JIM LEHRER: Now, yesterday’s hostage rescue in Colombia. We begin with a report narrated by NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden.
TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Ingrid Betancourt was in a hurry this morning. And little wonder: the former Colombian presidential candidate was on her way to an emotional reunion more than six years in the making.
She raced towards the French government jet that brought her children, Melanie and Lorenzo, from Paris, where they live with their father. Betancourt, who holds French and Colombian citizenship, lives, once again, with her second husband in Bogota.
INGRID BETANCOURT, Former Hostage (through translator): I gave them many kisses, and to feel them, to touch them, to see them, so different and so alike at the same time. To see them so beautiful, because I think they are beautiful.
MELANIE DELLOYE, Ingrid Betancourt’s Daughter (through translator): We were afraid the military operations would be deadly, and we never wanted to put my mommy’s life at risk, or that of the other hostages that were with her. But this was not a military operation; it was an intelligence operation. It was done perfectly.
TOM BEARDEN: The “perfect operation” freed Betancourt and 14 others. Among them were three U.S. Defense Department contractors, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell. They’d been held for more than five years.
Eleven Colombian soldiers were also rescued, but the FARC still holds more than 700 hostages.
GEORGE GONSALVES, Father of Freed Hostage: What a way to celebrate the Fourth of July. It’s just — this is the best.
TOM BEARDEN: Last night, Marc Gonsalves’ father, George, spoke to reporters at his home in Connecticut.
GEORGE GONSALVES: All those Christmases, all those birthdays, all those special occasions, all those vacations, all those times that you want to just say hello to your son, how are you doing, all those times that I couldn’t say that or do that, I’m going to have a chance to do that.
TOM BEARDEN: The three Americans were taken from Colombia on U.S. military jets for medical treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Late today, doctors spoke with reporters to update their conditions.
COL. JACKIE HAYES, Physician, Brooke Army Medical Center: They are all in very good physical condition, very strong. The results of the tests are pending at this point in time, but everything really looks well.
They’re in great spirits. And we’re continuing the medical evaluation process as we speak, and hopefully everything will come back negative. So everything looks good at this point in time.
Plan even fooled hostages
TOM BEARDEN: Betancourt and the Americans were the highest-profile captives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.
The decades-old rebel group was deceived in an elaborate ruse to give up the hostages without a shot being fired.
A group of military intelligence operatives, disguised as aid workers, met the rebels and their captives in a jungle clearing in the southern province of Guaviare. The head of Colombia's armed forces, General Freddy Padilla, described the scene to reporters.
GEN. FREDDY PADILLA, General Commander, Colombian Military (through translator): This is the area where the rescue today took place. These were the helicopters which were at the place, one was in reserve, the other one descended to the point, and from that place the 15 kidnapped comrades were transferred.
TOM BEARDEN: Betancourt herself said the ruse was so convincing that it was not until she was on the chopper and saw a rebel stripped and cuffed on the floor that an operative said to her, "We are the national army. You are free."
The Marxist FARC has fought the government of Colombia for nearly half a century, from its bases deep in Colombia's interior. Right-wing groups sprouted to combat the FARC, and thousands of Colombians, mostly civilians, have died in the crossfire, widely known in Colombia as "La Violencia."
Both groups are also heavily involved in the country's deadly and lucrative drug trade. The FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
The government of President Alvaro Uribe has pressed its campaign against the FARC in recent years. The U.S. has supplied billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia, mostly for counter-narcotics operations.
Indeed, the three Americans freed yesterday were working for Northrop Grumman on a U.S. Defense Department drug interdiction contract when their plane crashed in 2003.
But this year has seen serious setbacks for the FARC. Its top three commanders have died, including its founder, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, who died recently of a heart attack. The rebel group is also seeing high levels of desertions from its ranks.
Complex plan minimized risk
JIM LEHRER: More now on this story from Colombia's minister of defense. I misidentified him a while ago. His name is Juan Manuel Santos, and I spoke with him this afternoon from Bogota.
Mr. Minister, welcome.
Sir, what caused you and your government to decide to make this rescue attempt right now? Some of those hostages have been there five years, six years. Why now?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, Colombian Defense Minister: Because, after many years of going after them and recollecting information, intelligence, this idea was brought up to us by our intelligence people. And the plan was at the beginning was quite audacious, a bit crazy. But then we started to mature it and thought maybe it would work, and it did work, so there we are.
JIM LEHRER: You say maybe it would work, so there was some doubt that it would work, correct?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Of course. Of course. The big doubt was, if our scheme, which we put in place, would be detected by them. But the risk of anything happening was minimal, because the only thing we would lose in the worst-case scenario would be one helicopter and 12 of the 13 people who would probably be kidnapped and added to the group that was already kidnapped.
JIM LEHRER: So the lives of the hostages were never at risk?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Well, the risk was very, very small. And that's why we decided -- because we had opportunities like this one, many opportunities before. But in those cases, the scheme that we had sort of put in place, the risk for the hostages was too high and, therefore, we had decided not to go along with those schemes.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, this particular scheme, what was it that protected the hostages from possible harm?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: First of all, if any of our intelligence and our infiltrated people were detected -- and they knew that we were putting in place such a scheme -- when we arrived in the place to pick them up, they would simply not be there, so the hostages would have been taken to another place.
So the chance of a combat between our forces and the guerrillas who had the hostages was almost nonexistent.
We had a Plan B, which was to cover the high-risk transition from the ground to the helicopters. If they discovered that this was a scheme, then we had our troops ready to surround them without attacking, and put in place what we had called a humanitarian cordon, which would sort of put pressure on them, tell them that they are surrounded, and convince them to release the hostages.
But thank God that was not necessary. Everything went all right.
Elaborate ruse fools rebels
JIM LEHRER: What was the ruse that your people used to get the FARC leaders to agree to put those hostages all in one place so they could be put on a helicopter?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: That was the audacious part, because we had people infiltrated in -- one of the secretary members, probably the most vicious one, called Mono Hoy (ph), and we had people infiltrated in the camp that had the hostages.
And we managed to give information from one place to the other, ordering the guy who had the hostages separated in three groups to unite them, and then prepare them to be transferred under the command of the new FARC leader. That was the story; that was the novel that we put in place.
JIM LEHRER: And the people who were doing this on the ground -- in other words, for you all -- the government people, were they posing as FARC troops, as FARC leaders themselves?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Some of them, yes. Some of them were posing as a humanitarian mission from different countries. They had different roles.
We even referred to them as the actors. And we sort of staged a Hollywood scenario for them to practice all of the things that they had to do with a script. And it was quite a work of training and of each one trying their roles, and they did it perfectly, thank God.
JIM LEHRER: How many of your people were involved in this from the very beginning?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Well, people from the intelligence, about -- I would say 30. And people from special operations, I would say about 15, 20.
JIM LEHRER: And how long did they work on this?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: They've been working on the plan for some months, but, actually, they started putting it on trial in the real world the last 30th of May.
JIM LEHRER: The 30th of May. And who gave the final OK, the final say to say, "Let's go with this"?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: The president.
Successful plan pressures the FARC
JIM LEHRER: And who is -- is there an author of this plan somewhere? Is there somebody in your office or in the intelligence community who actually dreamed up this scheme to begin with? Or was it a group, or what?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: There was a group of junior officers, a major and two captains, and some petty officers who designed the scheme, and they brought it up to a colonel. He, at the beginning, rejected it. But then they insisted. They persevered.
They said, "This can work. Let us try." And he let them try. When it started to work, it went up to the commander of the army. He took it to me. I put it on trial a couple of times. I was convinced that the risk was worth taking. I took it to the president. He said, "OK." And we did it.
JIM LEHRER: Was it a hard sell on the president?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: No. No, because, really, it was so well-planned that, both the president and myself, we were very, very convinced that this would work. And if it didn't work, the risk was very low.
JIM LEHRER: Was this a complete operation of the Colombian government? Or did you have any outside help, any U.S. intelligence help, or anything like that?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: No, this was 100 percent Colombian-made operation. We have worked with the U.S. many times before, and we appreciate very much very useful collaboration that the U.S. gives us. But in this case, it was a Colombian operation.
We informed the ambassador and the U.S. authorities about a week ago the scheme was already in place, because President Uribe had promised President Bush that, if we did anything with the hostages, involving the American hostages, they would be informed.
They studied the scheme, and they said, "We also think it's worthwhile. It's a very, very good scheme, and go ahead."
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Minister, what happens next? There are still 700 hostages, and FARC still operates. What do you think should be and will be the next steps in this?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Well, we've been hitting the FARC very hard. In the last year, the FARC has suffered losses that they've never suffered in their 44 years of existence. They're weak; their morale is very, very low; they're short on even supplies, ammunition.
We need to insist on military pressure. And at the same time, we are offering them a peace negotiation. If they want to negotiate seriously a peace agreement, we are willing to sit down, but we will not repeat what they have done in the past of using a negotiation simply to strengthen themselves. We want to take them to a point of no return.
JIM LEHRER: Have you heard from FARC since this operation yesterday? Have they responded to these kinds of things you just mentioned?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: What we know -- some intelligence that we have gathered is that they are really, really in disarray. They didn't know what happened, and they're blaming each other, and this is a big blow for them, a very big blow.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Minister, thank you very much.
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Thank you, Jim.