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04 Jul 2008 08:15
It was Ingrid Betancourt’s 2 321st day in captivity and it started like any other.
At 4am, with the jungle camp still draped in darkness, she woke up and prayed to God.
As dawn seeped through the trees she turned on her radio for news of her family.
The guards had other news. Helicopters were to move the hostages from Guaviare, a Farc stronghold in the south, to another location where Alfonso Cano, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), was waiting.
Betancourt and 14 captives—three US military contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and police—heard the whump of rotor blades and were herded to a clearing.
The white MI-17 helicopter, apparently from an aid group sympathetic to the rebels, had crews with Che Guevara shirts. The passengers were handcuffed and the machines lifted into the air. “Our hearts broke,” Betancourt said later. “More captivity. Another transfer.”
It was not. This was Operation Checkmate, an audacious sting by Colombia’s military to free a famous hostage, a figure whose haggard image haunted the world’s conscience for more than six years, and deliver a devastating blow to Latin America’s last major insurgency.
In a blink the crew overpowered the Farc escort—a commander named Cesar. Betancourt looked down and saw that her long-term warden, a “cruel despot”, had been stripped naked, blindfolded and bound. “I saw him on the floor,” she said. “I did not feel happiness, but what a shame.”
Moments later the truth dawned when the crew announced its true identity: “We are from the army.” Followed by three magic words. “You are free.”
The eruption of joy, said the 46-year-old former presidential candidate, was immediate. “The helicopter almost crashed: we jumped, we screamed and we cried.”
Government and military officials tracking the operation from a base hundreds of kilometres away, a scene of unbearable tension, whooped at the news. “The helicopter was on the ground for 22 minutes,” said Colombia’s army chief, General Mario Montoya. “The longest minutes of my life.”
Previous rescue attempts for other hostages had ended in bloodbaths and there was no guarantee the ruse would work. Thirty-nine helicopters were on stand-by to swoop in if things unravelled.
“This was an unprecedented operation,” said the Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos. “What our armed forces did was something out of a movie. This will go into history for its audacity.”
Betancourt, landing at an airport in Bogotá and into the arms of her mother hours later, could only agree. “God, this is a miracle. It was an extraordinary symphony in which everything went perfectly.”
The conductor of that symphony, according to the Colombian authorities, was a spy who infiltrated the Farc’s leadership last year and manipulated its reclusive seven-man ruling secretariat, which has directed the four-decade-old insurgency.
Rebel commanders are isolated in different parts of the jungle, with patchy communications, leaving them open to trickery. Cesar, the hostages’ warden, is said to have assembled three groups of the most high-value hostages, thinking they would be transferred to Cano. Instead he delivered them to freedom and himself to jail. Cesar will now face a criminal trial.
Amid smiles, hugs and kisses in Bogotá on Thursday, Betancourt, rail-thin and pale but radiant and apparently healthy, was reunited with her children. She raced to the stairway of the French government plane that had flown her son, Lorenzo (19), and daughter, Mélanie (22), from Paris.
“Nirvana, paradise—that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment,” said the former senator, fighting back tears as they embraced her.
“It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle. The last time I saw Lorenzo [he] was a little kid and I could carry him around.” She added: “I told them, they’re going to have to put up with me now, because I’m going to be stuck to them like chewing gum.”
She later visited the church that holds the remains of her father, who died while she was in captivity, and emerged in sunshine to a mob of television cameras and an applauding crowd.
The mood in Colombia was euphoric. In the past five years the rebels have been pushed deeper into the jungle, most cities have become safe and the economy has recovered. A long conflict may be nearing its end, the armed forces chief, Freddy Padilla, told Caracol Radio. “We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Analysts warned that elements of the Farc, well-funded from narco-trafficking, were likely to fight on, even if other units surrendered. About 700 other hostages, almost all Colombian, still languish in jungle camps, many held not for political leverage but for ransom.
President Alvaro Uribe, whose security policies have been criticised by human rights groups, basked in praise, including from Betancourt, a former political rival. She called him a “very good” leader. But the former presidential candidate said she still aspired to the highest office.
Betancourt was an outspoken politician who railed against Colombia’s ruling elite in a quixotic campaign for the presidency in 2002, during which she was kidnapped.
The well-heeled daughter of a French-Colombian family, she promised to battle corruption and dispensed Viagra to highlight her drive to reinvigorate the state. Polls gave her little chance against Uribe, who promised a security crackdown against Farc.
The mother of two young children was seized on a rural road and became the Farc’s highest profile bargaining chip. Her increasingly anguished letters and proof-of-life videos showed the toll of arduous captivity and tropical diseases. As punishment for repeated escape attempts she was chained to a tree, according to other hostages.—
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