Amidst all the joy and celebration resulting from the Colombian military’s successful rescue of 15 hostages last week, the fact that the tactics utilized in the mission will likely endanger the lives of journalists and aid workers in the future has been completely ignored. By having soldiers pose as journalists and aid workers in order to gain access to the hostages, the Colombian government has increased the already high risks faced by legitimate reporters and NGO workers. In a country that is already one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to work as a journalist or a defender of human rights, the armed actors will now be even more suspicious of anyone claiming to work in those fields.
Last week’s rescue mission — assuming it did occur as the Colombian government claims and that a ransom was not paid to secure the release of the hostages — was not the first time that the Uribe administration has used the strategy of disguising state security forces as journalists to gain access to hostages. Only last month, a grenade-toting former soldier took 19 people hostage in the government’s pension office in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. The hostage-taker allowed reporters and camera crews to enter the building so he could publicly state his demands that he be paid a pension for his two decades of military service. Undercover police officers posed as journalists in order to gain access to the building and then successfully subdued the man and freed the hostages.
The tactics used last week to rescue the 15 hostages — including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US military contractors — held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) mimicked that earlier operation. The rescue mission also replicated many aspects of a humanitarian operation conducted by the Venezuelan government three months ago that secured the release of four hostages held by the FARC. Participants in that operation included legitimate journalists and NGO workers who arrived at the remote rendezvous point in an unmarked helicopter to receive the released hostages.
According to General Fredy Padilla de Leon, commander of the Colombian army, the soldiers who participated in last week’s rescue operation took acting classes for a week and a half to learn how to impersonate, not only guerrillas, but also journalists and aid workers. After convincing the guerrilla in charge of the hostages that his captives were to be transported to where the FARC’s supreme commander Alfonso Cano was located, the soldiers arrived at the rendezvous point in two white helicopters devoid of markings. Four of the soldiers on board were disguised as aid workers and two others impersonated a television journalist and cameraman in order to convince the rebels that a fictional NGO was helping to coordinate a prisoner exchange.
The tactics used by the Colombian government will undoubtedly increase the risks faced by journalists and NGO workers who operate in the country’s rural conflict zones. Colombia’s armed groups, particularly the FARC, will now be even more distrustful of anyone who claims to be a reporter or aid worker. This is likely of little concern to Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, who has repeatedly endangered the lives of human rights defenders critical of his security policies by accusing them of being spokespersons for the guerrillas. On one prime time national television broadcast in 2003, Uribe accused the country’s NGOs of “politicking at the service of terrorism.”
Having worked for years in Colombia’s rural conflict zones, I have been detained on several occasions by FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who have accused me of being an informer for the Colombian military. In a country that is among the world’s leaders in the number of journalists assassinated, such moments are tense and nerve-wracking. Sometimes, it wasn’t easy to convince the armed groups that I was indeed a legitimate journalist and not an informer.
Because of the tactics used in last week’s rescue operation, there is no telling how the FARC might respond to the next legitimate journalist who enters a region under the rebel group’s control. Or how the guerrillas will react in the future when a genuine medical boat belonging to the International Red Cross gets stopped at a rebel checkpoint on a remote jungle river. So while the world is awash in joy over the liberation of the 15 hostages, people should take a moment to reflect on the possibility that journalists and aid workers might be killed in the future because of the irresponsible tactics used by the Uribe administration.