For China Matters the Ingrid Betancourt story had everything: an official line that smelled fishy from Day One; a thrilling narrative chock-a-block with colorful personalities and amazing developments; conflicting stakeholders—and versions of events—coming out of Colombia, Venezuela, France, Switzerland, and the United States; credulous, stenographic reporting by the U.S. press; and a convoluted geopolitical context.
Best of all, nobody else cared a tinker’s damn about the tale.
The media could have worked American readers into a lather about the rescue of Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes—three American contractors who had spent six long years in the Colombian jungle as prisoners of the leftist FARC insurgents (in contrast, how long did the U.S. embassy hostages provide the wind beneath Ted Koppel’s ratings wings in 1979-81? a mere 444 days).
Nevertheless, the Bush administration soft-pedaled the American aspect (and extensive American assistance) so that the operation could be presented as “the Betancourt rescue”: an unalloyed triumph for America’s steadfast ally in Latin America, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
So the story was mineminemine.
The only thing it didn’t have was a China angle.
I wrote about it anyway.
I’ve posted the piece, Betrayal and Liberation, on a dedicated website: Betancourt–The Inside Story.
Short version of a long story: the Colombian government probably arranged the release of Ingrid Betancourt, three American hostages, and several other captives with the assistance of two FARC traitors. The brilliant rescue on July 2, 2008 was a cover story.
The most interesting angle on the story: that the Colombian government deliberately sabotaged a release negotiated by the Europeans four months earlier, in order to package the freeing of the hostages as a victory for Colombia’s uncompromising anti-FARC strategy—instead of the fruits of a deal arranged between FARC, Colombian leftists, the Europeans, and Hugo Chavez with Colombia stewing resentfully on the sidelines.
The Colombians intercepted satellite phone calls between the top FARC negotiator, Raul Reyes, and the Europeans and used the intel to obliterate Reyes’ camp in Ecaudor in a provocative cross-border air raid that risked a regional war between Ecuador and Venezuela and Colombia—while scuppering the impending release of Betancourt and the other hostages.
Here’s an excerpt:
FARC had enjoyed the status of a quasi-legitimate belligerent from Venezuela and Ecuador. As long as FARC used the border regions near Colombia for rest and resupply and not as a base for armed operations, its presence was apparently tolerated by the two socialist regimes over the objections of the Colombian government.
The real reason why the Colombian government chose March 1, 2008 to plaster the camp, provoke an international incident with Ecuador, and raise the specter of a hot war with Venezuela (which undoubtedly feared a similar incursion against the Venezuelan camp of FARC commander Ivan Marquez and was primed to respond) is open to conjecture.
When the attack is placed in the context of the ongoing negotiations concerning the captive release—and Colombia’s own stated willingness to support them—the Colombian military incursion seems strikingly cavalier and ill-timed.
After all, the international negotiation track had recently borne fruit, with the high-profile release of Luis Eladio Perez and two other captives through Venezuelan intercession. Killing FARC’s chief hostage negotiator—and lurching toward war with Venezuela, FARC’s only trusted interlocutor—put a stop to it.
When Colombia announced that Reyes had been killed, the French government expressed its displeasure. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the press that “It’s bad news that the man we were talking to is dead.”
The rebel leader was France’s contact in the negotiations for the release of Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, which Sarkozy has made a top priority of his government.
Noel Saez confirmed that he and Gontard were in the jungle journeying to Reyes’ camp to engage in the peace negotiations that were taking place under Venezuelan and Ecuadorian mediation and apparently with the approval of the Colombian government.
Gontard and Saez were prepared to meet with Reyes in the next few hours when they received a phone call from the head of Colombia’s ironically named Peace Commission, Luis Carlos Restrepo, warning them to stay away from the camp:
Question:The day when Colombia bombed the camp of ‘Raul Reyes’, you and Jean-Pierre Gontard received calls from the Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo. He wanted to make sure you were not with Reyes before the bombing?
Saez: I am convinced of that. Uribe knew that if we had met and that Reyes died in the bombing there would be more problems than it was to throw over for violating Ecuador’s sovereignty.
As to how close the release was, Saez makes a remarkable claim:
How close was the release of the hostages when Reyes was killed?
It was a matter of days or a couple of weeks.
Hey, read the whole thing!