangements of the time and place for the helicopter pickup by the 'humanitarian organisation'. According to El Tiempo, the 'messenger' who was really a military agent, brought a message from Alfonso Cano approving the plan in the third week of June. The rescue was two weeks later, on the 2nd of July. How were the exact arrangements of time and place made, and why was 'Cesar' so sure he could trust them?

Athough the FARC may have been fearful enough to maintain radio silence, was there no way for 'Cesar' to get independent confirmation from one of his superiors, which didn't come from somebody who he'd only known since April?

If I had to hazard a guess at what we aren't being told, it would involve the mysterious 'high-ranking guerilla' who helped the military infiltrators. My guess would be that this person might be a bit higher ranking than has been suggested, and that the nature of the deal struck with him (or her) will not be publicly revealed.


Claudia said...

As a daughter of 1st generation Colombian immigrants to the US I am forever grateful to my parents for instilling in us such great love for their country. I have had to defend Colombia against criticism from people who have never visited our beautiful country all of my life. Doesn't Ingrid think she does Colombia a disservice now, especially when the eyes of the world are on us, by running off to France immediately after her release and then stating she will not be part of the July 20th Independence Day march in Colombia because she fears for her life? Does she think her co-captives, most of whom belong to lower income levels, have the same opportunities she does to get whisked away in French government planes? Doesn't this inequality in places such as Colombia breed contempt in the masses that are trying hard not to believe in what the FARC preaches? I advice her to talk the talk and walk the walk if she ever wants to think about running for president of Colombia.

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks Claudia -- yes, I'm caught between thinking she's probably suffered enough and deserves some time in peace away from everything in Colombia, and agreeing that if she wants to be a politician -- which, judging by her behaviour and statements since her release it appears she does -- then attending the 20th July march and showing some solidarity with her fellow citizens is the minimum gesture she could make. I'm not sure I really buy the safety concerns -- with her current level of popularity not the FARC nor anyone else who knows what's good for them is going to harm her.

I've been pretty impressed with much of what she's said since her release -- talking about peace and gently toning down the triumphalism of some -- but as you say, if she wants to become a real Mandela-like figure she needs to 'walk the talk'.

South America Blogger said...

I must say I like my conspiracy theories, but to suggest that the Israelis were involved in this is pretty damn far fetched.

Sounds like a lot of nonsensical propaganda is being spouted by various leftist chavista idiots.