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In Colombia Jungle Ruse, U.S. Played A Quiet Role
The White House officials agreed with Brownfield and his team. As participants stood up from the meeting, one of the Americans listening to Brownfield in Washington said: "Good luck. In fact, good luck to all of us."
The U.S. assistance to Colombia, part of more than $5 billion in aid since 2000, has come into sharp focus this year as an intense military campaign weakened the FARC, killing seasoned commanders and prompting 1,500 fighters and urban operatives to desert.
Colombian officials have said the American assistance, especially in intercepting FARC communications, has been essential. And Sergio Jaramillo, vice minister of defense, said the Americans have been instrumental in creating "a professional Special Forces culture" in Colombia's elite jungle units.
The Americans, as well as their Colombian counterparts, kept close tabs on the FARC's internal crisis. They gleaned important information from former guerrillas and hostages who had been released or escaped, especially Jhon Pinchao, a policeman who made a remarkable dash to freedom last year. The embassy also noted with interest how FARC guerrillas were becoming sloppy, returning to the same camps they had long used or traversing the same jungle routes again and again.
Aware of the danger of a conventional rescue, U.S. and Colombian planners developed a general plan that called for the FARC unit holding the Americans to be encircled, with no escape route. A high-flying plane would then drop leaflets to assure the FARC that a rescue operation would not be mounted, and helicopters outfitted with loudspeakers would tell the rebels what radio frequencies to use to communicate with military forces.
Though U.S. policy bars negotiating with hostage-takers, Brownfield said the idea behind the strategy was to have Colombian and FBI hostage negotiators "try to make it in their interest to let the hostages go."
In January, U.S. and Colombian officials believed they would soon have a chance to put that plan into action. Colombian reconnaissance teams discovered the FARC team holding the Americans and two other hostages along a river in southern Guaviare province.
Twelve of the reconnaissance units, some of which included elite U.S. troops, were positioned along the Apaporis River, a route officials believed the FARC would take. But tailing the guerrillas through terrain they knew well was challenging.
The guerrillas used canoes, swiftly moving down rivers. The soldiers trudged. In jungle so dense that visibility ended after 25 feet, the special forces troops would move at a rate of only two or three miles a day.
But hiking was the only choice because helicopters would cause the guerrillas to panic. On four days in February, Colombian forces came so close that they saw the American hostages bathing in a river just a few feet away. Nearby stood rebel guards, their assault rifles slung from their shoulders.
Then, just before the group could be encircled, the rebels and their hostages disappeared into the vast jumble of forest and waterways.
"At this point, they're on to us," Brownfield recalled thinking.