The Backstory of the Betancourt Release
What happened in the jungle on July 2, 2008? Was it a brilliant rescue? Or a negotiated release? A spate of memoirs of participants in the six-year effort to obtain the freedom of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostage provides a picture of something else...
…something that looks like a deal with renegade FARC commanders made with U.S. assistance. And, possibly, a double cross.
Maybe eight months is the limit to which an explosive combination of dishonesty, animosity, and government deception can be kept under wraps.
The dam of silence on the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage in the Colombian jungle by the leftist military movement FARC for six years, is beginning to crack, and a flood of reminiscences has emerged.
In March 2009, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes, the three American Northrop-Grumman contractors freed the same day as Betancourt, received the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart, in recognition of their six-year ordeal.
Their book recounting their harrowing experiences in the jungle, Out of Captivity, was published at the same time, with the complementary circus of reviews, TV coverage, and personal appearances that seems to be, in some way, the American media’s apology for having focused almost exclusively on the high-profile captivity and release of Ingrid Betancourt.
It also vividly depicts the moral rot within FARC as it drifted away from its professed revolutionary ideals to a force of young, under-educated rural fighters growing into dead-end careers pushing cocaine and captives through the jungle.
Finally, as a primer in the sexual politics of captivity, the book can be grimly amusing.
Media coverage lasered in on the rhetorical pounding that one of the American captives, Keith Stansell, meted out to Ingrid Betancourt, calling her “the most disgusting person I have ever encountered”.
The Hollywood insiders who saw a box-office natural in the story of Betancourt’s martyrdom in captivity and amazing deliverance will have to decide whether the biopic can deal with episodes like this:
Stansell recalled the time when the FARC told them to split two cans of tuna fish among 10 hostages. "We only have enough food for two spoonfuls apiece. And she just says, 'No, no, I need more,'" he said. "And so she took more tuna fish. And she believed -- because she was her --she deserved it."
Mr. Stansell himself is not quite the noble paragon.
The muscled-up, buzz-cut ex-Marine was living the dream in Colombia, collecting hazard pay as he conducted airborne surveillance of drug production in the jungle by day and banged a Colombian airline stewardness—identified only as “Patricia”-- by night, while his fiancé kept the home fires burning back in the United States.
Things got rather awkward during a proof of life video, as the Christian Science Monitor tells us:
He sent his love to his family in Bradenton, Fla., and to his fiancée in Georgia.
But he did not mention Patricia at all, which made her angry. But not as angry as the fact that Stansell had never told her that he was engaged.
Patricia had further reason to be angry. Because she had become pregnant by Stansell and borne his twins while he languished in captivity.
When his group of hostages joined Betancourt’s camp, Mr. Stansell, a self-described alpha male, had a problem dealing with Betancourt, a sophisticated and strong-willed woman accustomed to navigating confidently in Colombian and French elites.
As the Independent headline quoted him, Stansell’s take on the situation was that “Betancourt was “out of control” .
Indeed, as multiple accounts make clear, Ingrid Betancourt was very much “in control” of the camp and her fellow captives…and very much out of the control of Keith Stansell.
ABC news provided some perspective:
It was apparent to the hostages that Betancourt held great authority, even while in captivity. According to the Americans, she helped dictate everything from where hostages were kept to when they bathed.
The New York Times adds some details on how “out of control” Ms. Betancourt was:
The book also portrays Ms. Betancourt as seeking to put herself at the top of a hostage hierarchy, hoarding used clothing and writing materials from the others, determining bathing schedules, hiding information from a transistor radio that she had squirreled away, even throwing a fit about the color of a mattress she was given. (It was baby blue.)
It seems Mr. Stansell’s anger at Ms. Betancourt was sharpened by the fact that, in their Sgt. Rock vs. Yoko Ono cage match, she came out on top.
When Betancourt’s memoirs are published, they may omit the clash over bogarting the canned tuna.
However, they will contain dramatic episodes of heroism and resourcefulness that eluded Mr. Stansell, including an account of the daring escape Betancourt attempted, the punishment she suffered upon her recapture and, if other accounts are an indication, the gratifying episode in which she twisted the testicles of a FARC commander making a sexual advance.
But the primary blame should perhaps be laid at the feet of FARC which, in addition to meting out physical and mental abuse, denied the captives the only consolation available to them in the jungle: a feeling of solidarity with their fellow sufferers.
FARC systematically sowed dissension among the hostages to undermine their solidarity. The captives were split into “civilian” and “military” categories (the three American contractors were classified as “military”) and hostility and mutual suspicion deepened through selective punishments and rewards. The fact that Betancourt was the only “star” captive and received the lion’s share of coverage that the hostages heard on their clandestine transistor radio added to the tension.
Beneath the misery, there was a powerful undercurrent of sexual desperation. Ex-Colombian congressman Luis Eladio Perez, released in early 2008 after seven years’ captivity, revealed the hatreds dividing the hostage factions.
Perez shocked French opinion with a frank description of both guards and fellow hostages attempting to extract sexual favors from Betancourt and the other female hostages (he described Betancourt as surrounded by “masturbating mental defectives and guerillas who want to rape her”) that, while propping up the “Joan of Arc of the jungle" hagiography undercut the aura of nobility that had heretofore surrounded the captives in Europe.
There are indications that Perez himself was Betancourt’s lover in the jungle and defended her vigorously against sexual exploiters, real and imagined. After his release, it was rumored she took up with another captive, apparently as a confidante and shield against the envy, sexual and otherwise, that surrounded her.
Being a captive of FARC was clearly a degrading and dangerous experience. Beyond the forced marches, the dysentery, the spectacular jungle parasites, the terrible food, the total lack of privacy, the toxic sexual fug, and the detestable companions, there was the constant fear of execution.
In February of this year, Colombian State Senator Sigfredo Lopez was released by FARC after seven years of captivity. His memories cover one of the most notorious incidents in FARC’s dismal history as hostage takers:
López held his own press conference soon after he arrived in Cali on Feb. 5. He charged that the FARC was entirely to blame for the deaths of the other 11 Valle del Cauca deputies on June 18, 2007. The FARC command had given an order for the deputies to be killed in the event of a rescue attempt, he said. When six rebels from the FARC's 19th front arrived without warning, "El Grillo," commander of the 60th Front 60, mistook them for the military and had the hostages killed, according to López. It was "because of pure paranoia and because the FARC is a killing machine," he said. "They killed them from cowardice." López himself had been separated from the other deputies for disciplinary reasons and so was spared. He told the reporters that for days after the incident he wouldn't say anything to his captors except: "Murdering bastards."
Ms. Betancourt’s estranged campaign manager and fellow captive, Clara Rojas experienced some of the worst FARC had to offer when she became pregnant by one of the guards.
Maureen Orth, writing for Vanity Fair, doggedly pursued the story:
According to one account, after Rojas wrote to someone high up in the guerrilla forces and asked for permission to have sex, she received a box of contraceptives. Pérez suggests that Rojas felt her biological clock ticking and resolved to have a baby, at the same time figuring that giving birth might get her released sooner. When I spoke to Rojas in Bogotá in August, she said she had not had “any expectation” of being released early as a new mother.
If there was the hope, if not the expectation, that the pregnancy could awaken FARC’s propaganda and feeble humanitarian instincts and enable an early release, it was rewarded…kinda.
Although the FARC often forced female rebels to have abortions, Rojas was allowed to carry her baby to term only to endure unbelievable agony as she gave birth in the jungle.
"They put her on a table with basically an instruction booklet and a couple guys and put her under and just cut her open and took the baby out," Stansell said.
The baby's arm was broken in the process, but Rojas miraculously survived. She was eventually permitted to see her baby for only 45 minutes a day. Her story, however, did have a happy ending. She was released by the FARC in early 2008 after six years in captivity and reunited with her now-healthy boy, Emanuel.
The multi-year ordeal devastated the marriages of several of the captives. On March 15, Colombian media reported that Ingrid Betancourt had filed for divorce “because she and her husband had been separated for more than four years”:
Semana noted that [Betancourt’s husband] Lecompte's lawyers rejected the demand and argued that such a separation was not voluntary, but was forced by the kidnapping of the former presidential candidate - who has both Colombian and French citizenship - by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Moreover, the man's lawyers argued that Lecompte himself is set to file for divorce, based on reports that Betancourt was unfaithful to him during her captivity. As evidence, they cite the book Out Of Captivity, written by US contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were held by FARC at the same time as Betancourt.
The three defence contractors said in the book that the former presidential candidate was in a relationship with fellow-hostage Luis Eladio Perez, a former senator, who was released by FARC just over a year ago.
Howe and Gonsalves’ marriages ended in divorce.
Stansell’s American fiancé left him, but he had the good luck to retain the affection of his long-suffering Colombian girlfriend, who had borne his children and accepted his marriage proposal, transmitted while he was still in captivity.
The hatred and backbiting that characterized the relationship between the hostages was eerily recapitulated by the hostility between the four key government players in the hostage drama: Colombia, Venezuela, France, and the United States.
Colombia’s President Uribe famously resented the efforts spearheaded by the French government to obtain the release of Ingrid Betancourt through the good offices of his political enemies both within Colombia and in the neighboring socialist states of Venezuela and Ecuador.
The London Times reported how Betancourt’s captivity evolved into a French obsession, a European cause celebre—and President Uribe’s headache:
Meanwhile, Sarkozy had taken control of the case away from the Foreign Ministry, where it was for a long time handled by Daniel Parfait, the former ambassador to Bogotá who had married Betancourt’s sister Astrid.
But why should a Colombian politician, whose French nationality came only from a first marriage to a Frenchman she later left, attract such powerful support?
The story goes back to the 1980s when Villepin was her university tutor and close friend in Paris. From the time she was taken hostage Villepin campaigned hard for her release and even sent a planeload of French secret agents on a diplomatically disastrous mission to free her in 2003.
The mixing of private relationships and official handling under Villepin was widely seen as counterproductive and was criticised in a book by Jacques Thomet, the former bureau chief for Agence France Presse in Bogotá. He pointed out that Betancourt’s sister Astrid was having an affair with the French ambassador to Colombia, whom she later married. Le Figaro, the most pro-government newspaper, yesterday called the state management of the Betancourt affair unhealthy.
In the opinion of Uribe and some French officials, the constant French campaigning had hampered Betancourt’s release because it raised her value in the eyes of her captors.
Sarkozy deployed his usual energy, setting up a palace unit to win her release. He angered Uribe by bringing in Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s populist president, to mediate. He also made two radio appeals to Farc to release its hostages.
With certain justification, the Uribe government distrusted and disliked France’s loose-cannon approach to releasing Betancourt from captivity.
The nadir of French credibility was probably reached in July 2003 when de Villepin, then Chirac’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, tried to orchestrate the release of Betancourt at the Brazilian border in an operation grandiosely entitled Operation July 14.
July 14 is, of course, Bastille Day, commemorating the destruction of the prison and the rather anti-climactic release of four forgers, two lunatics, and one “deviant aristocrat” (not the Marquis de Sade, by the way).
De Villepin’s team was not even able to match this haul, coming home empty-handed and at the center of a diplomatic spat.
The supposed FARC informant was apparently bogus, the mission—relying on the rental of a local airplane and a justifiably nervous and increasingly suspicious pilot—poorly organized, and the necessary approvals and notifications apparently existing in that grey, post-hoc zone accessible to de Villepin only if the mission had actually succeeded.
But it didn’t work, and there was much unfortunate and embarrassing fall-out in France’s relations with the Brazil and Colombia, and inside Chirac’s government.
The Colombian government was particularly unhappy at the report that both arms and money were carried on the plane, presumably to be exchanged for Betancourt, and raising the specter of FARC conducting an independent, hostage-based foreign policy to obtain money and materiel as well as public sympathy and diplomatic support from Europe.
There is a distinct whiff of the extracurricular in the reporting on Betancourt’s relationship with de Villepin.
The U.K.’s Telegraph, while performing its usual public service of exposing French incompetence and duplicity to the English public, hinted as much in its headline describing the botched rescue effort: French minister denies bid to save female friend in Amazon raid.
In a marked demonstration of the disfavor into which the de Villepin/Parfait channel had fallen, Sarkozy excluded de Villepin from the public celebration on the day of Betancourt’s return to Paris. In response, de Villepin organized his own high-profile reunion with Betancourt two days later.
In any case, Betancourt’s release stayed near the top of France’s foreign policy agenda and prompted extravagant gestures like the dispatch of a private jet equipped as a flying hospital to Colombia for a release in March 2008 that never materialized.
Sarkozy—who persisted in his involvement with the Betancourt case after he rose from Minister of the Interior to President of France--turned the Betancourt dossier over to Noel Saez, a retired French diplomat, and Jean-Pierre Gontard, a Swiss hostage negotiator.
Saez and Gontard were able to establish contacts with the FARC leadership and conduct negotiations on what FARC wanted—the release of its guerillas in exchange for Betancourt and, beyond that, diplomatic recognition as freedom fighters.
Noel Saez has written his own book, in French: The Emissary, and gave an interview promoting it to Le Figaro. He stated:
Did France envisage in the course of the imprisonment of Betancourt, to remove Farc from the list of the terrorist organizations of the EU and to allow them diplomatic representation?
Certainly. The condition was that Farc would liberate all hostages (and cease putting down bombs… This offer is always on the table. For it, it is necessary that Farc ends abductions, that they cease being terrorists.
It should be clear, looking at Saenz’s statements, that the French attitude toward FARC was absolutely antithetical to Uribe’s.
Saez is talking about FARC as a legitimate political force that needs to be accommodated at Colombia’s national table. He accepted the validity of FARC extracting not only guerillas but significant political concessions as the price for releasing Betancourt.
This kind of casual French willingness to champion the enhanced legitimacy of FARC for the sake of a well-connected French hostage no doubt incensed Uribe—whose father had died at the hands of FARC in 1983.
The grave of the French effort was probably dug when Nicholas Sarkozy announced his willingness to call upon the good offices of Uribe’s neighbor and chief regional rival, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, to assist in Betancourt’s release.
No doubt, beneath the veneer of cordiality mandated by diplomacy, Uribe found the European efforts on behalf of Betancourt an extremely unwelcome distraction from his efforts to isolate FARC and cut it off from its domestic and international sources of support.
His feelings of anger and suspicion were undoubtedly reinforced in February 2008 when Betancourt’s reputed lover, Luis Eladio Perez, was released from his jungle captivity with two other hostages through the mediation of Venezuela and leftist Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba, and emerged as FARC’s de facto ambassador—to France.
Perez met with Sarkozy to present FARC’s proposal for a detailed settlement that would ensure its political survival.
According to the plan, reported in Paris Match, Betancourt, the three Americans, and thirty five other hostages would be swapped for 500 imprisoned FARC guerillas on French territory, for instance French Guyana or Martinique. According to this scenario, France would see to it that FARC was recognized as a legitimate belligerent and would work to remove it from the European list of terrorist organizations.
The fact that Perez could characterize Uribe as “interested” in such a proposal—which the Colombian president must have found revoltingly grotesque—is an indication of the cluelessness of the European faction and Uribe’s willingness to conceal his genuine feelings and intentions.
After Betancourt’s release, Uribe felt free to make his feelings known, as USA Today reported:
So he has frozen international mediation efforts, accusing the Swiss and French envoys at its forefront of overstepping their mandate in dealing with the FARC.
Since the July 2 raid, Uribe's conservative government has leaked rebel-penned documents supporting its claim that the envoys — Swiss emissary Jean-Pierre Gontard in particular — were sympathetic to the rebels.
"Generally speaking, they had always been a nuisance," Gaviria told the AP.
The Europeans got a taste of Uribe's anger at them when they ran into the president in a corridor of the presidential palace six days before the triumphant rescue.
"I'm not going to end your mediation out of respect for your countries," Uribe said, wagging a finger at them and barely breaking his stride.
A week later, he did exactly that.
Uribe’s resentment of the European tolerance of FARC goes a long way in explaining the recriminations against Saez and Gontard in the aftermath of Betancourt’s release, when the pretext of civility and cooperation could be discarded.
The fire of the Uribe government and its sympathizers was concentrated on Swiss hostage negotiator Jean Pierre Gontard, possibly because Gontard, who works for a Swiss non-profit, lacked the official protection and standing of Saez, a French diplomat.
However, the Colombian government traduced Gontard’s reputation with a clumsiness, contempt, and demonstrable lack of honesty that has kept alive persistent suspicions concerning Bogota’s version of the events surrounding Betancourt’s release.
The Colombian government had initially blamed Gontard for a an unattributed report to the Swiss press (later accusing a FARC functionary in Switzerland named Gualdron of being the source) stating that a ransom of US $20 million had been paid and the whole rescue operation was an elaborate charade.
Then, the Colombian government used the content of e-mails on a laptop obtained during a lethal cross-border raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador to accuse Gontard of paying ransom money to FARC to obtain the release of two employees of the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis in 2001.
The fact that one FARC e-mail described Gontard’s characterization of Uribe as a “fascist cowboy” did not endear the Swiss envoy to Colombia, either.
Colombia went as far as to file an official complaint against Gontard and went the extra mile to topple Swiss-Colombian relations into the deep freeze by leaking, through the good offices of the German magazine Weltwoche (apparently the Colombian government’s preferred outlet for derogatory tittle-tattle in Europe) quotes from another e-mail from the FARC laptop indicating the the Swiss Foreign Minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey was “sensitive to the revolutionary cause”
The fact that Novartis was willing to pay $2,500,000 to FARC so that its employees would not rot in the jungle for more than half a decade as Betancourt and the three Americans (and dozens of Colombians) did is understandable.
Nevertheless, Colombia labored to make an international incident out of it by claiming that Gontard, by stepping in at the request of the Swiss government to expedite the release of the two engineers while the final $500,000 installment was paid into a Panamanian account, was a terrorist funder acting without the knowledge of the Colombian government.
As to the Colombian government’s assertion that this delicate, multi-national effort had been handled without its knowledge, a canard that was spread by the Colombia’s only national daily paper, El Tiempo--which, in a piece of Berlusconian synergy, is co-owned by Colombia’s Secretary of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos and his cousin, Vice President Francisco Santos--Gontard had a devastating riposte.
As recounted breathlessly by Andres German of the Tribune de Geneve:
The scene is surreal. It takes place in the office of the Vice President of Colombia, Francisco Santos, who last summer accused the Swiss envoy Jean-Pierre Gontard, of having paid a ransom of in 2001 500,000 dollars to the FARC guerillas. Bogota insists it was not even aware of the negotiations for the release of the two employees of Novartis…
Coup de theatre! A photo of the day is provided to Francisco Santos which includes four men: one of the hostages, the mediator from Geneva, the ambassador of Mexico and especially…General Gallegos, number two of the Colombian police…Caught unawares, the vice president explodes and ends the interview.
In retrospect, the Uribe government’s encouragement of the high profile efforts by Saez and Gontard to free Betancourt was nothing more than a ruse—to fool FARC before the fact and an international audience after the fact concerning the true circumstances of a concerted effort to free the captives on the Colombian government’s terms.
A release of the captives at FARC’s initiative with the assistance of European governments and at the behest of the Venezuelan government was perhaps not something that the Uribe government—with visions of a weakened FARC gasping beneath its heel—sincerely desired.
The perspective that the Colombian government may have been willing to actively sabotage the humanitarian release of the hostage—and thereby negate the political capital that might accrue to President Uribe’s domestic and international rivals and enemies— casts certain high-profile Colombian actions in a rather sinister light.
Interactions between the Uribe government and FARC have been marked by mysterious setbacks.
In October 2006, an unprecedented car bomb filled with sophisticated explosives was detonated at a Colombian military college; it killed no one but prompted President Uribe to cancel negotiations with FARC, much to the dismay of the hostages.
A year later, in November 2007, the Colombian government terminated Hugo Chavez’s mandate to mediate a hostage release, partly because he couldn’t produce a proof-of-life.
This was followed by the revelation that FARC had indeed filmed the proof-of-life video the previous month and dispatched it to Chavez, but its couriers were detained by the Colombian army and the existence of the video only made public a few days after Chavez’s role was ended.
But the most significant and suspicious act by the Colombian government was perhaps the high profile, provocative bombing attack and helicopter assault on a FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1, 2008 that killed Raul Reyes--not only a member of the FARC secretariat but the moderate international face of the movement and the lead negotiator for the hostage release—and 20 others.
FARC had enjoyed the status of a quasi-legitimate belligerent from Venezuela and Ecuador. As long as FARC used the border regions near Colombia for rest and resupply and not as a base for armed operations, its presence was apparently tolerated by the two socialist regimes over the objections of the Colombian government.
The real reason why the Colombian government chose March 1, 2008 to plaster the camp, provoke an international incident with Ecuador, and raise the specter of a hot war with Venezuela (which undoubtedly feared a similar incursion against the Venezuelan camp of FARC commander Ivan Marquez and was primed to respond) is open to conjecture.
When the attack is placed in the context of the ongoing negotiations concerning the captive release—and Colombia’s own stated willingness to support them—the Colombian military incursion seems strikingly cavalier and ill-timed.
After all, the international negotiation track had recently borne fruit, with the high-profile release of Luis Eladio Perez and two other captives through Venezuelan intercession. Killing FARC’s chief hostage negotiator—and lurching toward war with Venezuela, FARC’s only trusted interlocutor—put a stop to it.
When Colombia announced that Reyes had been killed, the French government expressed its displeasure. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the press that "It’s bad news that the man we were talking to is dead."
The rebel leader was France’s contact in the negotiations for the release of Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, which Sarkozy has made a top priority of his government.
Last month, another Sarkozy envoy met with Restrepo, who gave his word that he backed the negotiations for the release of the ailing Betancourt.
On Monday, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa reported that the aerial bombing raid on the FARC camp had frustrated the unilateral release of 12 hostages, including Betancourt, which was to take place in Ecuador this month. He said "the talks were quite advanced."
A detailed account by quixotic presidential candidate and World Socialist Web Site contributor, Bill Van Auken, provides more insight into how far the negotiations had progressed:
Just two days before the border massacre, French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly called for the release of the ailing Betancourt and announced that he was prepared to fly to the Colombian border to personally receive her.
The FARC itself issued a statement that Reyes had been working through Venezuelan President Chavez to concretize plans for a meeting with Sarkozy to arrange for the hand-over of Betancourt.
The French government has not denied this account. Indeed, on Monday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the media, “It’s bad news that the man we were talking to, with whom we had contacts has been killed. Do you see how ugly the world is?”
Meanwhile, a French deputy foreign minister confirmed the role played by Chavez in mediating the Sarkozy-FARC hostage negotiations. “President Chavez has taken the initiative, he had taken the initiative earlier on that had allowed for the release of several hostages even though the situation had been blocked for some time, so we are aware of his involvement and the important role he has played,” the minister, Rama Yade, told a news conference in Geneva.
After the news of Reyes’s assassination, the French foreign ministry issued a pointed statement to the effect that the Colombian government was well informed that France was conducting negotiations with him. [emph. added]
This statement was fleshed out this week by the Argentine press. Citing sources in the Argentine foreign ministry, it reported that Sarkozy had sent a delegation of three personal envoys to Colombia and that they were in the border region to meet with Reyes.
“On Saturday [the day of the cross-border raid], the three negotiators were 200 kilometers from the attack zone and were headed for a meeting with Reyes when they received a call,” the daily Pagina 12 reported. It was Luis Carlos Restrepo, head of the Colombian government’s Peace Commission, who warned them not to go to the meeting place.
Uribe’s domestic nemesis, the left-wing Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba, provided further insights on the context of the attack on Reyes.
According to her account, the attack came just as Colombia had given approval for a negotiating mission to Reyes by Saez and Gontard that showed promise of success.
Instead, Colombia took advantage of the euphoria and lowered guard of FARC following the high profile release of Perez and the other two senators to pinpoint Reyes’ location and launch the raid.
In fact, according to Cordoba, Saez blamed himself for making the phone call to Reyes that enabled the Colombian military to attack the camp:
[Piedad Cordoba] "The death occurred two or three days after a meeting in Panama between the commission [Colombian Government for Peace] Luis Carlos Restrepo, Daniel Parfait, former French ambassador to Colombia and current husband of the sister [Astrid] Ingrid Betancourt, and Noël Saez, member of the French government.
To my understanding, the meeting was held so that their Restrepo announced that the Government [of Colombia] authorized [them] to speak with Reyes to see how we could secure the release of Ingrid. The liberation of Ingrid was already beginning to be seen."
"The French called by satellite phone Reyes [probably to fix the appointment authorized by Bogota] … Saez has said in recent days to one of my friends that he felt responsible for the death of Reyes, because he believed that after his appeal that the guerrilla leader was located. " [emph. added]
How do you think will move the issue of release [of hostages the FARC]?
",,, Reyes was a key to the humanitarian agreement [on an exchange of hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, against guerrillas imprisoned]. But Uribe wanted to prevent it and therefore I do not think there will be more releases. The Secretariat [collective command of the FARC;] believes that Reyes was lured into a trap. Building confidence is now very difficult. Even if President Uribe now wants to sit for dialogue, the FARC think it is a strategy to locate and kill them. "
While promoting his recent book in an interview with the Colombia liberal newspaper El Espectador, Noel Saez confirmed that he and Gontard were in the jungle journeying to Reyes’ camp to engage in the peace negotiations that were taking place under Venezuelan and Ecuadorian mediation and apparently with the approval of the Colombian government.
Gontard and Saez were prepared to meet with Reyes in the next few hours when they received a phone call from the head of Colombia’s ironically named Peace Commission, Luis Carlos Restrepo, warning them to stay away from the camp:
Question:The day when Colombia bombed the camp of 'Raul Reyes', you and Jean-Pierre Gontard received calls from the Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo. He wanted to make sure you were not with Reyes before the bombing?
Saez: I am convinced of that. Uribe knew that if we had met and that Reyes died in the bombing there would be more problems than it was to throw over for violating Ecuador's sovereignty.
Question: If you had not answered the phone, "Raul Reyes" had not died?
It is possible, but mostly Reyes died because he trusted. He trusted that the FARC had popular support and that Uribe would not dare to bomb on foreign soil.
In other words, Saez believes that the Colombian government called him to keep track of his movements, and hastened to bomb the camp before Reyes met with Saez and Gontard, so that Colombia would not be accused of spoiling Betancourt's release by assassinating FARC's lead negotiator just after he sealed the deal with the Europeans.
As to how close the release was, Saez makes a remarkable claim:
How close was the release of the hostages when Reyes was killed?
It was a matter of days or a couple of weeks.
For the release to be this close, it could not have involved any significant concessions from the notoriously hostile Colombian government. Possibly, Reyes was planning on a unilateral humanitarian release to a combination of Uribe’s least favorite people: the Europeans, the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments, and Piedad Cordoba.
Quick, decisive action would be required to steal FARC’s (and Sarkozy’s and Chavez’s and Cordoba’s) thunder.
When most of South America united to condemn the Colombian incursion into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, the United States was steadfast in its support of the Uribe government.
Despite the awkward death squad a go-go aura that still surrounds the Uribe administration, the U.S. government consistently and publicly deferred completely to Colombia in the matter of FARC and the hostages.
Washington never elevated the fate of Stansell, Gonsalves, and Howes to the status of an international cause celebre like Ingrid Betancourt or, for that matter, the U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran, a state of affairs that disheartened the three American captives.
FARC’s leadership had hoped that the three American hostages could be used as leverage to extract two FARC leaders serving time in U.S. jails. After his release, Senator Perez tried to take this proposal to President Bush as part of the French-brokered grand bargain, but apparently did not receive a hearing.
However, the U.S. government had not forgotten Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves.
In addition to promising a sizable reward to anyone who effected their release, the U.S. government was deeply involved in supporting Colombia’s efforts to free the hostages.
Recovering the three men was the responsibility of U.S. Southern Command. Admiral James Stavridis, who was head of Southern Command at the time, stated on his blog:
[Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves] were the top priority of U.S. Southern Command, and over the course of five years, we expended over $250 million, 17,000 flight hours, 3,600 air sorties, and undertook many operations in the jungle to try and recover our shipmates.
The U.S. government had been intimately involved in the planning of the raid that killed Reyes. Bill Van Auken describes the reported U.S. role in the attack:
Colombian officials have openly acknowledged the role of US intelligence agencies in instigating and coordinating the March 1 targeted assassination. General Oscar Naranjo, commander of the national police told reporters it was no secret that the Colombian military-police apparatus maintained “a very strong alliance with federal agencies of the US.”
The Colombian radio network, Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN), reported Wednesday that Reyes’s location was pinpointed by US intelligence as a result of monitoring a satellite phone call between the FARC leader and Venezuelan President Chavez. The February 27 call--three days before the raid--came after the FARC released to Venezuelan authorities four former Colombian legislators--Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Perez, Orlando Beltran and Jorge Eduardo Gechem--who had been held hostage for nearly seven years.
“Chavez was thrilled by the release of the hostages, and called Reyes to tell him that everything went well,” RCN reported. Presumably, the CIA or other US intelligence agencies were also tapping phone calls between Reyes and French officials over the proposed release of Betancourt.
Another Colombian station, Noticias Uno, cited intelligence sources as saying that they had received photographs from “foreign spy planes” pinpointing the location of Reyes’s camp in Ecuador.
In 2007 and 2008, the Uribe government was also receiving assistance in more sophisticated and intensive counter-terrorism operations from another old friend: Israel.
The links between Israel and Colombia’s conservative forces are surprisingly deep.
Carlos Costano, who went on to unite the paramilitary force financed by Colombia’s upper classes to combat FARC into the feared AUC, famously received his counter-terrorist training in Israel in a mysterious curriculum called “Course 562”.
In the 1980s, Israeli mercenaries operated training centers inside Colombia for paramilitaries and, according to Costano’s memoirs, offered scholarships in Israel for the most promising graduates.
As the AUC faded in importance, Israel maintained its links with Colombia through the Uribe administration.
Israel became the top supplier of arms to Colombia, partly by virtue of the fact that it set up a factory in Bogota to assemble the Galil assault rifle (Israel’s version of the AK-47); it was also advising Colombia on anti-terrorist operations:
In April 2007, Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed a $10 million contract with Global CST, owned by three retired IDF heavyweights, including former General Staff operations chief, Brigadier General (res.) Israel Ziv, and Brigadier (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser [former Chief Intelligence Officer of IDF Central Command].
CST staff were at the center of Georgia’s burgeoning security alliance with Israel, which famously came a cropper in Fall 2008 when the Russian counter-attack humiliatingly routed the Georgian forces painstakingly trained by the Israelis.
The experience in Colombia was happier. The Colombian government praised the Israeli advisers extravagantly, according to Ynet of Israel:
The Israeli group, reportedly made up of three senior generals, a lower ranking officer and three translators, is highly esteemed by the Colombians. "They are like psychoanalysts; they ask us the material questions and help us see all the problems we weren't aware of before," Deputy Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo told the newspaper. "They are the best in the world," another high ranking officer stated.
"Israel's methods of fighting terror have been duplicated in Colombia," a senior defense official said Thursday, adding that arms export to Colombia has increased significantly in recent years, totaling tens of millions of dollars.
In light of the statement that “Israel’s methods of fighting terror have been duplicated in Colombia”, it’s interesting to compare the cross-border attack that killed Raul Reyes and 20 others with General Ziv’s most famous foray into the dark realm of targeted killings.
When Ziv was in charge of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, he ordered the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as Newsweek reported in 2004:
Ziv had ordered an airstrike on the three-story building in Gaza City where the Hamas spiritual leader was meeting with his inner circle. Huddled with other Israeli commanders around a screen that displayed real-time satellite imagery, Ziv watched as an F-16 jet unloaded a 250-kilogram bomb on the target. Ziv was worried; at the last minute he had reduced the size of the bomb by half, hoping to lower the chance of civilian deaths. "We saw in a few seconds that people were pouring out through the smoke," Ziv told NEWSWEEK, still rueful that he hadn't used a bigger bomb. "
There were no such gnawing regrets in the aftermath of the attack on Reyes’ camp.
Eight aircraft targeted the camp with precision-guided munitions and demolished it. According to the Ecuadorian government, the airstrike was followed by a helicopter incursion and landing of Colombian troops to execute survivors, collect the body of Reyes and another FARC commander for extraction, and acquire the notorious laptop.
Given Colombia’s murderous history of 60 years’ civil war, perhaps the Uribe government didn’t need any outside encouragement from the granddaddy of gloves-off counterterrorism for this bloody excursion.
Nevertheless, the Reyes killing marked a major escalation of the war against FARC. It weakened FARC politically, militarily, and diplomatically; revealed that Colombia and the United States were determined to counter any effort to “internationalize” the negotiations on FARC’s terms and with the participation of Venezuela and Ecuador; and it undoubtedly colored views inside FARC as to the risks and benefits of using the hostages as bargaining chips.
In the first half of 2008, there were multiple indications that FARC was preparing to release the captives, perhaps even unilaterally.
In early 2008, the high-value hostages were transferred to a new location they mockingly named “Fat Camp”, and given food and treatment to improve their health and appearance and not destroy FARC’s anticipated public relations bonanza by staggering into freedom as emaciated, disease-ridden wraiths.
FARC’s main regional patron, Hugo Chavez, also made it clear that Betancourt and the other captives would soon be freed.
Perhaps to insulate himself against charges of collusion with FARC supported by incriminating information found on the captured FARC laptop—or to assist FARC’s new leader, Alfonso Cano, in advertising a new, more attractive political orientation for his organization--in June 2008 Hugo Chavez called for release of all the hostages:
"The time has come for the Farc to release everyone ... It would be a grand humanitarian gesture and unconditional," Chavez said.
"This is my message for you, Cano: 'Come on, let all these people go.' There are old folk, women, sick people, soldiers who have been prisoners in the mountain for ten years."
Chavez also described the negotiations and international mechanisms being put into place to facilitate a hostage release:
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez urged new FARC leader, Alfonso Cano, to liberate all hostages without conditions. Commenting on the long violent crisis in Colombia, Chavez stated that armed struggle was no longer an effective tool for Latin American revolutionaries. ..
Then, Chavez stated a number of countries would be ready to help FARC reintegration into democratic life in Colombia after all hostages were liberated and peace accords signed. . Chavez mentioned Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain, OAS and the Vatican as possible members of such international initiative.
This new proposal for the liberation of FARC hostages takes place after Colombian government has authorised contact with its new leadership. According to Colombian news network Carcol, the contacts with FARC Cano are on the right track now.
Another account reported on the dismay at Chavez’s statement by Ivan Marquez, a FARC commander apparently using Venezuela as a safe haven. It went on to say:
There is a new enthusiasm over the prompt release of FARC hostages. A former Colombian hostage released after Chavez mediation, Luis Eladio Peres, said today that some hostages are already on their way to freedom. First, civil hostages would be released; then, Colombian military and police hostage would take their turn. Finally, the three American hostages would be released, he added.
Given the intransigence of the Uribe administration and FARC’s disarray, it was unlikely that the hostage release would secure any of Cano’s higher goals, such as a recognized safe haven for FARC or international recognition of the movement as legitimate belligerents.
But at the very least it would be a public relations win, helping FARC to shed the hostage-taker stigma and reposition itself as a principled adversary of the Uribe government.
Given the transparent desire of the weakened FARC leadership to free the hostages, efforts by Chavez to set the stage with his remarks for the new, better, post-hostage FARC era, and the incessant provision of European money, offers of asylum, and good offices to expedite the release, it looked like time was running out on FARC’s hostage adventure.
By June 2008, any deal by a renegade FARC commander would have to be made in haste to pre-empt an impending humanitarian release by the leadership, in an atmosphere of risk and anxiety that Colombian intelligence would have found easy to exploit.
As to what the real hostage release saga entailed, it is time to consider the most persistent suspicion concerning the events of July 2—the possibility that the local FARC commanders, “Cesar” and “Enrique Gafas”, who flew away on the rescue helicopter together with their erstwhile captives, had shopped the hostages for cash and immunity.
The Betancourt release looks and smells more like cash for hostages than an exquisitely executed piece of covert derring-do.
The fundamental problem with the story—that Cesar and Enrique Gafas, persuaded by bogus instructions ostensibly from the FARC secretariat but actually initiated by Colombian intelligence, believed that the International Committee of the Red Cross would operate a shuttle service for the internal convenience of FARC prior to the release and the hostages could be buzzed safely through Colombian airspace without fear of interception—hasn’t gone away, despite heroic efforts to explain the absence of elementary caution.
Supposedly, the rescuers had painstakingly prepped for their roles for months. But the mission’s cover was blown, even before it hit the ground—by the hostages.
The Americans noted with dismay that the helicopter did not bear the valid International Committee of the Red Cross insignia. No crosses, they anxiously told each other.
When the Colombian security officers exited the helicopter, it transpired that their careful preparation included a contemptuous burlesque of what they thought humanitarian release would look like: guys dressed up in Che Guevara T-shirts delivering a case of beer to the guerillas.
As a contemporary news report stated:
The rescuers came wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and logos declaring them delegates of some obscure humanitarian organization.
They didn't look much like an international relief brigade. And they weren't.
"Who are these people? What kind of international commission is this?" former hostage and once-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt remembered thinking. "Are we clowns in another circus? I didn't want any part of it."
A Colombian hostage threw a fit when the rescuers tried to handcuff him in order to promote the charade. One of the rescuers, attired in the international spook attire of reflective sunglasses, tried to defuse the situation by identifying himself to Keith Stansell (apparently in a thick accent) as an Australian. Stansell immediately called him out as a Colombian, upon which the rescuer revealed himself, saying, “Do you want to go home?”
Thereupon, Stansell urgently encouraged his fellow captives to accept the handcuffs and board the chopper.
Why did Cesar and Enrique Gafas disregard the myriad signs that something wasn’t right that were clearly evident to the hostages and walk into this not-too-subtle trap?
Cesar himself, according to statements made by his lawyer immediately after his capture, supported the story of a ruse, claiming that he had been steered to the release site by spurious text messages on his satellite phone over a period of weeks.
Interestingly, Cesar was well aware that FARC’s satellite phones were compromised and had been monitored by Colombian intelligence.
His girlfriend, Nancy Rubio, had unwittingly bought the phones from an FBI front company. In a high-profile operation, Rubio had been arrested in February and extradited to the United States. The Washington Post reported that “officials said” news of her arrest and extradition almost certainly prompted her boyfriend, hostage jailer Gerardo Aguilar, [Cesar] to seriously limit if not shun radio communications.
It would seem odd to rely on the security of text messages coming over those phones.
In conversation with his lawyer, Cesar cited the presence of Red Cross bibs over the Che Guevara T-shirts as justification for falling for the ruse (an awkward point for the Colombian government because abusing the ICRC logo for stunts like this is considered a war crime):
Ríos asked César several times if he was sure that the troops in the operation were wearing the ICRC logo, and he has always answered, "Yes, I'm absolutely sure, and that is what gained my confidence, because I had a lot of doubts."
"The International Red Cross symbols gave me confidence," César told Ríos.
Cesar claimed that his concern about two unidentified planes circling overhead and the demand—which he readily complied with—that he board the helicopter without his weapon were assuaged by the ICRC bibs, an impersonator who looked “just like” a journalist close to the guerillas, and the presence of a female soldier “in FARC uniform and insignia” who told him to leave his unit and get on the helicopter “because Cano needed him”.
The International Herald Tribune provided an analysis of Cesar’s gullibility:
Cesar, who would be captured in the operation, was psychologically fragile after the capture earlier this year of Doris Adriana, his companion, and intelligence agents sensed that he was particularly open to praise from superiors, according to a report by Semana, the respected Colombian newsmagazine. The Colombian agents would later exploit this openness by telling him that Cano, FARC's top commander, trusted him to carry out the delivery of the captives.
Cesar’s judgment may have been affected by his desire for personal advantage as a hostage seller, rather than his tottering self-esteem.
Noel Saez, in his interview, dismissed the covert operation story.
Saez met many times with FARC to negotiate on the European track. Indeed, he was scheduled to go into the jungle to meet with the FARC chief Alfonso Cano, and would have known the actual status of the assurances, expectations, and procedures surrounding the captives whose release he believed was imminent thanks to the efforts of Jean Pierre Gontard and himself.
The interview with Figaro contains this passage:
He [Saez] discounted the story of FARC unwittingly loading the precious captives on a government helicopter:
This operation was introduced as a true Hollywood film. When they know Farc, it is unthinkable that this takes place just like that.
The jailers of Ingrid Betancourt were bought…
Though nobody apparently paid attention, FARC’s leadership made the same point at the time of the rescue:
"The escape of the 15 prisoners on July 2 was a direct consequence of the despicable conduct of Cesar and Enrique, who betrayed their revolutionary ideals and the trust we had put in them," said Farc.
The statement, signed by the Farc's secretariat, was issued on the Bolivarian Press Agency website.
In his Figaro interview, Saez contributed his views on how the hostage deal went down.
In February 2008, the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe informed us, Bernard Kouchner and me, that they had arrested the wife of Caesar, the jailer of Betancourt. She had important responsibilities within guerilla.
Caesar could therefore be “turned” at this instant. Then, at end-April/ beginning of May, a Colombian lawyer received an envoy of Cesar, who engaged to liberate the hostages on the condition of not being extradited.
Finally, the Colombian president made a statement in which he told have been approached by a commander detaining hostages and undertook to liberate them if he was not extradited. [President Uribe] specified have given his consent.
In sum: Uribe obtained a genuine intelligence prize: the wife (actually girlfriend, Nancy Rubio) of the captor of Betancourt and the three Americans. Through her intercession, Cesar is contacted and reaches out to the Colombian government and offers a deal.
Indeed, two weeks prior to the release, Uribe made a public statement that seemed to address renegade commanders prepared to release Betancourt:
I hope it was sincere, the guerrilla's offer communicated to the chief of the DAS (Colombian secret police) to release Doctor Ingrid Betancourt. We would respect our pledge not to extradite if it happened," Uribe told a meeting in Bogota.
The Colombian leader first mentioned the offer Thursday and said he had accepted it, but Friday revealed that it pertained to Betancourt, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's (FARC's) highest profile hostage.
Seized in 2002 as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency, Betancourt is a dual French-Colombian national and one of 39 hostages the FARC wants to swap for some 500 rebels held in Colombian jails.
The group also includes dozens of Colombian soldiers and police and three US nationals.
"Just now the director of the DAS told me she received a call from FARC, in which a FARC individual told her: 'If the president promises, through DAS, not to extradite a FARC member, then they would go ahead with the immediate release of hostages,'" Uribe said Thursday in Risaralda, in Colombia's east.
"I made the pledge. I told them yes, we promise not to extradite this person, but that they should release their hostages," Uribe said.
Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo received a similar proposal last week, in which a FARC contact asked for guarantees that rebels involved in any handover could go into exile, Uribe said.
"The rebels asked if we could guarantee that those who released the hostages would not be taken to jail and if they could immediately go to other countries, like France.
"Our response was positive. 'Free the hostages, and simultaneously they can get on an airplane and go to a foreign country,'" Uribe said.
Uribe’s publicized offer of asylum under French protection to anyone that freed Ingrid Betancourt—reiterated publicly two weeks before the rescue occurred—might have looked like an endorsement of deal that renegade FARC commanders were furtively negotiating with Colombian security forces.
To be even-handed, it should be noted that Noel Saez can only speak of these events with an expert’s insight—but not authority--since he was being misled by the Uribe government during the period leading up to the rescue.
While promoting his book, Saez first speculated that Cesar was lured to betray FARC and release the hostages by a promise of no extradition to the United States. Then, after the U.S. request for his extradition was approved by the Colombia’s Supreme Court, Saez retreated to an opinion that Cesar would be reunited in the United States with Ms. Rubio under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department.
In the macho isolation of the FARC camps women apparently fill the roles of secretaries, pack mules, and sexual furniture. Cesar would certainly be the exception if the desire to rejoin his jungle love drove him to accept incarceration in the United States, and Saez’ walkback elicited savage mockery from his bete noire in the French press, Jacques Thomet.
Saez himself acknowledges that the Colombian government used the presence of the European negotiators as a blind to ensure the success of the operation:
The day before the release of Ingrid Betancourt, Bogota had announced your departure to meet Alfonso Cano, who had just become leader of Farc. Did this announcement aim at diverting the attention of Farc?
This announcement was intended to make operation " Jaque " credible with the eyes of Farc. Bogota used us. Having said that, it is also the role of the mediator.
Insert resigned yet disgruntled Gallic shrug here.
While Saez and Gontard were, not to put too fine a point on it, getting their chains yanked, the United States and Colombian government were working feverishly to effect the rescue.
The clandestine U.S. effort apparently ramped up in mid-2008, as Frank Bajak reported for the AP:
From mid-June on, [U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William] Brownfield and a team of 100 people at the U.S. Embassy who had been dedicated to securing the American hostages' release worked closely with the Colombians running the operation.
"The truth of the matter is, we have actually come together in a way that we rarely have in the United States of America, except with longtime allies, principally NATO allies," Brownfield said of relations with Colombia's security forces, which have received more than $4 billion in military aid since 2000.
Several times, he said, the U.S. government had to make decisions -- "at the highest levels" -- about proceeding.
During this time, Admiral Stavridis was in contact with Ambassador Brownfield three to four times a day.
The close coordination between the United States and Colombia provides an important perspective on the rescue.
It’s arguable that the existence of a renegade controlling the hostages—and not just a mole feeding information to Colombian security forces, as was claimed—would have been necessary to gain U.S. support for Operation Checkmate.
With FARC’s leadership clearly warming to the idea of releasing its captives in the near future, the U.S. might have balked at a genuine, high risk rescue by the Colombian army.
Colombia’s record in this regard was not stellar.
The only previously reported effort by Colombian special forces to free hostages, in 2003, had been a bloody botch resulting in zero rescues and the deaths of 10 Colombian hostages executed by their FARC guards.
As the murder of the eleven Colombian hostages in 2007 demonstrated, jittery FARC guards might kill their captives, even in the absence of a clear threat, if something didn’t look right.
Why, after six years and US$250 million expended in an abundance of caution, risk a massacre of the hostages when there were multiple indications that release might only be weeks—or even a few days-- away?
But the U.S. might have been willing to help Colombia turn a renegade deal to deliver the captives into a high profile coup de theatre and public relations bonanza.
According to a largely overlooked report in the U.S. press, FARC commanders had been shopping the hostages for several months, perhaps in an effort to exploit the bargaining power that the hostages provided for their own personal benefit before the top FARC leadership frittered them away just so that more FARC guerillas could leave Colombian jails and return to the miseries of the jungle.
On October 12, 2008, a reporter for the El Nuevo Herald, Gonzalvo Guillen, reported on a remarkable story brought to him by two South American lawyers and an attorney in Atlanta. As reported in English by the paper’s English language sister publication, the Miami Herald, the story went as follows:
Carlos Arturo Toro López, a lawyer who has handled many U.S. extradition cases, and another lawyer who asked to remain anonymous, told the newspaper they got involved in the case because they had contacts with FARC intermediaries who were offering to help arrange the hostages' release.
Toro López's partner said their intermediary with the two FARC commanders who were in charge of the hostages eventually agreed to a deal under which they would provide map coordinates for the release, the government would send in helicopters, the hostages and two rebels would board the aircraft, all would be released, and the guerrillas would be protected from U.S. extradition requests.
The two Colombian lawyers said they then again contacted the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which agreed to the plan but asked for proof the hostages were alive, which never came. At the same time, they sent the two FARC commanders documents to sign appointing the lawyers as their legal representatives.
President Alvaro Uribe appeared to have been aware of the some negotiations, at one point publicly referring to "a rebel who is offering to hand over Ingrid Betancourt" and promising not to extradite him.
The Guillen’s Spanish-language reporting in El Nuevo Herald identifies Cesar and Enrique Gafas by name as the FARC commanders whose intermediary approached the lawyers.
As to why the commanders would go the risk and trouble of contacting the United States, one lawyer said:
"If you negotiate here [in Colombia] and you don't negotiate with the gringos, you haven't negotiated anything."
“The gringos” would be a critical factor in any release strategy because of the legal synergies between the anti-FARC agendas of the U.S. and Colombian governments.
In 2006, the United States unsealed a sweeping indictment asserting that FARC was responsible for half of the world’s cocaine trafficking. It went systematically through the FARC organization chart to indict 50 people, the entire top leadership of the movement.
The indictments were perhaps designed to forestall international efforts to recognize FARC as legitimate belligerents, pile more pressure on FARC, and also dash FARC’s hopes that it could simply stall until a more conciliatory administration takes over from President Uribe.
FARC guerillas imprisoned in Colombia can always hope for release as part of some future reconciliation agreement between FARC and the Colombian government. FARC prisoners in the U.S. system are looking at decades to life in the American pokey. Narcotics kingpin Pepe Escobar famously said that he preferred a grave in Colombia to a prison cell in the United States.
Cesar has the dubious distinction of gracing not one but two U.S. indictments. In addition to being named in a 2003 indictment for holding Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves in captivity, he is one of the 50 FARC leaders targeted in the 2006 U.S. narco-trafficking indictment.
Cesar may have entertained the idea that his American legal problems—and perhaps those of his girlfriend-- might be resolved by trading the American hostages in his possession to the American authorities for a promise of no extradition.
However, negotiation with the United States is apparently a very complicated and time-consuming affair.
According to a source familiar with some aspects of the commanders’ approach, discussions with the lawyers never got to the negotiation stage because Cesar and Enrique Gafas never even got to see the powers-of-attorney that were carried into the jungle for their signature as a precondition for serious talks.
The United States had taken the Colombian government into its confidence after the lawyer made the initial approach to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota on the renegades’ behalf. Both a Colombian counter-terrorism prosecutor and an official of the attorney general office's investigative arm, known as CTI, were privy to the discussions.
Perhaps the Colombian government availed itself of the information and access provided by the United States and offered the two FARC commanders an alternative to putting their fate in the hands of the lawyers.
Indeed, according to Guillen, a source in the Colombian public prosecutor’s office stated that Cesar and Enrique Gafas did make a deal—not through the lawyers but through Nancy Rubio, who was sitting in U.S. federal prison and probably anxious to make a deal of her own.
Maybe the satellite phone messages that directed Cesar to the July 2 handover were not false messages concocted by Colombian intelligence.
Perhaps they were from his imprisoned girlfried, Nancy Rubio, with the proper safe codes, offering a different kind of deal through the good offices of the Colombian government: money, protection from U.S. extradition, and a ticket to France in return for handing over the hostages, guaranteed by a public statement by President Uribe.
Cesar may have decided that this was a quicker and surer way to ensure his future than a difficult and drawn-out direct negotiation with the United States over the details of the deal, the onerous demands U.S. prosecutors would make for cooperation and, possibly, court appearances, the time-consuming logistics of pushing paper for the lawyers and the DOJ while a fugitive in the jungle, and the everpresent risk that FARC would discover and punish his treason—all this with the clock ticking as the FARC leadership proceeded with its own arrangements to free the hostages.
Maybe Cesar was forced to discard his normal caution and get on the rescue helicopter “hoping for the best” i.e. that his deal was going through.
If so, Cesar was disappointed.
Both Betancourt and the U.S. captives believe Cesar was genuinely dismayed when the government rescuers revealed themselves on the helicopter, pummeled him into submission, and injected him with a sedative.
A cynical observer might be forgiven for speculating that Cesar, as one of the top 50 FARC commanders, was considered an eligible candidate for a double-cross instead of a deal, and was injected with the sedative in order to spare his fellow passengers—the last uncontrolled audience he would have before he disappeared in the maw of the Colombian and American justice systems—the potential embarrassment of the guerilla’s aggrieved recitation of the perfidy of the Colombian government toward its hostage-selling friends.
The United States let the Colombian government claim the credit—and the French people monopolize the joy—surrounding Operation Checkmate. The rescue of Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves was treated almost as an afterthought, even in the American press.
By coincidence, presidential hopeful John McCain and his sidekicks-- Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman--were in Bogota the very night the rescue went down.
South Carolina’s Graham provided a description of how the Catholic Church pitched in to assist President Uribe to free the captives, as he told his homestate Greenville News:
"(Colombian Defense Minister Santos) told us the whole plan," Graham said. "We were just stunned. We're at the dinner. We're sitting there thinking about this because there are three Americans involved. Right before we leave, President Uribe says it's a go for tonight.
"I found out later that the defense minister, Santos, called the bishop, the head of the Catholic church in Colombia, about 11:30 and said, 'In about 90 minutes, we want you to pray for the heart and soul of Columbia [presumably, the padre was instructed to pray for the heart and soul of Colombia, the country in South America, not Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. An understandable flub by the otherwise reliable Greenville News—ed.].' He didn't tell him what it was about, just start praying at one o'clock.
President Uribe might have been grateful for McCain’s presence in case the rescue turned into a corpse-littered fiasco and some sympathetic spinning to the U.S. media was required.
But thanks to an unknown combination of skill, luck, treachery, and divine intervention, Operation Checkmate secured the release of the fifteen jubilant hostages.
The U.S. promptly requested Cesar’s extradition on the drug trafficking and kidnapping indictments.
In October 2008, according to Guillen’s account, Cesar’s two local defense attorneys resigned because they were being denied access to recordings of Cesar’s intercepted satellite phone calls, which purportedly linked him to cocaine transactions and were the linchpin of the U.S. extradition demand on the drug charge.
The Colombian Supreme Court approved his extradition to the U.S. on the 2006 narco-trafficking indictment alone in February 2009.
The lawyers were also unable to gain access to Enrique Gafas’ laptop—which somehow ended up in the hands of the U.S. government without the Colombian government even knowing it existed, according to their complaint—or the video camera Enrique had when he boarded the helicopter
The Colombian Supreme Court blocked Enrique Gafas’ extradition to the United States—he was indicted for his role in holding Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves captive but not named on the narcotics indictment--because hostage-taking was considered to be a crime committed inside Colombia and a matter for the Colombian, and not the U.S., courts.
The decision elicited a cry of dismay (and an endorsement of the principle of extraterritoriality that would find few supporters either inside or outside the United States in the 21st century) from Marc Gonsalves:
How is it that a terrorist who was caught red handed committing crimes against Americans is not going to be extradited to the US to face American justice?
He must be brought to the United States to account for his crimes against America as well. … As a Christian, I forgive Gafas; but as a citizen of the world, I want justice.
It will be interesting to see how Cesar fares in the U.S. What story will he tell? Will he follow through on a deal and help build the case against the rest of the FARC leadership in return for lenient treatment? Or will he get swallowed up by the U.S. criminal justice system and spend the rest of his life languishing in the cell next to Manuel Noriega’s?
Since the Betancourt release, eight captives—including the last foreigner in captivity—have departed FARC’s grasp thanks either to FARC renegades seeking French asylum, left-wing intermediation, or unilateral release by FARC’s leadership.
Whether this represents a decisive victory for the Uribe government’s approach, or simply the unwinding of a financially and politically unprofitable long position in hostages by a new FARC leadership ready to soldier on for another four decades, is open to debate.
Meanwhile, the mystery and suspicions surrounding the Betancourt rescue seem likely to persist.
The lawyers involved in the abortive negotiations between the FARC commanders and the DEA and FBI have their opinion:
"My idea is that there was a negotiation, and that [the FARC commanders] thought they were handing over those people just like they had negotiated. But the government wanted all the credit."
As for Toro López and other lawyer, they sometimes laugh about the case.
"Just after the release was announced, friends in the FBI, the police and the prosecutor's office began to call to congratulate us" said the second lawyer. "There are those who still can't believe that we could not be there at the end."
© Peter Lee 2009