Colombian Officials Recount Rescue Plan

A video taken during the Colombian mission that rescued 15 hostages shows them hugging one another and crying tears of joy. Video by AP
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 6, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 5 -- Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a special team of intelligence agents assigned with drawing up a hostage rescue operation to be inventive and bold.

The country's largest rebel group held more than 700 hostages throughout the vast jungle, and Santos knew that the insurgents would have the advantage in the face of a conventional rescue. Other army rescues had failed miserably, with guerrillas immediately shooting their captives dead as military helicopters approached.

"I told them, 'Use your imagination, be audacious and catch the enemy off guard,' " Santos said in an interview Friday. "I said, 'Be creative so we can land an out-of-the-ordinary blow.' "

The agents devised a complex operation that on Wednesday tricked the rebels into handing over their four most prized hostages, including three Americans, along with 11 other prisoners. Since then, attention has focused on how Colombian intelligence officers hatched a ruse with no apparent precedent and what its success says about the internal disorder in what was once Latin America's most powerful rebel group.

Analysts familiar with Colombia's long conflict say the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is in a rapid state of deterioration that will result in its fragmentation into autonomous drug-trafficking bands or push its leaders into peace talks. These analysts say the group is unlikely to ever recover the power it once had.

"It's a very hard blow against the guerrillas, the latest of many delivered all this year," said Carlos Lozano, editor of the weekly newspaper Voz and a Communist Party official who in the past was in frequent contact with rebel commanders. "There are too many things that have totally changed the reality of the situation here."

Luis Eladio Pérez saw confusion and even panic within the group during the seven years he spent as a hostage. Pérez, who was recently freed in a unilateral gesture, said a string of military successes is "creating catastrophe inside the FARC, and that catastrophe is going to lead to defeat."

In the Defense Ministry, the group of intelligence officers -- including a colonel, a captain and lower-ranking officials -- had worked diligently since January. Perhaps their best weapons, officials familiar with the operation said, were reports that depicted a guerrilla group in deep disarray, undergoing the worst crisis in its 44 years.

A decade ago, the FARC had nearly 18,000 fighters, thousands of urban operatives, a formidable war chest and influence in more than a third of the country. Now, hundreds of fighters are deserting each month, some fleeing with guerrilla funds and valuable strategic information.

Paranoia reigns inside the group's ranks, as commanders worry about who will abandon the group next, former rebels and military officials say. One demobilized guerrilla commander recently told intelligence officials about the growing use of tribunals. In one unit, he said, 26 of 70 fighters were executed in five months.

The FARC's tactics have sparked criticism among some of the standard-bearers of the radical left in Latin America. In Cuba, former president Fidel Castro wrote in his column Friday that the FARC "never should have kidnapped civilians," calling the strategy cruel. "No revolutionary purpose could justify it," he wrote.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who earlier this year said the FARC's goals merited respect, congratulated Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for the successful operation and reiterated recent comments calling for an end to the armed struggle in Colombia.

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