Analysis: Hostage Rescue Is Latest Blow To FARC
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Joining us now is NPR's Juan Forero. He's been reporting from Colombia for eight years, based in Bogota. Good morning.
JUAN FORERO: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now we just heard a little bit about what took place yesterday in the Colombian jungle. Tell us some more details of how this operation came off -pretty elaborate operation.
FORERO: Yeah, it had been in the planning stages for months, apparently, involving the Colombia Defense Ministry and also the United States embassy in Bogota. Basically, what happened - according to the defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos - was that Colombian intelligence had penetrated some of the highest reaches of the FARC rebel group, and a Colombian commando unit had deceived a group of rebels that had been entrusted with guarding some of these hostages, some of the highest profile hostages that the FARC holds.
These Colombian commandos - in disguise - arrived in the jungle. Some of them were wearing T-shirts with the iconic image of Che Guevara, the Argentine guerilla commander from the 1960s. And so the rebels who were holding the hostages turned over these hostages. Some of the hostages thought they were simply being turned over to another rebel unit. But within minutes, they were put aboard two helicopters and they were flown off to freedom.
MONTAGNE: And told they were free, which must have been a pretty big thrill for them. Why were these hostages being held, and for so long?
FORERO: Well, the FARC has been kidnapping hostages for many years now, and they have more than 700 hostages. Many of them are Colombian soldiers and policemen who've been taken prisoner after guerilla attacks. But there are several, more than 40 high-profile hostages. These are politicians and others from civil society who've basically been held by this rebel group for many years as pawns.
The idea that the FARC always had was to be able to exchange them for guerillas who were held in Colombian jails. And, of course, the most prominent of those hostages were, until yesterday, Ingrid Betancourt and the three Americans.
MONTAGNE: Is this quite a blow for the FARC?
FORERO: Yes. The FARC has suffered a series of blows this year. They've lost three commanders - two were killed, and another died of a heart attack. In fact, the one who died had been the founder and the guiding light of the FARC for 44 years. They've also had a lot of desertions - hundreds of them every month - and now this.
MONTAGNE: The reaction must be of great joy, obviously, particularly to the freedom for Ingrid Betancourt. She had been campaigning for president of Colombia when she was captured back in 2002.
FORERO: She had been. Ingrid Betancourt had been a senator in Colombia, and then she was making a run at the presidency. She had not been doing very well in the polls, and she had been campaigning in southern Colombia in February 2002 when she was nabbed by the FARC. And, of course, her ordeal lasted more than six years. She was ecstatic, of course. And yesterday, she even pointed out that she'd still like to run for president.
MONTAGNE: And just another note on that: She was a cause-celebre in France, because Betancourt is also French as well as Colombian.
FORERO: She is. Ingrid Betancourt had written a book in France, which had been a bestseller. It was about Colombian politics. So she was well known. There'd been a lot of vigils there over the years. People had called for her to be released. And the president, Sarkozy, had been quite involved in efforts to try to broker her release. So he celebrated yesterday.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.
FORERO: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Juan Forero on the rescue of hostages in Colombia yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.