Colombia’s hand in freeing captives fortifies bond with U.S., experts say
Published by The Houston Chronicle
By Bennett Roth
Additionally, the approach employed by the Colombians to gain the hostages’ freedom — using intelligence-gathering techniques to locate the guerrillas and tricking them into handing over the captives without a shot fired — suggests a new model is emerging in the region, they said.
For the past four decades, Colombia has been scorched by a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians.
“I think this does show that carefully calibrated military actions are better than the old kill, kill, kill technique,” said Roger Atwood, a spokesman for the Washington Office on Latin America.
The U.S. has provided more than $5 billion in military and economic assistance to help Bogota fight drug traffickers protected by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Its guerrillas held Betancourt, three American military contractors and 11 other Colombians freed by the commandos.
Good for Uribe
“This is a coup for (President Alvaro) Uribe and his armed forces,” said Riordan Roett, a Latin America specialist at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
The rescue, Roett said, “validates to a great degree Plan Colombia,” the United States’ joint project with Colombia to cut down on the trafficking of cocaine and other drugs.
Congress recently renewed the aid package.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia scholar at the Center for International Policy, said that critics of Uribe’s hard-line strategy to destroy or disarm the rebels were dealt a setback by the rescue operation.
“The rescue certainly strengthens those who support a military solution to this conflict,” he said.
U.S. officials have told reporters that the American military flew thousands of surveillance flights over the Colombia jungle in an effort to locate the hostages, that the FBI sent investigators and hostage negotiators on countless trips to Bogota and that a Defense Intelligence Agency unit that usually tracks missing soldiers also worked on the case of the three American military contractors held with other so-called “high-value hostages” in the jungle, including soldiers and politicians.
But some critics said they feared the success of the rescue operation will embolden Uribe, who has been accused of allowing human rights abuses by right-wing paramilitary units.
“While it was perfectly appropriate for Uribe to act to free the hostages, we should not lose sight of the fact that he is one of the more authoritarian presidents in Colombia’s history and that presently Colombia is a democracy in form, not substance,” said Larry Birns of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Crackdown is popular
One of Uribe’s biggest fans is GOP presidential contender John McCain, who was visiting the country as the rescue operation was under way.
McCain, who said Uribe informed him of the plan the night before rescue efforts started, has backed not only U.S. financial aid to the country but the controversial Colombia free trade agreement now stalled in Congress.
Last spring, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, refused to schedule a vote on the pact, saying the Bush administration had not sufficiently dealt with criticism of violence against union workers in Colombia.
Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama has cited allegations of human rights abuses in Colombia for his opposition to the agreement.
At the same time, Obama agreed with Bush and McCain on Uribe’s tough approach to the FARC.
In a statement issued after the release of the hostages, Obama said, “I strongly support Colombia’s steady strategy of making no concessions to the FARC, and its targeted use of intelligence, military, law enforcement, diplomatic and political power to achieve important victories against terrorism.”