A More Plausible Scenario for Colombia Hostage Saga

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.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of the online publication Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared, which analyzes US foreign policy in Colombia. He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read other articles by Garry, or visit Garry's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on July 9th, 2008 at 9:47am #

    What if and could be hypothesis …

    Farc is finished as a “rebel group” deserving sympathy and support.

    Get over it.

  2. Michael Kenny said on July 9th, 2008 at 12:11pm #

    20 Mil certainly sounds more credible than the 500 K mentioned earlier but if FARC have got 20 Mil for the hostages, they have scored a monumnetal victory. Indeed, a double victory. 20 Mil is a lot of money in any event and it gives them a little bit more independence vis-à-vis the Cali drug lords.

  3. Coldtype said on July 9th, 2008 at 3:08pm #

    Evie, stun and amaze me with a few words, any words that would explain why piss poor peasants would risk all to resist their “government” for over four decades. What plausible explanation can YOU come up with? Barring this perhaps you can illuminate for me the benefits and attributes of the “legitimate” government of Colombia which has been so skillfully obscured from us all.

  4. evie said on July 9th, 2008 at 3:47pm #

    Coldtype
    You said it yourself – “poor peasants.” The rest of Columbia’s social classes are not interested. Unlike the FSLN which had upper, middle and lower classes supporting their revolution, FARC is only able to recruit those who have nothing going for them – like gang members seeking a place to belong and all they have to do is carry a gun and think of the future as 30 minutes from now.

    Thirty percent of FARC members are under age 18 and many under 15. Child soldiering anyone? Could they be birthing their own troops?

    The American “left” – always advocating non-violent movements at home yet praise and pay homage to violent rebellion abroad, although at home and abroad many on the “left” are fighting the same enemy, are they not? US government policy?

    Tell me, what is FARC resisting in Columbia? Also tell me, if poor Americans were to resist their “government” with kidnappings, rape, murder and purchase their arms with drug running and ransom how far would you defend America’s poor?

    I stopped supporting FARC 2 decades ago. As for the government of Columbia it is as legitimate as your own government. Are you resisting your government?

  5. Coldtype said on July 9th, 2008 at 5:23pm #

    ” Are you resisting your government?”
    -evie

    Yes.

    Furthermore, your implication that my government, in fact a plutocracy, is equally illegitimate is also dead on. Now, what exactly have you proven?

    Again I put the question to you, why should the overwhelming majority of Columbia’s population (its poor) NOT resist, violently if necessary (and it is necessary) a thoroughly illegitimate and criminal regime? By what “right” does the Uribe government exist?

  6. evie said on July 9th, 2008 at 6:03pm #

    Coldtype
    You are not resisting your government by armed force or violence, which you claim is a legitimate method for FARC to use in resistance to theirs.

    What leads you to believe that an “overwhelming majority” of Colombia’s population are with FARC? The country’s pop. is 45,000,000 with 40% in poverty – but I seriously doubt the “overwhelming” majority of them are in the armed resistance or even sympathetic.

    At 12,000 FARC members (“left” estimates) that’s aprx. 0.025% of the population. It’s the reason FARC hasn’t won shit for the people in 40 years of jungle hegemony – they do not have popular support.

    Uribe was “elected”, as was Bush. Personally I believe all governments are illegitimate, but what’s the alternative?

  7. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 9th, 2008 at 8:31pm #

    coldtype: Evie is a Democrat. Remember that Democrats are capitalists, they love this great free market, our Mcdonalds, our Exxons, and our Walgreens Medical freedoms. And that’s Democrats who are supposed to be “The party of the people” hahaha, that’s why Demo-rats have a populist speech, but in reality they are pro-free markets, pro capitalism just like Bush.

  8. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 9th, 2008 at 8:33pm #

    100 million US voters vote for the war political parties every 4 years (Demo-rats and republic-rats).

    I prefer FARC rebellious group here in America than Demo-rats and republic-rats.

    I think that Demo-rats and republic-rats are crueler and have killed more people than FARC and all the rebel armed groups of this world labeled “terrorists” by the Terrorists political parties of Washington, DC (Demo-rats, and republic-rats)

  9. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 9th, 2008 at 8:45pm #

    evie: But your theory is that if the majority of Colombia not supporting FARC that means FARC is evil and not legitimate. Wow what a dumb populist thought. That means that Britney Spears music is a lot better than Mozart, because she sells more albums.
    Or better, that means that John Mccain and Bush are a LOT, but A LOT better than Ralph Nader, and the Socialist Party of USA. Because John Mccain and Bush have more popularity in polls than leftist parties.
    I know that Colombia’s masses support elitist parties a lot more than FARC and leftist alternative parties. The same happens in most countries, where leftist and libertarian alternative parties have very little popularity. But that doesn’t mean that the political parties and groups with more popularity in polls are better, and more legitimate to govern a country. If that was the case, Bush would be better than Ralph Nader…

    You are truely a passive-nihilist, and pessimist anarchist, you are contradictory, and you generalize.

    You just said that all governments are illegitimate. Not Hugo Chavez government who was elected and supported with overwhelming majority. And Venezuela’s elections are by far more honest and moral than all US elections together which are rigged by the way, and even the so called caucauses are not popular but party capitalist functionaries.

    But getting back to the issue of FARC. The only atlernative of fascist systems are groups like FARC. Because of the fact that alternative movements and parties have no way chance to seize power electorally. So the only solutions for systems like Colombia and USA is to rise up and bear arms.

    Even Lincoln said it:

    “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.
    Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” — Abraham Lincoln, 4 April 1861

  10. evie said on July 9th, 2008 at 10:41pm #

    Wrong again.

    I’ve always registered as an independent and voted as such in a few presidential elections and local.

    Although weary of existing government – I have yet to see any other I’d want to emulate.

    Do you really think Chavez rode into town on an honest and moral election? That Venezuelans suddenly developed an open and honest system that swept Hugo into power? Hehehehe. Some like that term “overwhelming majority” – as in Reagan in 1980 and 1984. And fools in America made Reagan an icon.

    I said personally I believe all governments are illegitimate – namely b/c honest, decent folks do not enter politics, or leave soon after if they do.

    It is not a theory – the majority do not support FARC b/c FARC tactics are no better than the system they claim to fight.

    If you think “rebels” like FARC are the solution – start your own here in the US. Oh, but wait, doesn’t the “left” believe in nonviolent movements? And that if anyone goads you into violence they are working for the government?

    There’s a lot of hot air blowing from armchairs all across the US.

  11. Coldtype said on July 10th, 2008 at 5:30am #

    evie, I’m still waiting… Uribe remember? His legitimacy? Why must the poor of Colombia accept a system that has produced, year after year, the worst human rights record in the entire hemisphere?

    As far as my resistance goes, it stands to reason that since conditions in the US have not (yet) reached the level of Colombia in which state-backed death squads run rampant, torturing and killing union organizers, political dissidents, etc, my level of resistance cannot and should not compare to those who are literally fighting for their lives. I just assumed this was obvious. Forgive me.

  12. evie said on July 10th, 2008 at 6:10am #

    Soooo, are union organizers and political dissidents members of FARC – murdering and torturing and raping hostages, running drugs, murdering peasants who do not support the “cause”?

    You’re talking 2 separate groups.

    Conditions in the US are such that most willingly gave up unions b/c Reagan told them to, corrupt unions you know. And “dissent” goes no further than holding candles and posterboard. Guess Americans have it good after all.

  13. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 10th, 2008 at 11:12am #

    Evie: You sound like a capitalist, like any american joe and jane, who talk without proofs, without any evidence. At least copy from Europeans, Europeans are evidence-based folks.

    Getting back to electoral issues. What authority you have to label Hugo Chavez as dishonest? What proof do you have to claim that Hugo Chavez won all his elections and referendums by vote-fraud?

    Now, there is plenty of evidence, that ALL US ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED AND WON BY VOTE-FRAUD !! But the same cannot be claimed of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s electoral system which is one of the best of this world.

    Now getting back to an armed-rebellious group option and electoral option, you said that FARC is not good because FARC is not supported by majority. But that argument is illogical and irrational, it is a clientelist, populist capitalist argument specially in capitalist elec toral systems.

    You see in capitalist electoral systems, the capitalists have more chance and more popularity than socialist candidates and socialist movements, because of media and press in capitalist systems are owned by capitalists, and capitalist parties have more money for propaganda than socialist movements.

    So use your mind, and realize that of course that in Colombia capitalist parties have a lot more propaganda power to propagate their fascist right-wing political ideology than socialist parties and movements.

    The same happens in USA. in USA the capitalist parties (Democrats and Republicans) have all the millions of dollars of this world, to propagate their ideology of capitalism every 4 years. Socialist parties have no money to propagate their ideology of socialism, so it is logical and rational to assume that capitalist parties will beat in an election and in polls socialist parties and movements, because the ignorant masses are very vulnerable to mainstream media political adds of democrats and republicans.

    So use your common sense and LEARN and REALIZE that if majority supports capitalist parties a lot more it is not because people love capitalism more than socialism. But because people are dumb and fooled by propaganda.

    So it is dumbness, stupidity and ignorance really which is the real threat of this world.

    And please don’t accuse Chavez and FARC without proofs.

    And stop watching capitalist TV channels. Watch Free Speech TV instead !!

  14. Coldtype said on July 10th, 2008 at 11:49am #

    “And please don’t accuse Chavez and FARC without proofs”
    -Tennessee-Socialist

    But then TS there is nothing else for her to do. I’m not sure what more can be expected of an apologist for the status quo who’s so threadbare that she doesn’t bother to offer even token justifications for the bestial fascists she supports apparently by way of reflex.

  15. evie said on July 10th, 2008 at 1:55pm #

    Coldtype, TS
    You have proof that Chavez and FARC are what you say they are? I missed your documentation on that.

    ROTFL – Free Speech TV – lol. Oh yes, that’s not funded by any foundations or individuals with an agenda. LOL.

    I agree – “dumbness, stupidity and ignorance” are a real threat to the world.

  16. ramsefall said on August 17th, 2008 at 7:37am #

    Quite a thread, ladies and gentlemen. It’s like reading a Colombian telenovela with all the drama and tough verbal exchanges.

    I. “The rest of Columbia’s (sp) social classes are not interested.” (Evie)
    Not at this juncture 50+ years later, but that may have something to do with nearly 30 years of state-sponsored Military/Paramilitary terror throughout the countryside as counter-insurgent opposition which began eliminating FARC supporters by the thousands. Who in their right mind is going to actively back a movement that could realistically result in death for themselves and their family, perhaps their entire community? History has demonstrated that FARC sympathizers are short-lived. Then consider decades of propaganda influence by the plutocratic press which has single-handedly isolated the FARC as the “bad guys” and you have a reality that is extremely difficult to discern. Being honest in Colombia is risky business, something to take into consideration when attempting to validate who does and doesn’t support the group’s ideology, even if it has faltered over time in response to an aggressively metastasized state apparatus with access to billions in US funding.

    II. “What is FARC resisting in Columbia (sp)?” (Evie)
    That’s almost a comical question, but the answer is the same thing they’ve been resisting and attempting to abolish since Gaitan’s assassination in 1948; an oligarchic stranglehold which has oppressed the people (except for those with money) since the Independence Wars against Spain in 1854. Economic inequality, unionization, agrarian and educational system reform are just a few of the social topics for which they have stood while adopting the principles of Gaitanism. Granted, non-violent protest would be preferred, but it was concluded long ago in Colombia that these means only resulted in human loss for the protesters. The FARC has simply implemented their revolutionary right to overthrow a corrupt governing system (Lincoln 1861) that caters to the wealthy while exploiting the working poor.

    III. Sorry Evie, but the government of Colombia is anything but legitimate, even less so than Uncle Sam’s land. In the elections of 2002, the one is which Ingrid was running prior to her stubbornness that resulted in her being kidnapped, Uribe won with 53% of the vote. However, only 46% of eligible voters turned out to vote for the plutocratic ex-Governor of Antioquia whose family is known to be one of the wealthiest land owners in that department. In his election victory of 2006, he had a fairly uncontested win with 62% of the vote but only 45% of those eligible turned out to participate. This last election equates to 28% of the eligible voting population casting Uribe on their ballots. This is not a legitimate victory by any means. In fact, although he won by what appears to be a large margin, the dearth of voters who did not participate only indicates a sense of apathy among the citizens who know the system is flawed and caters to the wealthy. Who were the 28% who voted for Uribe? That would be the upper echelon of the population with money who wants to continue experiencing the benefits of multi-national infiltration. What appears to be democracy on the surface is nothing more than the entrenched plutocratic system which has been consuming the economic and natural resources off the exploited backs of the uneducated impoverished portion of the population since Spain maintained its hegemony. The end of Spanish reign in Colombia merely transferred power to the hands of wealthy business and land owners who had ties to the crown. The government today is no more legitimate than it was 200 years ago.

    IV. As for the “Rescue Mission”, in the face of international condemnation, the Uribe government will do whatever it can to improve its image around the world. No doubt the FARC was willing to give up Ingrid as she was becoming a huge liability to them, especially at a fair price if not for free just to rinse their hands clean of the bad press. By interfering with what was likely a peacefully negotiated release, Uribe and his government killed two birds with one stone. Initially, they came out looking like humanitarian heroes, while jeopardizing the image of humanitarian workers and journalists who are doing what they can to shine light on the truth of Colombian reality; i.e. a corrupt government that hasn’t played by the rules since, well, never. Humanitarian workers and journalists are now at greater risk than ever before in Colombia, which equates to less meddling and interference with Uribe’s agenda to regain complete hegemony over the country as the government had things prior to Gaitan. Uribe is propagating the same reckless and irresponsible pattern as his predecessors have done.

    V. Let’s not resort to name calling, people. This is a forum for rational debate and intelligent issue analysis. While we may not agree with each other, insults will get us nowhere.

    VI. The FARC will willingly lay down their arms and end their revolutionary movement once the government begins to allow voiced opposition from the left in the country’s political arena. Their last attempt to legitimately enter politics with the UP in the 1980′s resulted in thousands of their political members’ murders. Union leaders, journalists, politicians from the left, teachers and lawyers have all been victims of the government’s hegemony. If it’s one thing the wealthy controlling class will not allow, that is a level playing field where all voices and ideologies are embraced. This is what groups like the FARC, ELN and M-19 have attempted to achieve over the years, but still the government adopts a zero tolerance policy to opposition. As long as the aristocrats continue to monopolize their power, conflict will be a deadly reality in Colombia, and understandably so.