Colombia's Stunning Hostage Rescue

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Ingrid Betancourt, held for more than six years by the rebel FARC group, steps off a plane after being rescued

To be a hostage of Colombia's Marxist guerrillas is to be on the move. The rebels — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — sequester their captives deep inside the country's mountainous jungle terrain, and they regularly lead them on long, arduous marches from one mosquito-infested camp to another to keep the Colombian military from detecting their whereabouts. But on one of those treks today, the FARC finally exposed itself long enough for the army to score one of the most stunning hostage rescues in the history of a country where human abduction is virtually a national pastime.

Among the 15 people liberated was the most high-profile FARC hostage of all, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — a French-Colombian whose six-year-long captivity had become a cause célèbre in Europe — as well as three American defense contractors who had been held for more than five years, one of the longest U.S. hostage ordeals ever. Surrounded by his top military brass, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said, "They were rescued safe and sound."

No battle victory — no commando missile attack on a FARC camp, like the one that killed the FARC's No. 2 leader, Raul Reyes, last March — could have dealt Colombia's once powerful guerrillas a more devastating blow than the liberation operation that took place along the Apaporis River in southern Guaviare province, long a FARC stronghold. Under conservative President Alvaro Uribe, and with the help of the $5 billion U.S. aid crusade known as Plan Colombia, the once laughable Colombian military has severely hobbled the FARC, slashing its ranks from as many as 20,000 combatants a decade ago to about 10,000 today. Reyes' death, as well as that of the FARC's top leader and founder, Manuel Marulanda, also in March, seemed to have left the guerrillas and their 44-year-old insurgency adrift and on the point of defeat. But they still held potent cards: one was the hundreds of millions of dollars they make each year via drug trafficking; the other was their more than 700 army, police and civilian hostages. And no captives were as valuable — or as much a symbol of their continued leverage — as Betancourt and the three Americans: Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves. "The FARC will never be able to recover from this," says Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst and head of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá.

The rescue operation was dubbed Jaque — which means "check," as in checkmate, in Spanish — and was indicative of how deeply Colombia's military intelligence has been able to infiltrate the FARC's top hierarchy, the secretariat, in recent months. A government mole had been able to convince those bosses to transfer Betancourt and the 14 other hostages to the encampment of the FARC's new No. 1 leader, Alfonso Cano. Under the yoke of a FARC unit led by Comandante Cesar, the group made its way to a smaller camp belonging to a friendly NGO. "They tied our hands and feet," Betancourt later told Colombian radio, describing how the rebels had transported the hostages, who thought they were going to be part of a prisoner exchange. When the hostages saw other guerrillas waiting to receive them, their hearts sank. But those guerrillas turned out to be Colombian government commandos in disguise. The rebel commanders were subdued and the 15 hostages were then whisked to freedom on helicopters piloted by government intelligence agents. "We are with the army, you are free," the pilots told the hostages, Betancourt recalled. Declared a jubilant Defense Minister Santos: "This operation ... has no precedent" in Colombia.

The game has changed now that the major hostages are free. Says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington: "This removes the only real bargaining chip the FARC had left in its dealings with the government. It's going to be very hard now to talk of the FARC as a national guerrilla movement — it's going to fracture and fragment even more, and the important thing for the Uribe government to do now is offer them more incentives to incorporate themselves into civilian society."

As news spread of Betancourt's release in Paris Wednesday night, drivers honked their horns in celebration. Betancourt supporters are planning a major celebration on Thursday night in the square outside city hall on Paris' Right Bank. The huge poster of a vibrant young Betancourt that hung for years on the façade of city hall there was changed last November to a haunting image of a drawn woman with downcast eyes, taken from a proof-of-life video released at that time. In April, fears had mounted that Betancourt, 46, might be near death — supposedly from hepatitis B. French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, himself a physician, and an emergency medical team to Colombia to await her release. Betancourt's release was one of Sarkozy's campaign promises. But after waiting for days the plane returned to France, having failed in its mission. With Wednesday's rescue, Herve Marot, spokesman for the French support committee for Betancourt, warmly thanked Sarkozy and his government. "There is nothing but happiness here," he told a television station, adding that he was celebrating in Paris with Betancourt's relatives. (Her ex-husband Fabrice Delloye and their two children, Lorenzo, 20, and Melanie, 22, live in Paris. Said Lorenzo upon hearing the news: "We have won a struggle for freedom. Now I'll see my mother. It's one of the greatest moments of my life.")

The maneuver couldn't have been more humiliating for a guerrilla force that a decade ago looked as though it might actually defeat the Colombian government. The question now is whether it can survive the demoralization, considering that dozens of its commanders have been killed or have surrendered recently and some 300 rank-and-file members are deserting every month, according to the government. They've even lost the enthusiasm of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an unabashed FARC sympathizer who had brokered the release of a handful of other hostages this year. The Uribe government accuses Chávez of funding the FARC, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization. Last month Chávez urged the rebels to disband, calling their brand of guerrilla insurgency, a hemispheric staple of the 20th century, "out of place" in the 21st century.

The Bush Administration had come under increasing criticism this year for seeming to forget about Stansell, Howes and Gonsalves. But it can now openly claim, as U.S. officials had privately done, that it was simply allowing the Colombians to mount today's rescue. U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield confirmed Wednesday night that the U.S. had been involved in the planning and intelligence-gathering stages of the operation. One fortunate politician who can bask in this American policy victory is John McCain, who just happened to be visiting Colombia when the rescue was announced.

The big political winner, however, is Uribe, Washington's key ally in Latin America, whose campaign against the FARC has made him perhaps the most popular President in the nation's history. The FARC was once respected by many Colombians for fighting the nation's epic inequality, but today it is viewed by most as a mafia. Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, told TIME earlier this year that she feared Uribe's bellicose policy would mean interminable captivity for Betancourt, who looked emaciated and alarmingly despondent in her most recent photographs. "I'm killing myself every day," she said, "wondering why dialogue is so impossible for all sides in this tragedy." Now, however, all that matters is that she'll be hugging her daughter.

— With reporting by Sibylla Brodzinsky/Bogotá and Vivienne Walt/Paris