Colombia Hostage Rescue Endangers Lives of Journalists and Aid Workers

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.

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.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 7th, 2008 at 10:18am #

    The Swiss press reports that a ransom was paid. If that is true, then the whole thing was staged with the connivance of FARC. On the moral issue, anything which saves a human life really in danger takes precedence over the fact that the method employed might endanger some other person at a later stage, particularly where such later persons are aware of the danger. Is Mr Leech really suggesting that these people’s lives should have been sacrificed just so that he could strut up and down the Colombian countryside whenever he chooses? Not a very Christian view of things!

  2. evie said on July 7th, 2008 at 1:58pm #

    Why is the “left” so stupid and eager to write negative b.s. about every event? Furthermore, these “tactics” have been in use forever. DV is reads like a high school newspaper sometimes.

  3. Kevin said on July 7th, 2008 at 4:48pm #

    When we are going to read something positive about Colombian government and negative about FARC. Do not forget FARC kidnapped these people (some for 10 years) and the government rescued them. It is true that they used a non-existent NGO, but they DO NOT used red cross simbols. So genuine simbols will keep genuine!!!

  4. heike said on July 7th, 2008 at 4:59pm #

    God help the students of Cape Breton U. Leech doesn’t care a whit about people who were chained by the neck for three years, kept in brutalizing, inhuman captivity for up to 10. Let him try to survive one day of that kind of treatment. Would you have preferred that the military went in, guns blazing and got everybody killed?

  5. Ramsefall said on July 13th, 2008 at 3:13pm #

    Response to Michael Kenny — You and the others complaining about the presented insight are missing the point being made by Mr. Leech. Maybe if you were living in Colombia, attempting to report actualities rather than the prevalent governmental/media spin which dominate the press, you too might consider the relevance of Garry’s hypothesis.

    The fact that the govenment is essentially using journalists and aid workers as decoys to liberate hostages is reckless, providing it wasn’t staged. However, since the Uribe govenment does what it can to surpress any form of opposition from journalists, humanitarian groups and union leaders, they will likely have taken down two birds with one stone on this — looking like heroes in a noble rescue, and jeopardizing future reporters and aid workers. Good for Uribe’s image which may get him re-elected for a third term, and bad for those who are dissidents of his policies.

    Come down here for yourself and attempt to report if you believe it’s not such a Christian view of things. There are ethical means to accomplish things, and then there is Uribe’s way. Morality would not jeopardize the lives of people doing what they can to report the autrocities.