Ransom charges emerge in Betancourt release

Amid generally ebullient news coverage, reports are starting to emerge that the “impeccable” hostage-rescue mission in Colombia was actually a sham to disguise the payment of a ransom. Swiss public radio cited an unidentified source “close to the events, reliable and tested many times in recent years” as saying the operation had in fact been staged to cover up the a $20 million payment by the US and Colombian governments. The hostages “were in reality ransomed for a high price, and the whole operation afterwards was a set-up,” the public broadcaster said.

The report added said the wife of one of the hostages’ guards had acted as a go-between after being captured by the Colombian army. She was released to return to the FARC, where she allegedly persuaded her husband to switch sides. The report claimed that the US was behind the deal.

The Colombian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations. The chief of the Colombian military, Gen. Freddy Padilla, categorically denied they had paid “a single peso” to the FARC. “As the general commander of the Armed Forces and on my military honor, I deny that the Colombian Government has paid a single peso, a single cent,” he said.

Betancourt also rejected the claims. “I don’t think that anyone was acting,” she said. “The situation was too intense.”

Before the claims arose, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the rescue “was conceived by the Colombians and executed by the Colombians with our full support.”

French media have also raised questions about Ingrid Betancourt’s relatively healthy appearance after her release, contrasting the gaunt and haggard look of her last video from captivity. French state radio suggested the hostages had been given food and medicine to return them to health before a planned release.

French foreign policy expert Dominique Moisi said that it was “probable” that the elements of the FARC had been paid money as part of the “infiltration” of their command. “They were bought in order to turn them around, like Mafia chiefs,” he told French state TV, as Betancourt’s plane was landing at the airport in Paris.

Gen. Padilla told Spanish media that Colombian forces traced the hostages with the help of US surveillance via planes, drones and satellite—the only help he said they received. He added that the army’s intelligence agents were still in the jungle posing as FARC guerillas. “Our people are still there and are in danger,” he told El País. (London Times, July 4)

The captured FARC operative known as “César“—an alias for Gerardo Aguilar Ramirez—was displayed to the media with bruises and cuts to his face after being overpowered on the helicopter. He faces a criminal trial in Colombia and possible extradition to the US. A second guerilla leader taken in the operation, Alexander Farfán AKA Gafas, did not show visible signs of a struggle.

The Swiss radio report actually named Cesár as the man involved in the secret negotiations, and suggests it was his wife who served as go-between after being turned by the government. “It was not a negotiation with the FARC directly but with a person who is very important in that organisation, commander Cesar,” said Swiss radio reporter Frederich Blassel. (The Guardian, July 4)

The New York Times also reported that Betancourt was herself fooled by the operations. When she saw helicopter crew members wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, “I thought, this is FARC,” she told Colombian television.

The Times also offered a quote from Gordon D. Johndroe, the deputy White House press secretary, who said US Ambassador William R. Brownfield and the US Southern Command chief Adm. James G. Stavridis were “engaged in the planning stages.” But he added: “This was a Colombian-conceived and led operation; we supported the operation. This rescue was long in the planning, and we’ve been working with the Colombians for five years, since the hostages were taken, to free them from captivity.” He said that President Bush was kept apprised of the planning, and that he called after the rescue to congratulate President Álvaro Uribe, calling him “a strong leader.”

Republican presidential candidate John McCain, was in Colombia on a visit during the operation, and was briefed on it by Defnese Minister Juan Manuel Santos. (NYT, July 3)

A July 4 Times story provided more details, revealing the operation was code-named Checkmate, and that guerillas had been led to believe the helicopters belonged to an “unnamed international aid group.” (This perhaps loans credence to the claims, not mentioned by the Times, that the operation was designed to piggy-back on a hostage-release deal already in the works through European diplomatic offices.)

The Times identifies the site of the rescue as as camp on the Inírida River, in the Amazonian department of Guaviare. Displaying its usual confusion about Colombian administrative divisions, the text (by Simon Romero and Damien Cave) correctly refers to Guaviare as a department, while the accompanying map identifies it incorrectly as a “province.”

The report emphasizes the FARC’s “disarray” and break-down of their command and communications networks in recent months, allowing the military to infiltrate their top ranks and manipulate subordinates.

Unabashedly gushing that “the Colombians [meaning the military] performed like stars,” the report states as established fact that the FARC “allied with Colombia’s drug cartels.” This isn’t quite right. Actually, it is the FARC’s right-wing paramilitary arch-enemies who allied with the cartels, while the FARC attempted to wrest control of the cocaine industry away from them, recognizing it as the ticket to political power. The report does acknowledge that the FARC and paras “competed for control of the cocaine traffic.”

The Times identifies the three rescued US contract workers as employees of Northrop Grumman who were flying surveillance flights to identify coca fields. It states that they had been spotted by “military intelligence agents” bathing in the Apaporis River in February, helping to pinpoint the location of the camp where they were held. (The Apaporis is two rivers and some 150 kilometers to the south of the Inírida, with the Vaupés River in between. The Inírida and the Guaviare river to the north are tributaries of the Orinoco; the Apaporis and Vaupés flow into the Amazon basin.) (NYT, July 4)

In its July 3 report, the Times said “Colombian agents infiltrated the FARC’s ranks and persuaded a guerrilla commander called Cesar to allow captives held in three groups to be united for a trip by helicopter to southern Colombia.” (NYT, July 3, op cit)

In a July 5 Times report, reporter Simon Romero airs the Swiss claims of a ransom payment, as well as rumors that US or Israeli advisors were involved in the operations—with requisite denials from the Colombian authorities. “Not a single foreigner participated,” Defense Minister Santos said. But he acknowledged that the US military had provided a surveillance plane to monitor the operation, as well as tracking technology placed on the helicopter used in the operation that could emit distress signals.

Romero wrote the undercover agents posed as members of a “polyglot humanitarian mission intended to transfer the captives elsewhere in the country at the request of a senior FARC commander.” Three agents took acting classes, pretending to be Italian, Middle Eastern and Australian. (NYT, July 5)

See our last post on Colombia.

  1. Source of Betancourt ransom charge revealed?
    The same Swiss mediator whose effort some suspect Uribe piggy-backed the rescue operation on is alleged to be the source of the ransom charge—and the Colombian government strikes back with counter-charges of payments to the FARC. From the Los Angeles Times, July 7:

    BOGOTA — Colombian authorities sought over the weekend to discredit a Swiss academic and former intermediary in talks with a left-wing rebel group who has been linked to a disputed report that officials paid $20 million for last week’s release of 15 high-profile hostages.

    A Colombian government official who asked to remain unnamed said Sunday that authorities suspect Geneva-based Jean Pierre Gontard was the source for the Swiss radio report last week stating that officials paid a ransom for the release of the hostages…

    Meanwhile, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told the newspaper El Tiempo that captured rebel computer files name Gontard as the courier for $480,000 seized by Costa Rican police at the behest of the Colombian government this year from a FARC hide-out in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.

    With the Colombian government’s permission, Gontard has represented Switzerland in previous efforts to broker a peace agreement with FARC rebels.

    On June 30, the government announced that Gontard and French diplomat Noel Saez had arrived in Colombia to resume those efforts. Two days later, onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers were rescued after more than five years in rebel captivity.

    “This Mr. Gontard is going to have to explain” why his name appeared in electronic messages of FARC commander Raul Reyes, since slain, as “transporter” of the $480,000, Santos told El Tiempo.

    Gontard, reached at his home early today in Geneva, declined to comment on the $480,000 allegation, and strenuously denied leaking information to Swiss public station Radio Suisse Romande. “It absolutely was not me” who spoke to the radio program, Gontard said.