Rescue in the jungle: the greatest escape

After more than six years held captive by Colombian guerrillas, Ingrid Betancourt is free – thanks to a remarkable rescue operation. By John Lichfield

Friday 04 July 2008 00:00
Ingrid Betancourt arriving with her rescuers in Bogota yesterday
Ingrid Betancourt arriving with her rescuers in Bogota yesterday

She bounded down the stairs of the military aircraft, grinning like a teenager returning from a foreign holiday. On her back was a large rucksack, which, she explained later, contained a dictionary, a sheaf of undelivered letters to her family and "all sorts of rubbish" she had gathered during six years, five months and 10 days in captivity in the Colombian jungle.

"When you are in the jungle you have so little. Every tiny thing becomes important," she said.

The last time the world saw Ingrid Betancourt was in a video released seven months ago by her captors, the ultra-left Farc guerrillas. She was sitting miserably in a jungle clearing, her face drawn and her hair thinning. She was said to be sick, close, perhaps to death.

In the past six years, especially in the past 12 months, the Colombian politician with dual French nationality, has become a symbol, especially in France, of suffering and courage. Here she was abruptly at liberty, thin, exhausted, but full of life and humour, capable of a 20-minute speech of precision and wit and emotion and humility on the Tarmac of a Colombian air base on the outskirts of Bogota.

Her rescue and that of 14 other hostages, in a remarkable military sting operation on Wednesday, was "surreal", she said. It was "perfect" and "impeccable", a tribute to the skill and professionalism of the Colombian military and the "courage" of the "excellent" Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, her one-time political foe.

Beside Mme Betancourt, 46, stood her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, who had recently declared her "hatred" of President Uribe to his face. Mme Pulecio also said she had "more confidence in Farc than she had in President Uribe.

The Farc guerrillas are a Maoist movement from the 1960s, which has turned into a wealthy, cocaine-trafficking, armed sect. To 80 per cent of Colombians, they are a symbol of inhumanity and brain-washed allegiance to a long-lost cause.

Mme Betancourt's mother and sister, her son and daughter in Paris, the large Betancourt support movement in France and above all the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been urging President Uribe for months to negotiate with the Farc leadership. Above all, they had warned him of the terrible, possible consequences of any military operation to release Mme Betancourt or any of the other 700 hostages held by Latin America's oldest, and most powerful, guerrilla army.

Now here was Mme Betancourt, alive and well and liberated by precisely the kind of military operation her family and supporters and President Sarkozy had dreaded.

Or not precisely. The operation which released Mme Betancourt, three Americans and 11 Colombian policemen and soldiers was not the kind of clumsy, brutal assault attempted by Colombian governments with tragic consequences in the past. "Operation Checkmate" will go down as one of the most skilfully planned and daringly executed anti-insurgent actions ever undertaken by any government. As Mme Betancourt said in her remarkably clear-headed speech at the air base, it was the kind of rescue operation once associated with the Israeli special forces.

A group of the Farc guerrillas was tricked, by army infilitrators, into handing over Mme Betancourt and the other hostages without a shot being fired. The group's leader, "Cesar" had been isolated in the southern Colombian jungle since the death of two guerrilla commanders and the capture of a computer with Farc communication codes last spring. He was told that the hostages, including Farc's most treasured possession, Mme Betancourt, must be collected together and taken by helicopter to meet the new guerrilla commander, Alfonso Cano. They would all be flown to the north of the country in a helicopter belonging to a "friendly" humanitarian organisation.

Let Mme Betancourt herself take up the story. "We had been woken at five in the morning," she said. "They [the Farc guards] told us to get together our things. Then they made us wait all morning. They said they had no idea themselves what was going on. When the two white helicopters arrived, I knew that something odd was happening. Usually when we heard helicopters, we were made to run and hide. This time ... we waited quietly for them to land.

"When the people came out of the helicopter, there was total confusion. We thought that these must be Farc members. Some of them were wearing T-shirts with Che Guevara's face. We climbed aboard with great difficulty because they had tied our hands, which was humiliating. When we were aboard, they tied our feet."

Mme Betancourt said that she angrily refused a coat offered by one of the "humanitarians", who told her that they were going to a "colder place". The local Farc leader, Cesar, and his deputy also climbed aboard. She was convinced this was just another Farc transfer among dozens she had suffered in her captivity.

"Then they closed the doors of the helicopter and suddenly I saw the Farc commander naked on the floor, his eyes blindfolded. He had personally humiliated me on numerous occasions but I felt no happiness at that moment. When the two Farc leaders were neutralised, the leader of the operation said, 'We are from the National Army. You are free'. The helicopter was in danger of crashing at that moment. We all laughed and jumped up and down in our joy. It seemed to me a miracle."

Operation Checkmate was the fruit of six years of efforts by President Uribe to rebuild the corrupt and incompetent Colombian military and, above all, to create special forces capable of fighting a counter-insurgency campaign. The operation was, say senior Colombian officers, based on months of intelligence work, hi-tech and human. American surveillance satellites had been used to identify the hiding places of the guerrilla bands holding the "high-value" hostages. Colombian military agents had infiltrated the Farc high command, which is known as "the secretariat".

In March, one of these agents pinpointed the headquarters of the Farc number two, Raul Reyes, just inside Ecuador. A Colombian air and ground strike killed Reyes and provoked as political crisis with Ecuador. The attack was also criticised by France, which had counted on Reyes to "negotiate" the release of Mme Betancourt through the virulently anti-American Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez.

The attack on Reyes gave the Colombian military an intelligence goldmine: a laptop containing the Farc leader's correspondence, plans, maps, international contacts and communication codes. They were able to use the information to reconstruct the leadership structure of Farc and its channels of communication.

The veteran Farc supreme commander, Manuel Marulanda, had, it turned out, died from illness at the end of February. Farc bands, including those holding Mme Betancourt and the three Americans captured five years ago, were isolated and their communications channels cut off or bugged.

According to one version of events, the Colombian special forces falsified orders from the new supreme commander, Alfonso Cano, to "Cesar's" band. He was ordered to gather the prime captives for transfer to Cano's own camp. A friendly humanitarian group would arrive with helicopters to make the transfer.

What now? Ingrid Betancourt will arrive in Paris this afternoon to a tumultuous and joyous welcome from her French family and supporters. Although Colombian-born, she spent part of her childhood and young womanhood in France. Her first marriage was to a French diplomat. She has a French son and daughter, Lorenzo and Mélanie aged 18 and 22.

Her cause has been championed by successive French governments since she was kidnapped by Farc while campaigning to be Colombia's first Green – and first woman – president on 23 February 2002. Since Mr Sarkozy took office last May, he has made Mme Betancourt's release one of the main objectives of his foreign policy. He was determined to prove previous efforts under President Jacques Chirac had been inadequate.

President Sarkozy enlisted the help of President Chavez of Venezuela. To the fury of Bogota, Paris also tried to establish direct contacts with the Farc. The President was careful to avoid the kind of personal attacks on President Uribe made by Mme Betancourt's family and supporters.

They accused him of being "under America's thumb" and interested only in a military, rather than negotiated, settlement of Colombia's 40-year-old civil war. Even yesterday, some of the leaders of the Betancourt support movement in France continued to lambast President Uribe. They said Mme Betancourt could have been freed "months ago" if Mr Uribe had been prepared to talk to the Farc. President Sarkozy has graciously congratulated President Uribe "sincerely and from the bottom of my heart". French officials and newspapers suggested, with some reason, that President Sarkozy's pressure had persuaded the Colombians to make Mme Betancourt's rescue a priority. But Le Monde concluded that the Sarkozy approach – negotiation rather than force – had proved to be a "tactical error".

Operation Checkmate was also a rebuff for the Venezuelan President, Mr Chavez, who fulminates against the Colombian military and Colombian government as "puppets of the United States". The operation was a triumph for the US government which had been criticised for forcing a hard line on Bogota and ignoring the fate of the three American hostages.

Washington claimed yesterday that it had helped to plan the jungle sting over several weeks. Paris admitted it had known of Mme Betancourt's release only 15 minutes before the news was released to the media.

Is Operation Checkmate also the end-game for Farc? The guerrillas have been forced back into the depths of the jungle. Their scattered bands have been deeply infiltrated and their fighting strength has been halved in the past three years to an estimated 9,000, says the Colombian military.

But they still hold about 700 hostages, many of them lowly policemen, soldiers or peasants. Some have been rotting in jungle hideouts for a decade. Who will care about their fate now that Mme Betancourt and the Americans are free?

Judging by her remarkable performance at the Bogota air base, there is a simple answer to that question. Their fate lies with the continuing eloquence and courage of a freed Ingrid Betancourt.

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