Uribe's hostage triumph
Jul 3rd 2008 | BOGOTÁ
From The Economist print edition
The freeing of Ingrid Betancourt (left) and other guerrilla hostages is a political apotheosis for President Álvaro Uribe (right). It might even secure him a third term
IT WAS an ending happier than any Hollywood director would dare to dream up. After years of captivity at the hands of left-wing FARC guerrillas, Ingrid Betancourt, three American defence contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers were rescued on July 2nd by the army without a shot being fired. It was a “miracle”, said Ms Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who holds French and Colombian nationality and who had been held for more than six years, for much of that time in chains and in poor health. It was a triumph for Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, who at some political cost had resisted pressure to negotiate the release of Ms Betancourt. And it was a disaster for the FARC and its sympathisers in Latin America who hoped to use the hostage issue to weaken Mr Uribe.
The rescue operation involved years of planning. It was testament to the army’s new sophistication in intelligence and infiltration. It built on its recent successes in disrupting the FARC’s communications and isolating its leaders from each other. An attempt to rescue other guerrilla hostages in 2003 had ended in disaster, when ten were killed by their captors.
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This time the army relied on trickery rather than surprise or force. A former hostage who escaped last year supplied details of the jungle camps where the hostages were being held in the remote south-eastern departments of Guaviare and Vaupés. Army intelligence agents, posing as senior FARC members, communicated with the guerrilla commander guarding the hostages. They gave him a false order purporting to be from the FARC’s new leader, Alfonso Cano, that the hostages were to be taken to a helicopter sent by a humanitarian organisation—mimicking the arrangements when six other captives were released earlier this year after mediation by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez.
Once on board the helicopter, the two guerrilla escorts were overpowered and the army agents, some dressed in Che Guevara T-shirts, broke the news to the hostages that they were flying to an army base and freedom. “We couldn’t believe it. The helicopter nearly fell because we jumped for joy,” said Ms Betancourt.
The operation is the latest of several devastating blows suffered this year by the FARC, which mixes an antiquated Marxism-Leninism with drug-trafficking and racketeering. In March, the army bombed a guerrilla camp just over the border in Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, a member of the group’s seven-man secretariat. The incident outraged Ecuador’s president, but yielded a huge haul of documents from Mr Reyes’s computers. Days later another member of the secretariat was killed by his own bodyguard. Then Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s founder and undisputed leader, died, supposedly of a heart attack.
The FARC still hold several hundred hostages, including a score of army and police officers and two politicians. But they have lost their chief prizes. Ms Betancourt was a minor politician in Colombia when she was seized while campaigning for the presidency in 2002. But she has become a national cause célèbre in France, where she studied; she married a Frenchman and her two children live there. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, had made her release a personal priority, and pressed Mr Uribe to negotiate with the guerrillas.
The three Americans, who were working on contract to the United States government, were captured when their anti-drug surveillance plane crashed in guerrilla territory in 2003. The United States supplies Colombia with military aid and training. It has given particular help in intercepting FARC communications. Juan Manuel Santos, the defence minister, said that he had co-ordinated the rescue plan with American officials.
The FARC claimed to want to swap its trophy hostages (who at one point numbered around 60, including Colombian politicians and military officers) for jailed guerrillas. But e-mails from Mr Reyes’s computer, seen by The Economist, show that their real aim was to use them to embarrass Mr Uribe politically and to gain international recognition.
They wanted the president to “demilitarise” a swathe of territory to allow talks. Mr Uribe was resolutely against that: during past peace talks the FARC used a similar enclave for recruiting and training while continuing to kill and kidnap. The guerrillas also want the European Union to drop them from a list of terrorist organisations—an aim that Mr Chávez supported, calling for their recognition as a “belligerent force”.
Mr Uribe faced much pressure to bow to the FARC’s demands, both from the hostages’ families and, less understandably, from France. (At Mr Sarkozy’s request he freed a jailed guerrilla leader who has returned to action.) Ms Betancourt’s mother was particularly bitter in her criticism of the president during her tireless campaign for her daughter’s release. But Ingrid Betancourt was full of praise for Mr Uribe and for the “impeccable” army operation. She said the biggest blow suffered by the FARC had been when the president succeeded in changing the constitution to allow him to run for—and win by a landslide—a second term in 2006.
That statement must have been particularly sweet for Mr Uribe. For the hostage release came in a week in which he was being widely criticised at home for appearing to blow up a conflict with Colombia’s judiciary in order to engineer the possibility of a third term. Enraged by a Supreme Court ruling on June 26th that seemed to question the legality of his election victory in 2006, he has proposed a referendum on rerunning the vote.
The court’s verdict involved Yidis Medina, a former congresswoman who cast the deciding vote when a congressional committee approved the constitutional change that allowed Mr Uribe to run in 2006. Ms Medina, a disreputable character who is also being investigated for alleged links to the ELN, another guerrilla group, had given a videotaped interview in 2004 in which she said that three of her followers were given government jobs in exchange for her vote on the re-election amendment. She authorised the tape to be made public after other promises were not kept, she said.
The court sentenced Ms Medina to 47 months of house arrest, and ordered investigations into two ministers she claimed had been involved in arranging the jobs. It went on to ask the Constitutional Court to consider the legality of the amendment and thus of the 2006 election in which Mr Uribe won by a landslide.
In a late-night television address, the president blasted the Supreme Court for “abuse of power” and for “applying justice selectively”. It is not the first time that Mr Uribe has clashed with the courts. Under Colombia’s constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to investigate wrongdoing by members of Congress. It has done so with energy: most of the more than 70 legislators it is investigating for past links with right-wing paramilitary groups are members of parties that backed the president; they include his cousin, Mario Uribe. The justices insist that they are merely applying the law. The president has repeatedly questioned their impartiality.
Legal experts doubt the constitutionality of a referendum to call for a rerun of an election. Many political commentators say it is unnecessary, since the Supreme Court did not directly question the legitimacy of the election itself. Nevertheless, the government announced that it would present a referendum bill when Congress begins a new session on July 20th. The referendum could not be held until late 2009. So a rerun of the 2006 election might be held just before the next scheduled presidential election in May 2010.
That timing makes Mr Uribe’s opponents suspicious. For months he has refused to rule out seeking another constitutional change that would allow him to stand for a third term. His supporters are collecting signatures for a separate referendum on this issue. The triumphant release of the hostages, coming on top of his other successes, means that if he indeed wants a third term, Mr Uribe may well be able to get it. But others have political ambitions too. One is Mr Santos, who as defence minister has overseen those successes. Another is Ms Betancourt, who in freedom was quick to say she still aspires to the presidency. It would be even stranger than the movies if the three main protagonists in this week’s happy ending were to meet again in a sequel at the ballot box in two years’ time.