The question behind Betancourt’s rescue

Jul 3, 2008
Mike Power

Did President Uribe buy his way out of trouble with yesterday’s bold raid? Mike Power reports

The rescue by Colombian troops of the French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in yesterday's audacious raid on a jungle camp marks the latest, possibly fatal, blow to FARC, Latin America's oldest insurgency.

"God, this is a miracle... There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation," Betancourt told reporters after soldiers posing as members of a fictitious non-government organisation had flown the hostages and their guerrilla guards out of Guaviare in disguised helicopters, tricking the guerillas into believing they had been called to a meeting with rebel leader Alfonso Cano. "This is a sign of peace for Colombia, that we can find peace," sobbed Betancourt.

Also rescued were three US contractors, who had been kidnapped when their aircraft crashed during an anti-drugs mission in February 2003, and a further 11 hostages.

The curious timing of the hostages' rescue raises intriguing questions. For while Betancourt’s freedom gets the headlines from Bogota to Paris, it is Alvaro Uribe, right-wing president of this turbulent Andean nation, and a key Washington ally in an increasingly left-leaning Latin America, who is surely the real winner in this extraordinary episode.

FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - was formed as a rebel peasant army in the 1960s to fight for land reform in a country riven by inequality and poverty. However, its Marxist credentials have been stained since it became involved in narco-trafficking, kidnappings and extortion since the 1980s.

An outspoken critic of FARC, Betancourt was kidnapped in south-west Colombia in 2002. Videos released from the jungle showed a once-strong woman crushed, malnourished, and close to death.

Betancourt's rescue, codenamed Operation Jaque (meaning 'checkmate'), crowns a devastating year for FARC. Once a 20,000-strong force fat with cocaine profits, it is now a crumbling and incoherent group half that number, with no popular support or ideology.

In March, the rebel army lost its chief spokesman Raul Reyes in an attack by Colombian helicopters on a camp across the border in Ecuador. Later that month another commander, Ivan Rios, was killed by his own bodyguard, who received a $1m reward from the government when he delivered his boss's severed hand to security forces.

Then the army's founder and chief ideologue, Manuel Marulanda, died of natural causes, aged 78. In May, its most feared female fighter, alias 'Karina', surrendered and urged others to do the same.

But it is the specific timing of Operation Jaque, after a week of intense political pressure for Uribe, that is intriguing.

Last Friday, Colombia's Supreme Court found that former congresswoman Yidis Medina had accepted a bribe from the government that allowed Uribe's re-election in 2006. Uribe only won re-election after lawmakers - including Medina - changed the constitution to allow him to run for an unprecedented second term.

Following the Medina bribery verdict, for which she will spend three-and-a-half years under house arrest, Uribe faced down the Supreme Court and demanded a referendum next year to ask voters if they want to rerun the 2006 election. His victory - especially after yesterday’s raid - seems assured.

The Medina verdict followed investigations linking some of Uribe's closest allies to paramilitary death squads. Uribe personally ordered the extradition of 14 top paramilitary leaders to the US in May, immunising himself as the scandal crept closer.

Early last month, opposition senator Piedad Cordoba alleged that the Uribe government was offering FARC $100m to reveal Betancourt's whereabouts.

The intense, bespectacled, yoga-loving Uribe is enormously popular for making Colombia safe once more by driving the FARC back into the jungles.

The release of Betancourt may be a political masterstroke. But its suspiciously convenient timing, coupled with the knowledge that he bribed his way into power in 2006, raises questions about his integrity that won’t quickly go away.

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