By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, July 8 -- For months before a group of disguised Colombian soldiers carried out a daring rescue of three American citizens and a prominent Colombian politician from a guerrilla camp, a team of U.S. Special Forces joined elite Colombian troops tracking the hostages across formidable jungle terrain in the country's southern fringes.
The U.S. team was supported by a vast intelligence-gathering operation based in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, far to the north. There, a special 100-person unit made up of Special Forces planners, hostage negotiators and intelligence analysts worked to keep track of the hostages. They also awaited the moment when they would spring into action to help Colombian forces carry out a rescue.
That moment came in June after a Colombian army major hatched an unconventional plan. Further developed by Colombian intelligence agents, the plan abandoned the idea of a military raid and relied instead on tricking a rebel group notorious for killing hostages into simply handing over 15 of their most prominent captives. Those included three U.S. Defense Department contractors who had been imprisoned five years in remote jungle camps, as well as Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of French-Colombian citizenship whose plight had become a cause celebre in Europe.
As Colombian planners made last-minute preparations June 30, the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, William R. Brownfield, briefed Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials in a videoconference call. Two days later, Colombian commandos scooped up the Americans, Betancourt and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen, receiving praise from around the world for a plan deftly executed.
U.S. troops did not participate directly in the operation, but behind the rescue in a jungle clearing stood years of clandestine American work. It included the deployment of elite U.S. Special Forces in areas where rebel fighters roam, a vast intelligence-gathering operation against the guerrillas, and training programs for Colombian troops and communications specialists in how to intercept and subvert rebel communications.
"This mission was a Colombian concept, a Colombian plan, a Colombian training operation, then a Colombian operation," Brownfield said in an interview Monday in which he recounted details of the U.S. role. "We, however, had been working with them more than five years on every single element that came to pass that pulled off this operation, as well as the small bits that we did on this operation."
Just months before "Operation Check," Brownfield promised the families of the three Americans, whose single-engine plane had crashed over rebel-held territory in 2003 while on an aerial reconnaissance mission, that he would never recommend that the Bush administration approve a Colombian rescue that would put their loved ones at risk. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has killed hostages rather than permit their rescue.
The Bush administration had an understanding with Colombia's government that any operation to rescue the Americans required U.S. approval, meaning an American rejection of the plan could have scuttled it. But Brownfield and a team of 15 American strategists -- including intelligence agents and military officers -- thought the Colombian plan could succeed.
The complex operation included infiltrators in the FARC's highest echelons, a team of Colombian commandos playing the parts of relief workers and guerrillas, and an elaborate scheme to intervene in the rebels' radio communications network. The sting was directed at the leaders of guerrilla units who were responsible for moving hostages through the jungle but who communicated infrequently with the FARC's seven-man directorate.
Brownfield explained to Cheney, Rice and the others how Colombian officials would ensure that a fake radio message -- purportedly from the unit headed by the FARC's supreme leader, Alfonso Cano -- would be sent to the guards. The order would be to prepare the hostages to be picked up by a relief agency and then flown by helicopter to the rebel high command.
Members of Bush's Cabinet were uneasy, the ambassador recalled.
"I was pressed fairly hard, as I would expect to be, as I would hope to be, to justify, to explain my recommendations, to offer the basis for my having reached the conclusions that I'd reached," Brownfield said in an interview in his office. "At the end of the day, I felt that I had been forced to offer up a very clear explanation as to how all of us down here -- Team Bogota -- had come up with this particular set of positions."
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.
Although the Americans and Colombians work together closely, Colombia's Defense Ministry does not always tell the American Embassy what plans are in the works. U.S. officials discovered on their own that a rescue plan was taking shape.
In June, the Americans noted that three FARC units, all of them known for holding hostages, began moving together into a region southeast of the Guaviare capital, San Jose.
Brownfield said he and his team deduced that the Colombians, using fake communications, were executing a deception plan aimed at freeing the hostages. Later that month, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told Brownfield about Operation Check, as in checkmate.
"One worry was, in fact, was the FARC here in Guaviare falling for this?" Brownfield recalled. "Or were they in essence playing us, when we thought we were playing them?"
Brownfield said that he also thought to himself, "We're not dealing with a bunch of bozos here in FARC-land."
In the frantic days before the operation, Colombian and U.S. officials discussed details of the operation at length, troubleshooting and considering all possibilities.
Brownfield said the opinion among U.S. officials was that the risk to the American hostages -- key leverage in the FARC's negotiations to win the freedom of guerrillas in Colombian jails -- would be low. Should the FARC discover the deception, the ambassador reasoned, they would simply disappear into the jungle with their trophy prisoners.
The Americans also thought that the Colombians were well prepared, ready to make it work.
"So we took a deep breath," Brownfield recalled, "and said, 'Proceed.' "