TOPICS > Politics

Betancourt, U.S. Hostages Freed From Colombian Rebels

July 2, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Colombian rebels kept presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American military contractors hostage for years before the country's military was able to release them Wednesday. Experts examine the fallout of their release to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

GWEN IFILL: Ingrid Betancourt was running for president of Colombia when she was captured in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Howes were U.S. defense contractors on a counter-narcotics mission when they were taken prisoner after their plane crashed in 2003. Today, they were all rescued by the Colombian military.

For more on today’s developments, we turn to Chris Kraul, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Bogota.

Welcome, Mr. Kraul.

CHRIS KRAUL, The Los Angeles Times: Hi.

GWEN IFILL: What can you tell us about how this happened?

CHRIS KRAUL: Well, it was something right out of Hollywood. The Colombian armed forces apparently infiltrated the security that surrounded 15 high-value hostages and put together this ruse, which involved the guards controlling these hostages, gathering them all together in one spot — they’re usually in dispersed locations — and then convincing them to get on this helicopter to be taken to talk to the new FARC leader.

As the hostages were boarding the helicopter, the FARC guards were either persuaded or they were overtaken — persuaded to give up the hostages or they were overtaken.

And bottom line was that the 15 hostages were released and then flown toward Bogota. They’re supposed to arrive at any moment in the capital.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard so much over the years, as these hostages have been held, about other efforts, deals that have been struck and not struck, efforts that have been made to free them. What was different that we know about this one?

CHRIS KRAUL: Well, rumors have been floating in the last several months. There’s no doubt that the Colombian government, with U.S. intelligence help, it’s presumed, have cracked the FARC’s intelligence network and communications, so they’ve knocked off a couple of — a half-a-dozen leaders or so in the last year, including the founder and leader, died apparently of natural causes, but possibly in a bombing raid in March.

So no question that the rebels have been on the run and that their logistics have been severely compromised.

Rebels show signs of weakening

Roger Noriega
Former State Department Official
It's a joyous day for the family members of these three Americans and the others, as well.

GWEN IFILL: The White House said today here in Washington late this afternoon that specific support was provided for this enterprise. Do you know anything more about that?

CHRIS KRAUL: No, not yet. But there have been indications that the Colombians have been able to locate and follow the rebels as they've been using their cell phones and their satellite phones. And I would think that this is what's behind a lot of this security compromising that's happened.

GWEN IFILL: And prior to today, Venezuela and Hugo Chavez had been involved in some earlier negotiations, some efforts to free the hostages. Do we know that they had any role today?

CHRIS KRAUL: Don't know that for sure. Chavez, in a surprising turn, last month himself called on the FARC to negotiate a peace agreement. The ranks of the rebels have been thinning. They've lost territory. They're on the ropes for sure. They're not out yet, but they're struggling.

GWEN IFILL: The plane apparently has now just landed in Bogota, as you described. So how much do we know that -- how much damage do we think this may have done to the FARC?

CHRIS KRAUL: Well, these hostages were the best assets they had. And the speculation was that they would never give them up, because as long as the FARC had them, the government had to deal with them.

That's why the rescue is, in several ways, a surprise. Another facet that's surprising is that they used this rescue means, which the families had all voiced their opposition to. They thought it was too dangerous.

Eleven high-value hostages were killed a year ago, 11 local deputies under very mysterious circumstances, possibly during a rescue operation like this one. So that's another surprising element, that it was something straight out of James Bond.

GWEN IFILL: Well, apparently today, Ingrid Betancourt described this particular rescue as "absolutely impeccable." Chris Kraul, thank you so much for helping us out.

CHRIS KRAUL: Sure thing.

U.S. ties to Colombia's conflict

Michael Shifter
Inter-American Dialogue
Colombia is the only remaining armed conflict in this hemisphere. This is a devastating blow today to the FARC. It's the only remaining insurgent group.

GWEN IFILL: For more on all of this, we talk now to former Ambassador Roger Noriega. He held top Latin American posts at the State Department during the Bush administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

And Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Mr. Ambassador, how significant is all this?

ROGER NORIEGA, Former State Department Official: Well, it's extraordinarily significant. First off, it's a joyous day for the family members of these three Americans and the others, as well.

GWEN IFILL: I think we have pictures of them actually arriving now in Bogota.

ROGER NORIEGA: Absolutely. That's wonderful. And it reminds the American people that there really is a war going on there and that we pay a price, in terms of the drugs coming into the United States and then the sacrifice of these American contractors, who are doing great work there in service of their country, and five years that they'll never get back, but it's a great day for them.

It also proves the woeful state of the command-and-control of the FARC. It is a guerilla group that's probably hit its high-water mark and is in descent thanks to the terrific work of President Uribe, the commitment of the Colombian people to have an effective military and intelligence apparatus to press the war against them and to bring this thing to a definitive conclusion.

It reminds us that there's a fight going on and that it's winnable, if we keep our end of the deal, help consolidate these gains, and push on to a victory there.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Shifter, what does this have to do with the U.S., really?

MICHAEL SHIFTER, Inter-American Dialogue: Well, Colombia is the only remaining armed conflict in this hemisphere. This is a devastating blow today to the FARC. It's the only remaining insurgent group.

Obviously, they've caused tremendous problems to Colombia over the years. The former president of Colombia, Gaviria, said, "Today, our nightmare is over," and he's an opposition figure to the government. So I think all Colombians are celebrating.

And we should celebrate, as well. To the extent that there's peace in such a significant country like Colombia, I think is good for the United States. Obviously, there were also three Americans who were also released, and we should be celebrating that fact.

And this is a step closer to a country that could become reconciled and on the road to peace. And we should welcome and embrace that.

Colombia, world community in unison

Roger Noriega
Former State Department Official
We did not press them to make concessions to the rebels, however. If you do that, you just generate more and more incentive for the FARC to take hostages.

GWEN IFILL: Ingrid Betancourt became a cause celebre in all of this. Tell us about her.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Ingrid Betancourt was a very brave -- is a very brave woman who served in the Colombian Congress. She fought corruption in Colombia. And she showed enormous courage.

In February of 2002, when she was kidnapped and she went to the areas where she knew the FARC was there, but she was running for president, and this was Colombian territory. And I think she really has endured a tremendous ordeal.

There was a video that was released about her earlier this year which caused considerable concern, because she really looked like she had deteriorated. We hope that she's in good health.

And, of course, especially in France, this has been a major cause, because she has dual citizenship, both Colombian and French citizenship.

GWEN IFILL: It's important to point out. And the Americans, we hear what the White House said about specific support being supplied. Obviously, these three American hostages were involved in some sort of activity or they wouldn't have been there. They're contractors working for the U.S. government. We see them now getting off their plane in Bogota.

What does their presence there and their role of their arrest say about U.S. involvement in this effort to roust FARC?

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, those people were there doing surveillance on crops, cocaine and heroin...

GWEN IFILL: Anti-drug.

ROGER NORIEGA: ... cultivation. So they were there monitoring where the crops were so that Colombian forces could go in and fumigate and to eliminate those illicit crops. So that was an overt mission carried out on the behalf of SOUTHCOM and the Pentagon.

So there was no intelligence role in that, other than just seeing where these illicit crops were so that people could go after them.

GWEN IFILL: But the fact that they were held, did that add to the international pressure to resolve this, even though it took many years?

ROGER NORIEGA: Absolutely it did. And we addressed this as a high priority with the Colombians. They recognized how important this was for us to get these people back.

We did not press them to make concessions to the rebels, however. If you do that, you just generate more and more incentive for the FARC to take hostages.

There are today probably 700 hostages, Colombians, who are in the hands of the FARC. And I hope that we will press now for the FARC to lay down their arms, to surrender these innocent people that they're holding hostage, to find a way to return to a peaceful life.

Unfortunately, they're essentially criminals in the service of these narcotics syndicates. They use terrorism as a matter of course in the way of doing business.

But we see how Chavez is running the other way as information about his own links to these terrorist groups have come out. And so hopefully it removes this international solidarity and knocks the blocks out from under the FARC.

FARC may agree to negotiate

Michael Shifter
Inter-American Dialogue
The Colombian government would be generous in terms of support they would give to the FARC guerillas who were prepared to reintegrate into Colombian society. That should be the main objective of Colombians.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about these two important Latin American leaders, Hugo Chavez, not a friend of the United States, Alvaro Uribe, who is a friend of the United States. Who had the better day today?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Oh, I think Alvaro Uribe is celebrating. We should also mention that Colombia has been the largest recipient of U.S. security aid outside the Middle East, some $5 billion since 2000, so there is a lot at stake for the United States in this.

I think Chavez has to be very impressed with the efficiency of this operation, and I think this kind of marginalizes him. Before today, he was seen as the only person really who was able to release the hostages, as he did previous FARC hostages.

This was a Colombian operation. The Colombians did it on their own, so it's very sweet, I think, and gratifying for them. So clearly this is a boost for Uribe.

He already has 84 percent in the polls. I don't know how much higher he could go. But this, I think, will even increase his popularity, and I think Chavez is watching this play out very closely.

GWEN IFILL: Well, as the ambassador pointed out, there are still 700 more hostages held, perhaps not international hostages, but he suggests that maybe we should continue to press -- we, the United States, international community -- should continue to press for their release. How would they go about that?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think the Colombian government has its strategy. And I think this was a major step forward today.

And I think this defense minister said today in the announcement that he wants to try to work out a deal with the FARC so that they would hand in their arms and that the Colombian government would be generous in terms of support they would give to the FARC guerillas who were prepared to reintegrate into Colombian society. That should be the main objective of Colombians.

I think some will and some won't. Some will continue to be involved in criminal activity. I think you're likely to see a lot of fracturing and fragmentation of the FARC. So far, they've been one single, national unit. I think they're going to break up.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that?

ROGER NORIEGA: I certainly do. And I emphasize that this was really a Colombian victory today. The Colombian people, and not just President Uribe, really deserve all of the credit or the vast majority of the credit for this progress that they made today.

But we can help consolidate the gains that they've made. We can, for one thing, we're worried about support in the U.S. Congress drying up for President Uribe's anti-drug efforts and his efforts to impose the rule of law against terrorist groups like this. So hopefully the Congress will get the message that this is winnable, that we need to finish.

Also, there's a pending free trade agreement with Colombia, and that, unfortunately, the Democratic leadership in the Congress has essentially rewritten the trade rules to take this agreement off the table.

I would hope that they would see important benefits to providing this sort of economic incentive for Colombians to finish the job to create a more just and equitable society that will benefit us and the neighborhood.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Roger Noriega, Michael Shifter, thank you both very much.