The 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
On 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
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
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
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
Thus 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.
In mid-March another member of the FARC leadership, Iván
Rios, head of the FARC's Central Bloc, died at the hands of his
Additionally, 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
FARC and Friends Rapidly Losing Credibility
Tuesday's 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
Colombia's 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.
More 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.
A 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.
The 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
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
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is
Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
According 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.
- "That 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
- "That she had a fierce discussion with Yolanda Pulecio
(Betancourt's mother) about the show she put up for her
- "That 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
- "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."
Ms. Cordoba denies ever making such statements. See Colombia
Reports, "Cordoba advised FARC not to release Cordoba," June 8,
-advised-farc-not-to-release-betancourt/ (July 2,