In recent days, more plausible explanations for how the 15 Colombian hostages were liberated on July 2 have appeared in several international media outlets. The Colombian government claims intelligence officers infiltrated the highest-levels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), allowing them to convince the guerrillas holding the hostages to hand the captives over to undercover soldiers pretending to work for a fictitious aid organization. The whole scenario appears farfetched and there have been suggestions that the Colombian government actually paid $20 million to the guerrilla in charge of guarding the hostages and then exploited a decision already reached by the FARC’s central command to release the hostages by staging the elaborate rescue mission.
According to the Colombian government, military intelligence operatives infiltrated the highest levels of the FARC’s command structure. These operatives then convinced the guerrilla commander responsible for guarding the hostages that Jorge Briceno (alias Mono Jojoy), a member of the group’s seven-person secretariat, had ordered that three groups of hostages be brought together in preparation for a humanitarian exchange agreed to by the FARC’s Supreme Commander Alfonso Cano. The Uribe administration claims that Colombian soldiers disguised as aid workers and journalists then arrived at the rendezvous location deep in the jungle and retrieved the 15 hostages and captured the guerrilla commander and another rebel without a shot being fired even though there were some 60 other FARC fighters in the immediate vicinity. The government claimed it was an elaborate long-term operation that was conducted flawlessly.
However, there is a far more plausible scenario. The FARC had already decided to unilaterally release the 15 hostages following talks with two European envoys who had arrived in Colombia in late June to meet with high-ranking rebels in the region in which Supreme Commander Alfonso Cano is located. Consequently, it was Cano who gave the order to gather the hostages together from the three separate camps in which they were being held.
Meanwhile, under this scenario, the Colombian government was seeking to bribe FARC commander Gerardo Antonio Aguilar (alias “César”), who was in charge of guarding the hostages, in order to gain their release. The Colombian military had captured César’s rebel wife several months earlier and convinced her to contact her husband to offer him $20 million in return for the release of the hostages.
Ultimately, the coinciding events of FARC commander Cano ordering the hostages to be gathered in one place in preparation for their release, the interception of this information by Colombian and US intelligence services and the bribing of César allowed the Colombian military to exploit the situation and stage a rescue of hostages who would have been liberated anyway. The benefits of such a staged operation for the Uribe administration are clear: the government would receive the credit for the release of the hostages rather than the FARC; and the military could sow seeds of distrust in the ranks of the rebels by claiming it has infiltrated the guerrilla group at the highest levels.
This hypothesis is supported by various sources that have been quoted in the several media outlets over the previous few days and by certain events of the last few months. Several days prior to the liberation of the hostages, the Associated Press and other media outlets reported that two international envoys — Noel Saez of France and Jean Pierre Cotard of Switzerland — were seeking to meet with FARC Supreme Commander Alfonso Cano to gain the release of the hostages. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s press secretary, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, confirmed the presence of the envoys in Colombia and acknowledged that they had the Colombian government’s permission to meet with the rebels.
According to an unidentified source quoted by Inter Press Service, the FARC Supreme Commander Alfonso Cano agreed to unilaterally release the 15 hostages and ordered that they be brought together in one location. “Their release was planned for this weekend (Jul. 5-6) or the next, as agreed by the Secretariat (FARC’s governing body) and ‘Alfonso Cano’ (their top commander) himself, that’s why they were brought together,” the source claimed. “The (Colombian) armed forces found out, and intercepted their liberation to make it look like a rescue.”
The success of the military “rescue” may well have been guaranteed by the Uribe government’s ability to buy the cooperation of FARC commander César, who was responsible for guarding the hostages. Several months earlier, the Colombian military had captured the wife of César, and according to Swiss radio station RSR, quoting a “reliable source” close to the operation, she was trying to convince her rebel husband to release the high-profile hostages — former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US military contractors — in return for a $20 million payment agreed to by the Colombian and US governments.
This claim is buttressed by recent public comments made by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe that his government had established a $100 million fund to pay to individual guerrilla guards who released their hostages. And then, last month, Uribe publicly stated that his government was in touch with guerrillas guarding the hostages. Perhaps the most compelling evidence that César might have agreed to release the hostages and cooperate with the staged rescue mission is the fact that he and another guerrilla laid their weapons on the ground before boarding the helicopter unarmed. It is common knowledge that FARC guerrillas are trained to never leave their weapons and the fact that César did so suggests that he was quitting the armed struggle rather than following orders he believed had come from his superiors.
The Colombian government has vehemently denied that it paid any money to obtain the release of the hostages. The Uribe administration claimed that the unidentified “reliable source” quoted in the Swiss radio report was none other than Swiss envoy Jean Pierre Cotard and immediately set out to discredit him. However, in their attempt to discredit Cotard, they also validated his credibility as someone who would know such information.
On July 6, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos accused Cotard of providing the FARC with almost $500,000 in funding. Santos claimed that emails in the laptop of the late FARC commander Raúl Reyes suggested that Cotard was responsible for delivering the money to FARC envoys in Costa Rica where it was later seized. Santos did not make the alleged email public and did not explain why the Colombian government had approved Cotard’s role as a negotiator the week before the hostages were liberated if it believed he was affiliated with the rebel group. Ultimately, whether or not the alleged email exists — and if so, whether it does link Cotard to the FARC — it is evident that Cotard has been in a position to obtain sensitive information related to the hostage saga and his comments cannot be summarily dismissed — if he is indeed the “reliable source” quoted by the Swiss radio station RSR.
Ultimately, the government’s version of the how the liberation of the hostages occurred appears too neat-and-tidy and a little far-fetched, even given the FARC’s current disarray. The alternative scenario seems far more plausible: that the liberation of the hostages resulted from a combination of the FARC agreeing to release them, government intelligence sources learning of the planned liberation, the bribing of the guerrilla commander in charge of guarding the hostages, and a staged rescue operation to make the Uribe administration and the Colombian military appear heroic. The staged rescue also allowed the government to steal the positive public relations spotlight that the FARC would have enjoyed through a unilateral release of the hostages and to hide the fact that the Uribe administration paid for the liberation of the captives.