JULY 2008.THE LIBERATION OF INGRID BETANCOURT: CONTEXT AND SIGNIFICANCE. On July 2, 2008, special Colombian government operatives liberated Ingrid Betancourt, three captive Americans, and 11 members of Colombia’s security forces, who were being held prisoner by the FARC, in a stunning rescue operation code-named Jaque ("Check"). In the days since, some aspects of the mission have been clarified, and others have remained obscure. I have waited to write about the rescue, which carries with it tremendous political significance, due to the fact that events of this nature are almost always inaccurately represented at the outset, in the rush of emotions that follows, the confusion that ensues as politicians attempt to transform military events into political capital, and especially as governments seek to utilize the media not only to report events (in a manner that is favorable to them), but also to mislead and sometimes to dishearten their enemies with important elements of disinformation which are imbedded into the real story. The explication of a happening like this by a government at war is not only a media event, but also an action in the war.
Although a mere few weeks has not sufficed to resolve many uncertainties regarding the operation, it has improved our view of the panorama surrounding it.
Ingrid Betancourt is the 46-year-old daughter of a former Colombian beauty queen, Yolanda Pulecio, who, later, gained great popularity by working as a local political figure in a poor neighborhood of Bogota. Colombia does not look down on its beauty queens, but reveres them, and Ingrid’s mother after she entered politics developed a reputation of compassion towards the poor which is always especially appreciated when it comes from members of the upper class, who embody both the fantasy of many poor people (to live the life of the rich), and the principal obstacle that stands in the path of equality. Colombia has had a long history of tension between its elites and masses, and people of "position" who do not overlook or repress the poor, but even advocate for them, have a special place in the hearts of those whose lives are hard. Ingrid’s mother was one such person; and her mother’s popularity rubbed off on her, like a rabbit’s foot. Ingrid’s father, Gabriel Betancourt, was a political figure of standing in Colombia, who served in the cabinet of General Rojas Pinilla, the dictator who attempted to bring an end to the Civil War known as La Violencia in the 1950s. Later, he served as Colombia’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, which is where Ingrid was raised, so that it might be said that she evolved into a completely bicultural person, nourished by both her Colombian and French backgrounds. When Ingrid later married a Frenchman (Fabrice Delloye) who served as a diplomat for his country, she received French citizenship, and thus she became a dual citizen. This is why France would later advocate so strongly for her release after she was kidnapped by the FARC. Ingrid had two children with Delloye, Melanie and Lorenzo, and might have continued with the life she was living if not for the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989. Galan, a charismatic member of the Liberal Party, was running on a progressive platform which also was strongly committed to rooting out the influence of the big drug traffickers from the Colombian government and beating back their efforts to capture the State by means of "plata o plomo" (bribery or violence). This was in the heyday of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, which was challenging the State with a cowboy mentality. (It is curious to note that as the Mayor of Medellin, future Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was implicated in supporting building projects financed by Pablo Escobar, which were a part of the drug lord’s efforts to build a social base for his narco-empire.) Ingrid’s mother was a friend and staunch supporter of Galan and, in fact, was on the platform where he was giving a speech when he was gunned down by cartel assassins. The assassination was such a personal blow to her mother (and transmitted to Ingrid as such), and such a grievous threat to the survival of Colombian democracy, that Ingrid felt compelled to return to her country and take an active role in trying to help pull it through its dark night. She worked for a time within the Colombian government (in the Ministry of Finance), then moved forward to form her own political party, the Green Oxygen Party, a progressive, European-influenced project. To gain publicity for her campaign as she ran for a seat in the Colombian Chamber of Representatives, she went around on the street distributing condoms ("I will be like a condom against corruption.") Defeating corruption was the centerpiece of her project: cleaning up the Colombian political system, and protecting the integrity of its democratic institutions. Aided by her mother’s support and former political base, Ingrid was elected in 1994, and during her term of office, sharply criticized Colombian president Ernesto Samper for accepting payments from the Cali Cartel. This Cartel, the great rival of the Medellin Cartel, had cooperated with Colombian security forces and US operatives in bringing down Escobar, and now remained as the preeminent drug-trafficking organization in Colombia. But now, the forces that had used it and led it to believe it would be rewarded for its help, and that it would be tolerated due to its less confrontational style vis-à-vis the government, turned on it. Samper’s supporters believed that drug money was not the real issue, but that the US and its Conservative allies within Colombia were using the connections (which were enjoyed by many politicians), to try to drive him out of power so that they could install their own agenda in Colombia. These supporters saw the defense of Samper as a nationalist imperative, and helped him to survive the scandal until the end of his term.
In 1998, Ingrid ran for a seat in the Colombian Senate, and won. She had to send her children out of the country due to death threats she and her family had received on account of her activism. In that same year, Andres Pastrana, who Ingrid supported, was elected President of Colombia. Under his leadership, the US-promoted Plan Colombia took shape, a vast aid package meant to combat the drug trade, but which was, as critics expected, largely diverted into the long-standing counterinsurgency taking place in Colombia. The guerrillas were successfully equated in the mind of the international (and especially US) public with the drug problem, as though the cocaine traffic was their sole domain, which justified the use of anti-narcotics funds to fight the guerrillas. The truth – that the guerrillas were only one player in the drug trade, and that elements of the Colombian government, military, and paramilitary apparatus which supported the military, in addition to myriads of independent criminal organizations which grew in the aftermath of the destruction of the Medellin and Cali cartels, were also heavily involved in the drug trade – was swept under the rug. The fact that the guerrillas, essentially, reacted to a phenomenon already in progress, rather than inventing it – that they took control of policing areas into which drug traffickers had extended their operations, so as to stabilize, organize, and collect profit from an activity introduced by others, which became attractive to their peasant base; an activity which, otherwise, might have been rife with violence and the kind of exploitation seen during the great rubber boom in the Amazon – and that they received a smaller share of the profits, given their position in the trade (as suppliers of unrefined coca paste), than did the processors, exporters, and distributors of the finished product, many of whom had links to the Colombian government and the counterinsurgency – were all bypassed in the formation of the concept of the "narcoguerrilla", which legitimized the metamorphosis of the US war on drugs into a massive political and military intervention against an internal revolution. The natural consequences of this deception are that, in spite of the fact that the FARC is currently taking a beating from the Colombian military, more drugs than ever are flowing from Colombia into the United States.
During the reign of Pastrana, however, even though the groundwork for Uribe’s current successes was being laid by the infiltration of massive amounts of US military aid into Colombia to fight the guerrillas under cover of the war on drugs, a very fractured effort to negotiate with the guerrillas was initiated. The general consensus is that the Colombian government lost ground during this time, as the guerrillas, protected within government-granted safe zones during the negotiation process, regrouped, strengthened, and extended their reach. Before the end of Pastrana’s term, the initiative was deemed a "fracaso (disaster)", and the war was renewed with increased conviction.
In 2002, Alvaro Uribe ran for president on a platform of being tough with the guerrillas, who he said could only be brought to the negotiating table if they were weakened. He was known to support a hardcore military solution, and his well-known links to paramilitary organizations, which were essentially death squads created by the Colombian elites and supported by the army in order to destroy the guerrilla support base by means of terror, made some love him, and others hate him. He was loved by those who felt threatened by the guerrillas (and serious strategic errors by the guerrillas, such as overextending the practice of kidnapping and allowing themselves to be painted as "narcoguerrillas" had swelled the numbers of these critics); he was less popular with those who were suffering the effects of social injustice, who would have preferred to see the social crisis attacked at the level of its roots (inequality and poverty) rather than at the level of its symptoms (the guerrillas). These opponents were afraid that Uribe’s emphasis on a military solution would not remedy the situations which had generated the violence in the first place, but only crush the power of popular resistance which, if it were not, in and of itself, the solution to Colombia’s woes, might at least play a role in creating a space, between the two extremes, where compromise and sense would finally have to prevail. With only one extreme, they feared that domination, not justice, would be the result. Besides this, it was noted that the paramilitaries were not only engaged in fighting against the guerrillas; they were also engaged in killing union organizers and labor activists on behalf of business enterprises which wished to maintain high profit margins, and in dispossessing peasants of their land which was then turned over to the big landholding elites. The paramilitaries whose links with Uribe were so close were also deeply involved in drug trafficking.
Ingrid, as pretty much of a long-shot, joined in the race against Uribe, who did not represent her own, more progressive and honest vision of a new Colombia. Against the advice of political and military figures, she drove into a zone occupied by the guerrillas in an effort to dialogue with them after the breakdown of Pastrana’s peace process; but instead of being welcomed as a sincere advocate of peace with whom they might discuss the possibilities of remaking Colombia hand-in-hand with their opponents, the guerrillas seized the opportunity to capture Ingrid, a well-known woman socially rooted in Colombia’s elites, and internationally-connected, who as a "political hostage" greatly bolstered their bargaining power. With Ingrid and other high-profile captives as leverage, the FARC attempted to gain the release of its own prisoners-of-war being held in Colombian jails.
Uribe, who was elected to the presidency in 2002, and re-elected in 2006 after engineering a constitutional change which permitted him to stand for office again, could never work the situation out with the FARC. Each was stubborn in its own way, and tenacious in defending its position with regard to Ingrid. France made energetic efforts to secure Ingrid’s release via diplomacy, but these failed. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela attempted to use his leftist credentials and material value to the FARC (as demonstrated by Raul Reyes’ captured laptop), to negotiate her release, an effort which would have massively elevated his political reputation had he succeeded. Reports reached the Colombian government that Ingrid, after so many years of being a captive of the FARC, was exhausted, thin, sick; that after an escape attempt, she was now kept chained to a tree. Some thought she might be dying from untreated illnesses of the jungle. The urgency to secure her release in some way, and very soon, was felt by all.
After the Colombian incursion into Ecuador on March 1, 2008, and the killing of a crucial FARC commander, Raul Reyes, most of the parties involved in trying to secure Ingrid’s release despaired for her future; they thought the process derailed by the removal of the key guerrilla figure who they had felt would be instrumental in securing her release. Now, they imagined the guerrilla command too disorganized to proceed, and also in an angry mood. At the same time, it seemed probable that Chavez, hugely embarrassed by the information uncovered from Reyes’ laptop, would seek to redeem himself, politically before the world community, by means of liberating Ingrid; so that, to my mind, her prospects for release were actually better after March 1 than before.
In the days immediately preceding the rescue attempt, Uribe was embroiled in a massive political crisis in his country. The Colombian Supreme Court - a surprisingly independent and robust institution which had, to that time, made great efforts to resist the tendency of "uribismo" to erode the "separation of powers" which lies at the basis of the modern democratic system, and to prevent the Colombian system from degenerating into a de facto personalist regime – had mounted two important challenges to the president.
First, it had challenged the government for allowing the extradition of important paramilitary leaders to the United States, where they will stand trial on charges of drug trafficking. This extradition should not have been possible until the Court was first consulted with, and proper legal procedures followed. By removing the paramilitary chieftains to the US to face drug-related charges, they will no longer be available to the Colombian court to question for their involvement in death squads, or their alleged links to the Uribe government. (Paramilitary laptops filled with possibly incriminating information were not secured in Colombian jails before the extradition, but were allowed to "disappear" into thin air.)
The second challenge occurred as the Colombian Supreme Court discovered that Yidis Medina, a former Colombian Congresswoman, was bribed by Uribe supporters to support the constitutional amendment which allowed him to run for reelection in 2006, in exchange for jobs and contracts which were to be given to her political allies. As the vote to approve the amendment was very close, the court called into question the very legitimacy of Uribe’s reelection. It seems that the intention was not to seek to remove him from office, but merely, by exposing the transgression, to thwart his effort to mobilize support to run for a third term (which would require yet another constitutional amendment).
In addition to these two conflicts with the Supreme Court, Uribe remained in the midst of a widening "parapolitics" scandal, in which large numbers of his supporters, including his relative and ally Mario Uribe, have been accused of having connections with the paramilitaries. At the present time, about 1/3 of the members of the Colombian Congress, which has a government majority, have been implicated in the "parapolitics" scandal (however, those who have resigned from the Congress to avoid investigation by the Supreme Court have been able to appoint substitutes, so that uribismo maintains its hold on the legislature).
Uribe, hard-pressed and in political trouble, fought back by accusing the Supreme Court of having links to drug dealers (more than his own?), and by threatening to initiate a plebiscite for the purpose of determining if the Colombian people wished to redo the 2006 elections (which was probably not the Supreme Court’s intention in the first place). The plebiscite would, in essence, seek to deploy the president’s popularity (70% approval rating, at that time, from urban-based polls) in order to demonstrate his power and make the Court back down. (He would intimidate the law to be silent.) If he received resounding approval, it could also serve as a springboard for launching his efforts to run for a third term.
In the midst of this crisis, the idea to attempt the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt became especially inviting. Ingrid’s mother had long ago opposed the idea of attempting a military rescue of her daughter, because the risks were so great: the FARC had a history of killing its hostages when faced with immediately-threatening military operations meant to recover them. She therefore favored negotiation. However, the release of Ingrid via negotiation, especially if it were to be achieved by French agents or even more particularly by Chavez, Uribe’s great South American rival, would do little to bolster his own position in the midst of a serious political crisis. On the contrary, the success of foreigners would contrast sharply with the failure of his own hardcore policies to bring about the liberation of the FARC’s most famous, and most widely cherished, prisoner.
For some time, no doubt, the elements of Operation Jaque had been falling into place, and it was now feasible, just at the moment that Uribe needed a major shot in the arm, for him to attempt a rescue, which only some time before, would not have had a reasonable chance of success. Uribe now had well-trained special operatives at his disposal (US and Israeli advisers had done their job well, and the Colombian fighting man is resourceful and valiant). Sophisticated US technology and intelligence-gathering systems were in place, enabling Colombian operatives to eavesdrop on cell phone conversations, and even to cut into them, and to trace and keep track of the whereabouts of the prisoners (whose location they knew for some time. However, the original idea of airlifting a cordon around the hostages, and then negotiating for their release, had been ditched due to the likelihood of FARC retaliation against the prisoners). Top-notch infiltration methods had also been introduced and learned by the Colombian military, some involving high-tech (imbedded microchips), but more of them involving behavioral techniques for gaining acceptance, and extreme patience, as were utilized by the British against the IRA. Besides this, constant military pressure enhanced by US-made helicopters and counterinsurgency tactics, ran some guerrilla units ragged, dislodging large numbers of deserters from them (such as Karina) who were often tapped into as valuable sources of information. Some leniency towards the "crimes" of former guerrillas was exchanged for cooperation. And enormous quantities of money were poured into a rewards program, to encourage information leading to the capture or death of important guerrilla operatives. This is how Ivan Rios’ bodyguard was won over to do him in, and may have had something to do with how the Colombian military pinpointed Raul Reyes’ location before finishing him off on its controversial March 1 raid into Ecuador.
Only days before the rescue attempt, European negotiators Noel Saez (France) and the reviled Jean-Pierre Gontard (Switzerland), who Uribe accuses of working for the FARC, had met with a representative of Alfonso Cano (the FARC’s replacement for its deceased "supreme leader" Tiro Fijo), concerning the release of the hostages. This created the sense that some kind of diplomatic solution might be on the way. Uribe capitalized on that feeling by launching an operation meant to mimic a diplomatic solution, inserting a Colombian commando team into the place of what might have been expected to be an international humanitarian aid team. Utilizing a mole highly placed in the FARC hierarchy (according to the official account, though that might be disinformation), as well as the technical capacity and knowledge of how to contact Ingrid’s chief guard (a guerrilla known as "Cesar"), and the services of an agent capable of mimicking the voice of Cesar’s supervisor over the cell phone, Colombian intelligence set up a gigantic trap. Cesar was led to believe that a major breakthrough had been made by the negotiators and that he was to immediately unify the key hostages, who had been dispersed. (These hostages were Ingrid; three Americans who had been on an antinarcotics mission for a private contractor when their aircraft was shot down; and 11 members of Colombia’s security forces. Hundreds of other prisoners remained in FARC hands, but this operation was about liberating the marquee prisoners, or, seen from the other side, the FARC’s key bargaining chips.) Cesar, his comrade Enrique, and a unit under their command was then directed to lead the hostages to a rendezvous site, where a helicopter painted to look like helicopters previously utilized by Venezuela in its negotiated hostage release operations met them. Pasted on the helicopter was the symbol of a fake humanitarian group created by Colombian intelligence, with its own Internet site, and one of the Colombian operatives wore a Red Cross vest. (Uribe, at first, denied that this had taken place, but when photographic evidence was presented to CNN, he had to back down and reinvent what had happened, describing it as a mistake which had resulted from one of his soldiers’ fear and lack of judgment.) The problem is that the unauthorized use of the Red Cross symbol is a violation of international law and a potential war crime, due to the fact that its use by a belligerent may destroy the credibility of the Red Cross as a nonpartisan, peaceful organization, and interfere with its humanitarian work in areas of conflict. Although the FARC and ELN have also been accused of misusing the Red Cross symbol, as when they sometimes transport combatants inside ambulances, the international community was still not at all pleased with this transgression.
According to the official report, Cesar and Enrique were brought aboard the fake humanitarian helicopter, along with the hostages, while the other guerrillas remained heavily armed outside. Once inside the helicopter, Cesar and Enrique were jumped, overpowered and handcuffed by true experts, and the commandos lifted off, spiriting the hostages away to freedom. They were hostages no more.
What really happened is still not absolutely clear, and may not be clear for years. This report, may, in fact, be substantially correct, in which case it is evidence of massive government infiltration of the FARC, reaching to very high levels, and/or to serious errors in guerrilla systems of communication, methods of "command and control" and basic procedures of verification. On the other hand, it is also possible that Cesar, rather than being duped, has actually only pretended to be duped, and that he was actually "bought", as was the FARC member who previously killed Ivan Rios. Cesar’s compan~era (life mate) had recently been captured, and there is the possibility that he had become disheartened and wanted to be reunited with her. His "overpowering" by a commando, in that case, would have merely been a stunt to cover his betrayal of the guerrillas, for the sake of his own future safety, and perhaps to allow the government to confuse the guerrillas as to where the information leaks came from, and to gain more credit for itself (a heroic rescue would do Uribe more good than a mere business transaction, based on cultivating a "Judas").
The Swiss media, citing what it calls "reliable sources", has reported that the FARC surrendered the hostages to the government for a substantial ransom. It is not absolutely clear whether this means that Cesar or some other FARC operative was offered a reward to deliver them, or whether the FARC High Command, itself, made a secret deal with Uribe to hand over the hostages when he needed them, in order to receive an economic shot-in-the-arm, and possibly other concessions as well. (It would not be the most Byzantine thing that has ever happened in this murky landscape.) The Colombian government has denied paying out any money as a ransom in connection with the operation.
The FARC claims that it was "betrayed" by Cesar and Enrique, who abandoned their revolutionary ideals and did not live up to the trust that had been placed in them.
As a result of the stunning success of Operation Jaque, Uribe’s already high popularity rating of 70% soared up to 91%, providing him with invaluable political capital at the very moment of his showdown with the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court which should have been in charge of investigating the Supreme Court allegations of corruption in the 2006 elections, refused to undertake that investigation, stranding the will of the Supreme Court in an institutional limbo. In the midst of this impasse, church leaders sat down with members of the Supreme Court and Uribe to try to iron out their differences and prevent a governmental meltdown. The Supreme Court, intimidated by Uribe’s massive level of support, both at home and abroad, in the wake of the hostage rescue, backed down, settling for an affirmation, on the part of Uribe, that he understood and respected the independence of the judiciary.
There can be no doubt that the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages is, on a human and moral level, a wonderful event. In the case of Ingrid, we are dealing with a woman who seems to have much sensitivity, consciousness, integrity and a genuine desire to help create a better world (though now she must surely spend some time recovering from her trauma. As she has told the media, she is not yet ready to discuss the details of her six years of captivity in the jungle: "Many things happened in the jungle that we must leave in the jungle." Psychologists say that that will not be an easy thing to do.)
On the other hand, the success of Operation Jaque is, from another perspective, an act which may also carry some political damage with it, if it helps, in any way, to distract the Colombian and world public from the fact that the Uribe government is deeply involved with paramilitary activity, which includes illegal violence, terror, and drug-trafficking; if it helps Uribe to ride over the checks and balances of the democratic system, and to strengthen his position as a leader who is "above the law", a dictator in democratic garb; and if it fortifies his attempt to destroy the guerrillas without compensating the void that that would leave in the landscape of rebellion, with the spirit of social justice. Colombia needs another kind of leadership: strong it may be, but also fair and able to end revolution by wooing the poor away from violence with concrete acts of genuine concern, not only heaps of dead bodies.
Interestingly enough, Ingrid seems desirous of running for president in 2010, and current polls suggest that, if Uribe were not in the race (which he will not be unless he engineers the necessary constitutional amendment to permit him to do so), Ingrid would be the frontrunner! Not long after thanking him for saving her, she told the media that the government needs to take a softer tone in the way it talks about the FARC (now it refers to the FARC as terrorists, delinquents, etc., etc.) This will be an important step in trying to end the country’s long civil war: to recognize that the enemy is not a beast, but also made up of human beings who are suffering and have their reasons for fighting. She said: "I think we all have that animal inside of us. There is a danger in all of us of harming others so badly, not only through our actions but through our words. We can be so horrible to others. We need to understand that we cannot judge [others], because in situations like the ones I experienced, any of us could do cruel things… I want to forgive, but forgiveness comes with forgetting. I have to forget in order to find peace in my soul and be able to forgive. But at the same time, once I have forgiven and forgotten, I will have to bring back memories [to tell others]. They will probably be filtered by time so they won’t come with all the pain I feel right now." Regarding the outpouring of support which reached her immediately after her liberation, she said: "I can transmit the love of Colombians for peace and for freedom. It is nice to feel that the world is so receptive to Colombia’s suffering. [But] no matter where you are, you can do beautiful things if you have the disposition, the devotion and the ability to work for those who are suffering, for those who don’t have a place in the world." [Newsweek, July 10, 2008] Those words, if truly followed, are, in fact, the key for making peace in Colombia.
Is the FARC on the verge of defeat? The FARC is definitely moving into a time of intense crisis. It is heavily infiltrated, intensely pressured in many areas, and reeling from a tremendous series of setbacks (the death of Raul Reyes, killed by the Colombian military’s bombing raid into Ecuador; the loss of Reyes’ hard drives filled with highly-sensitive information on the guerrillas; the death, by natural causes, of supreme leader Manuel Marulanda, aka Tiro Fijo, embodying the heritage of the FARC, symbolizing its fortitude and stamina, and promoting its cohesion; the death of Ivan Rios, a promising young leader at the hands of his own bodyguard; the surrender of Karina, the "female Rambo of the FARC"; the loss of the FARC’s star hostages, and with it, substantial negotiating power and prestige). At times such as this, there is the tendency for a spirit of collapse to take over the collective mind of a military organization, which, although it still retains significant fighting assets, may succumb to the psychology of the rout. However, the FARC is powerful enough, widespread enough, and decentralized enough, to probably survive these blows. Likely reactions will be even more organizational decentralization to reduce the potential damage from infiltration; an increasing primitiveness and durability of its structures; and increasing violence against deserters and informants. There may also be an increased willingness to use "terrorist tactics", which the FARC, in spite of being labeled a "terrorist organization" by the US and Colombia, has avoided or minimized till now (I am speaking, here, of the use of explosives in urban settings which, even if they are directed at military targets, are likely to produce substantial civilian casualties.) This would not be politically advisable, nor morally justified, but the instincts of desperation and revenge might prevail as the FARC felt itself backed into a corner by a ruthless counterinsurgency, which routinely relies on massacres and assassinations, and is supported by the indifference of the international community. Although increased decentralization and efforts to autonomize local units ,so that the infection of one would not spread to the other, might improve the survivability of the FARC, these efforts would also likely lead to a political fragmentation, and to awkwardness in communication, which would greatly complicate the peace process, if not make it entirely impossible. Instead of one peace, a hundred would have to be negotiated. It is also to be presumed that the very success of infiltrating the FARC in high places might well backfire by destroying the bonds of trust which are necessary for leaders to control their troops, and that commanders in the field might, as a result, break away from untrusted leadership structures. My own view is that, so long as poverty and inequality haunt Colombia, and are not honestly addressed, some form of armed resistance will survive, or lie, germinating in the soil of official victory. The FARC, or an as of yet unborn violent successor, will persist.
What is the impact on Chavez? Chavez’s great opportunity to recover the position he lost when Raul Reyes’ laptop was captured, has passed him by. Uribe did not give him the chance to redeem himself, or to recoup his prestige, by being the one to bring Ingrid home. Now, Chavez, in a diminished position, has had to congratulate Uribe on Ingrid’s stunning rescue; and he has called on the guerrillas to release all of their hostages and make peace. His radical swagger has been temporarily put on hold. He is attempting to conform to the mainstream world’s image of what a good citizen of the international community should be. Whether this is grandstanding, and he is playing another game behind the scenes, or whether he has judged the FARC to be a lost cause and is withdrawing his support for them so as to protect himself, remains to be seen.
What, exactly, does Fidel Castro think of this? Castro (though probably near death), as Latin America’s revolutionary icon/radical grandfather, cannot open his mouth without seeming to say something important. In this case, he has called on the FARC to give up all of its remaining hostages, saying that it is inhuman to keep them imprisoned "in jungle conditions." However, in the same breath, he has urged them not to give up their arms (as Uribe and the international community seem to expect), due to the long history, in Colombia, of guerrillas being murdered once they give up their weapons.
How did Daniel Ortega get mixed up in this? Members of the FARC approached Daniel Ortega, Sandinista President of Nicaragua, to seek his help in facilitating the creation of a political dialogue to seek peace in Colombia. They trusted his radical credentials. Ortega said he was very willing to cooperate, and referred to the members of the FARC as his "brothers." This enraged the Uribe government, which strongly urged Ortega not to get involved.
What was Rafael Correa’s reaction? Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, has not yet normalized relations with Colombia in the wake of Colombia’s March 1 raid into his country. This is in spite of what, at first, seemed positive movement in that direction as a result of Latin American crisis-resolution initiatives. However, Correa is incensed by Colombia’s continued claims that he has a relationship with the FARC. He disputes the legitimacy of the computer files said to have belonged to Raul Reyes, which were utilized by Colombia to prove the connection. According to Correa, the results of the Interpol verification are misunderstood (it found no evidence of tampering but also, he says, "no evidence of not tampering", nor did it prove, or attempt to prove, the origin of the files, which Correa believes the Colombian government may have created and planted at the scene.) Regarding the successful rescue of Ingrid, Correa said it was more "good luck than a good decision." Like Chavez, he would have gained important political capital if he could have helped to negotiate Ingrid’s release. Instead, Correa’s archrival Uribe has been the one to gain that capital.
What was John McCain doing in Colombia? On the very day that Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages (including 3 Americans) were rescued, Republican presidential nominee John McCain happened to be in Colombia, visiting with President Uribe. This struck many as a very extraordinary coincidence. What was really going on? Had McCain been brought there for the historic occasion, so that some of the expected success could rub off on him and make him appear more presidential? (It is pretty widely understood, in spite of his official stance of neutrality, that Uribe would prefer McCain over Obama.) It’s hard to say. What McCain certainly was in Colombia for was to simultaneously show his support for President Uribe in a time of trouble (Uribe has been Washington’s staunch ally in the region), while visibly displaying his concern over Colombia’s human rights record (which he, nonetheless, praised Uribe for making progress on). McCain is a supporter of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which needs Congressional approval to pass (and the Congress needs to see more progress on human rights before it will give the green light).
Colombia Independence Day Marches: On July 20, 2008, a series of marches and concerts were promoted in Colombia and throughout the world on behalf of peace, and also, specifically, calling on the FARC to release its remaining hostages. In different places, Shakira and Juanes were performers, and Ingrid Betancourt spoke on behalf of the hostages who had been left behind, who are loved no less, and suffer no less, than those who were freed. She made it a point not to let her own liberty obscure the captivity of others.
SOURCES INCLUDE: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, CNN, CBS, Newsweek, Miami Herald, Washington Post, Colombiareports.com, Middle East Times, Irish Times, The Guardian, AFP.
OCTOBER 2008. MASSIVE RESERVES OF NATURAL GAS DETECTED IN COLOMBIA. According to Drummond, a US-owned mining firm which operates several coal mines in the Department of Cesar in northern Colombia, and is also involved in exploring for new sources of energy, huge new reserves of natural gas have been discovered in this zone. The reserves are calculated to amount to 2.3 trillion cubic feet, a substantial increase in the total quantity of this valuable resource already known to exist in Colombia (5.6 trillion cubic feet). According to analysts, thanks, in part, to this new find, Colombia could well become one of the major producers of hydrocarbons in the world. Drummond is a leader in the technology of extracting methane gas from existing coal mines, a procedure which was once done as an act of "security" in order to lessen the danger of explosions in the mines. (Methane gas occurs naturally in these mines.) Now, however, Drummond has improved the technology in order to utilize the methane gas as an actual energy source. - This news is not only good economic news for Colombia, which could, in the future, become a significant exporter of energy in an era in which fossil fuel supplies are becoming more valuable than ever, but it is also full of potential political ramifications. Should Colombia grow into a major source of fossil fuels for the USA, the commitment of US policy-makers to insure the "stability and political reliability" of Colombia will be likely to increase, implying a probable continuation of US support for the counterinsurgency, and a tolerance of right-wing politics (with human rights tokenism) as a means of preserving the benefits of a vital economic asset. In such an environment, the spirit of risking stability for the sake of justice might not have much of a chance…
Source: El Diaro de la prensa (NYC), Oct. 6, 2008.
NOVEMBER 2008. PATTERN OF CIVILIAN MURDERS BY COLOMBIAN MILITARY IS EXPOSED. Recent information has come to light exposing the involvement of some Colombian security units in the criminal murder of civilians. These murders are not the occasional, impassioned or fear-provoked kind which habitually characterize combat zones and which are, sad to say, to be expected in small quantities under stressful conditions. Rather, the string of murders which has just been exposed was premeditated, thoroughly organized, and pursued with remarkable cold-bloodedness. More than representing an "aberration or fluke in times of war", these killings indicate the existence of an ever-degenerating culture of violence in Colombia, embodying a chilling new level of inhumanity. The murders have been occurring for several years during the tenure of the Uribe government, and have involved several different military units and commanders, but with a special emphasis on the region of Antioquia.
The basic pattern of the murders is this: poor young people, male or female, considered "worthless or marginal" by the murderers, are "lured" from the slums in which they live by the promise of jobs and opportunities in other locations. The deceptive recruiters, contracted to set them up, bring them into war zones where soldiers then shoot them dead, often dressing them in fatigues and laying guerrilla weapons and equipment in the vicinity of their bodies. The victims, killed in this way, are proclaimed to be guerrillas (or criminal gang members) who have been shot in combat, and are displayed as proof of the soldiers’ effectiveness, and the government’s success. The soldiers, as a result of the "combat kills" ("false positives") they have registered, are liable to be rewarded with time off, extra pay, and promotions.
In one specific case cited from 2004, Juan de Jesus Rendon, a peasant, was shot in front of his home by soldiers, who then placed a two-way radio and gun next to his body, and told his 10-year-old son who witnessed the murder to tell authorities that his father had fired on the soldiers, or else he and his siblings would be next. In another incident, from 2002, soldiers opened fire on a vehicle carrying several people to a party, including Erika Castaneda, 13, and Johana Carmona, 14. The bodies of the victims were then taken to a nearby hospital, placed in fatigues, and identified as guerrillas.
The awful brutality of paramilitary forces against the civilian population of Colombia is well-known, but those forces are in theory (though not in reality) separate from the Colombian government and its security forces. The Colombian military, itself, which receives approximately $500 million a year in US military aid, much of which is applied directly to units which are first cleared by US officials in charge of examining their human rights records, is supposed to be "clean" and in compliance with the "norms of war." The existence of horrific practices such as the ones just exposed calls into question the seriousness of US human rights monitoring of the Colombian units it is aiding, as well as the nature of the Uribe regime, itself, which has unleashed a war without scruples to obtain its objectives, and created a savage psychological space in which utter contempt for human life is now thoroughly permissible even among the "defenders of the State", as long as it is able to fly below the radar screen of international indignation.
Once again, it doubtless needs to be stated that Colombia is a country of many faces: too complex to be easily defined, too riddled with paradoxes to be simplistically glorified or condemned. The Colombian government has many fair and high-minded individuals, and many patriots of the law, just as the Colombian military has many brave, and still undegraded individuals who believe in "the rules of war" and have preserved their respect for human life, even in the midst of trying circumstances. Still, it is not at all possible in this case to pass off the violations of the Colombian military as merely a few rogue acts committed by a handful of perpetrators. Undeniably, there is a wider and more general pattern of abuse against civilians, perpetrated by the military directly, but more especially by paramilitary forces acting with the knowledge and cooperation of military commanders. As a result of the latest scandal, 27 officers and soldiers have been removed from their positions by the Uribe government, and General Mario Montoya, commander of the Colombian Army, has been pressured to resign. But this is only the inevitable act of window-dressing, made to keep the US-aid-pipeline open and the dollars flowing in. From a corrupt and cynical regime, nothing more can be expected.
Sources: The New York Times, Oct. 30, 2008; Nov. 5, 2008.
NOVEMBER 19, 2008: A PRESS RELEASE FROM AMERICAS WATCH ON THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT’S ATTITUDE REGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS WORK. The following is a press release issued by Human Rights Watch, an important and internationally-respected human rights organization:
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH 11/19/08 PRESS RELEASE/ Colombia: stop false accusations against human rights groups
(Washington, DC, November 19, 2008) – President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia should stop making false and dangerous accusations against human rights groups that criticize his government, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today in a joint statement. Colombia should instead address the human rights concerns they raise.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued reports in October 2008 about the human rights situation in Colombia. After its report was released, President Uribe accused Amnesty International of "blindness," "fanaticism," and "dogmatism." He also publicly accused José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, of being a "supporter" and an "accomplice" of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.
"We would welcome a chance to debate the real issues with the president," said Susan Lee, Americas director for Amnesty International. "But these statements belittle his office and give a green light to those who wish to harm human rights activists in Colombia."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are still waiting for the Colombian government to provide measured and detailed responses to the serious human rights concerns raised in their two reports.
Earlier this year, after a presidential advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, publicly suggested that organizers of a protest against paramilitary death squads had links to guerrillas, there was a wave of threats and violence against participants in and organizers of the march, including killings.
The organizations noted that President Uribe and other senior officials have often made similar accusations against those who criticize or stand in the way of his policies, including not only international and Colombian human rights groups, but also the Colombian Supreme Court, trade unionists, and prominent journalists.
"These ridiculous accusations are symptomatic of an administration that refuses to be held accountable for what it does," said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. "Instead of taking the country’s human rights problems seriously, the Uribe government has sought to deflect criticism by simply accusing the critics – no matter who they are – of links to guerrillas."
DECEMBER 2008. MORE FROM THE HUMAN RIGHTS PERSPECTIVE; & THE STATE OF URIBE'S REELECTION BID.
Besides the awful revelation mentioned in a previous entry ("Pattern of Civilian Murders…"), further disclosures tarnishing the human rights record of the Uribe administration have come to light. In addition to the links of many pro-Uribe lawmakers to right-wing paramilitary death squads which have been being uncovered for months (in the so-called "parapolitics scandal"), there are new accusations that General Montoya, the former head of the Colombian Army, has provided arms to paramilitaries and that retired General Rito Alejo del Rio, a friend and ally of President Uribe, actually planned joint army/paramilitary operations in times past with Carlos Castan~o, the notorious leader of the AUC (Washington Post, 9/17/08). The accusations have been leveled by former paramilitary leaders in custody. Additionally Jorge Noguera, the former head of the DAS (Colombia’s chief intelligence agency) has been arrested for using his position to provide classified information to paramilitaries, and helping paramilitaries to infiltrate the DAS, allowing them access and power, and promoting an insidious interface between the official State intelligence apparatus and criminal elements operating outside of the law. (ThaiIndian.com, 12/13/08.) Meanwhile, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office is taking up 780 criminal investigations (involving the death of 1,137 civilians) which may be the result of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by Colombian security forces over a period of many years. The illegal violence perpetrated by paramilitary groups is well-known, but the extent of criminal homicides carried out directly by the Colombian military, itself, is only now becoming appreciated. According to some human rights groups who have sought to place this situation in a historical perspective, the level of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Colombia attributable to the military and police is worse in Colombia than it was in Pinochet’s Chile, which was an outright (and notoriously brutal) dictatorship. (CNN, 11/05/08.)
On the bright side, the fact that all of these disturbing facts are being uncovered points to the fact that elements of the Colombian democracy are intact and working. There are valiant sectors of the Colombian government, and an abundance of individuals, who are committed to justice, truth, and the rule of law, and are struggling to preserve (or return to) the basic principles of humanity which ought to govern our actions, even in times of duress. On the dark side, we see the terrible face of savagery and spiritual corruption which lies beneath the outwardly civil, democratic mask of the Uribe administration, which is utterly saturated with rotten connections. This is hardly a polemic perspective in the face of the overwhelming evidence which has been pouring in for many months from all quarters, and especially from the very institutions created by Colombia, itself, to uphold its integrity and standing as a genuine democracy.
However, the usefulness of the Uribe administration to the Bush administration, has made it nearly impervious, till now; its human rights record has, for years, been discounted as essentially irrelevant, in the face of the US drug problem and the desire to retain a reliable bastion of conservatism in the midst of the rising tide of populism and oppositionalism in Latin America. Without explicitly admitting it, the objectives of Uribe/Bush have been considered, by the US political establishment, to justify any means, and human rights tokenism has therefore been accepted as an adequate response to years of systematic outrages: slaps on the wrist and admonitions that do not impede the effectiveness of the violence. Millions upon millions of US dollars pumped into a military project clearly based upon a doctrine of violating human rights was not only a powerful material support to Uribe, but also an unmistakable signal of patronage, contributing to the political invulnerability of his regime, which was given a virtual carte blanche to wage a war of terror against its enemies. But this tacit approval from Bush’s Washington may have led to overconfidence among Uribe’s peers and colleagues, who came to think they could get away with anything, which, in turn, has played a role in unleashing the recent wave of revelations which is presently discrediting them.
Already, there has been a backlash. Earlier this year, the US Congress refused to back the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, due, in large part, to concerns about the extent of human rights abuses in Colombia. Then, Uribe’s efforts to seek a third consecutive term in office, took a hard hit, no doubt thanks to the "parapolitics scandal"; to accusations that Uribe bribed members of the Colombian Congress to change the law so that he could run for reelection in 2006; to accusations that paramilitaries (who sometimes oblige residents in areas they control to vote a certain way, and also contribute money to candidates they favor) played a role in his 2002 campaign (Colombiareports.com, 12/15/08); and to the recent failure of several major businesses, including DMG, which offered goods or services linked to "get-rich" pyramid schemes, which collapsed precipitously in November, affecting the savings of up to 4 million people (in a nation of 44 million), wiping out over $1 billion worth of investments and destroying the life savings of enormous numbers of people. Martial law had to be imposed on several cities, and police in full riot gear, sometimes backed by armored cars, battled furious crowds and launched tear gas into their midst on at least one occasion in the city of Popayan. Angry citizens blamed the government for not regulating companies like DMG, accused politicians of taking bribes from the corrupt businessmen in order to let them operate freely, and noted that Uribe’s sons were friends of an important associate of David Murcia, the DMG bigwig. Although the Uribe government did crack down on these companies and make numerous arrests in the wake of the scandal, as well as promise to try to reimburse the defrauded investors with the residue that remained from the companies’ collapse, for thousands upon thousands of Colombian citizens who had been catastrophically affected, it was not enough. Nor did they enjoy the comments of some government officials blaming the citizenry for succumbing to a "get-rich-quick" mentality, based on "easy money" instead of hard work. (Washington Post, 12/05/08, Telegraph.Co.UK, 11/13/08) No longer in possession of the soaring popularity (or one might say invincibility) he enjoyed immediately after the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt earlier in the year, Uribe suffered an important reversal in the Colombian Congress on December 17, as the House of Representatives refused to approve a law which would enable him to run again for President in 2010 (which would be his third consecutive term). The House did clear him to run again in 2014. But for Uribe and his followers this is not good enough. They believe that his presidency must not be interrupted, for there is still much work to do in pacifying the country, and they do not wish the momentum of his triumphs against the leftist guerrillas to be in any way impeded. He is seen, by many, as the architect and driving force behind a sense of increased security which many Colombians say they are enjoying as a result of his leadership. Although his popularity is down from what it was, and although his international credibility is damaged, he is still a popular and formidable politician, and the possibility remains that either the Senate or the courts could serve to generate new measures which could enable him to stand for election in 2010 in spite of his setback in the Colombian House of Representatives. (Reuters, 12/17/08.)
As the US now faces its own "changing of the guard", with the January 2009 replacement of the Bush administration by Obama, the future of Uribe may hinge not only upon his ability to handle his popularity at home, but also upon the kind of image he is able to project to a new American administration endowed with a new sensibility, and the kind of relationship he is able to forge with a new President. With that uncertain future in mind, President Bush, in a speech delivered on the 22nd of November, urged Obama to continue to support Uribe, who he described as "a strong leader" and "a good friend." (AFP, 11/22/08.) But Bush’s plea is not likely to have much of an impact, as he leaves office widely criticized for his manipulation of the American people (the false case for war with Iraq which he made in 2002-2003), for his soiling of America’s global image (domestic spying, renditions, torture, etc.), for his entanglement of America in a war that has weakened rather than strengthened it, and for his inattentiveness to the economy. Bush’s day is over, he has slid off the peak of history into a pit, proving that power without principle lacks the ability to seduce for more than a moment. What remains, now, to be seen, is how Uribe, a figure who sometimes seemed like Bush’s twin or shadow - a product also of 9/11 (which threw open the gate of extreme responses) and the human psyche’s eternal flirtation with the politics of regression - manages to adapt to an altered world, without Republicans at the helm. It also remains to be seen how Barack Obama, a politician of improved consciousness, yet hemmed in by years of Bush-spiel and the perceptions and expectations which it has given to the public he serves, is able to take on the complexities of Colombia, a country without easy answers; a country for many years demeaned with political brushstrokes of black and white, which deserves to be seen in color…
NOTE AND APOLOGY: THE UPDATES SECTION HAS NOT BEEN KEPT UP FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS. WE HOPE ONE DAY IN THE FUTURE TO BE ABLE TO RESTORE IT TO ACTIVITY. IN THE MEANTIME, NEWS ABOUT COLOMBIA REMAINS AVAILABLE FOR ALL WHO ARE INTERESTED THROUGH MULTITUDINOUS SOURCES ON THE NET AND IN THE PRINTED MEDIA.
Update: A "Colombia Updates 3" section has been created (August 2016), to cover new developments in the peace process (and to offer a brief summary of events from 2008-2016). Technical issues with web program interfaces have temporarily created navigational issues to that page, but you may reach it directly by going to:http://www.rainsnow.org/colombia_updates_3.htm
Colombia Updates (Colombia Updates 1, May 2006- June 2008)
A Biography Of Colombia Embattled, IV
Weapons of Depth Contents