13 July 2008

The Rescue of Ingrid Betancourt

It’s old news by now, but I’ve been meaning to post on the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt from the clutches of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist group that has been terrorizing Colombia for four decades or so.  She, along with fourteen other hostages, including three Americans, were spirited away by agents of the Colombian government in an operation that required not a shot to be fired. 

The rescue was a terrific blow to the terrorist organization, which had already been reeling lately.  FARC still holds as many as two thousands hostages, but Ms. Betancourt, who is a Colombian senator who ran for president in 2002, along with the Americans were the most prominent of them.

The plan required months of meticulous planning, and the reports read more like an adventure movie or novel than the typical dry daily news.  Colombian agents, wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and posing as members of an unnamed NGO, duped the FARC guerrillas into corralling the hostages into two helicopters.  The terrorists complied, thinking that the hostages were being transported under orders from high up in the FARC command.  Once the helicopters were in the air, the agents revealed to the hostages that they were now free.  The rush of emotions - the elation that the hostages must have felt after years of being bound, tortured, humiliated, and assailed by diminishing hopes - must have been surreal.

Shortly after, Ms. Betancourt was reunited with her two children, Mélanie and Lorenzo, whom she had not seen for six years.

photo from NYTimes - 

Ingrid Betancourt was kissed by her daughter, Mélanie, as her son, Lorenzo, looked on at the airport in Bogota, Colombia, on Wednesday.

It goes without saying that I am thrilled with the outcome, and I can only imagine the joy that Mélanie Delloye-Betancourt must feel to see and touch her mother again.  Nevertheless, I must call attention to a comment of Miss Delloye’s that I heard on NPR shortly after the rescue.  She said (through a translator), “we were afraid the military operations would be deadly, and we never wanted to put my mommy’s life in danger, or that of the other hostages that were with her.  But this was not a military operation; it was an intelligence operation.  It was done perfectly.”  [Emphasis mine.] 

With all respect to Miss Delloye, and with utter sympathy for her and the ordeal she has endured, I must disagree with this distinction between military and intelligence operations.  Insofar as intelligence contributed to this case - as it obviously did - it was intelligence of a military nature.  Miss Delloye’s statement seems to suggest that something other than military action - something non-violent - prevailed in this case.  That is simply not so.

It is important to call attention to this because I think many people would like to believe that there are non-violent ways to deal with ruthless killers.  Many would like to believe that terrorists may be dealt with through diplomacy or negotiation.  Of course, Mélanie Delloye certainly did not say that it was diplomacy that worked here, but by explicitly denying that military force was used, she left the hint in the air that a “peaceful” resolution was attained.  If it was not her intent to imply this, I cannot understand why she would have put it quite that way. (Note 2.) 

It’s quite true that no shots were fired in the operation, and that is fortunate because I believe the good guys (the Colombian agents) were completely unarmed.  But that does not mean the rescue was “peaceful” or non-violent.  One can hardly imagine a more perilous situation than that of the disguised Colombian agents or the ones that infiltrated FARC in the prior months in order to obtain the valuable intelligence needed for the operation.  With chillingly dry understatement, a Colombian official (unfortunately I did not catch his name in the NPR broadcast) concisely noted that if anything had gone wrong, “all of our assets would have been killed.”  The Colombian agents marched unarmed into an unforgivingly hostile den.  The risk was enormous, and obviously the peril faced by the agents was that of a soldier, not that of a diplomat.  

That the Colombian government chose trickery over raw firepower is a matter of strategy and calculation, not of choosing “peaceful” means over military means.  Extracting prisoners safely from the grip of armed thugs operating in their own territory seems to a layman like me to be an almost unsolvable puzzle, so I am always amazed when even partial success is achieved. (Note 3.)  What must be understood, however, is that if harm comes to the hostages from rescue attempts, the responsibility falls entirely on the terrorists, not the rescuers.  This may provide little solace to the friends and family of hostages that are killed, but it is nonetheless true.  Thus, even in botched rescue operations like the horrible Beslan school siege in 2004 or the Nord-Ost theatre siege of 2002, both of which were heavy-handed Russian attempts to rescue civilians from Chechen terrorists and which resulted in hundreds of dead hostages, I place the blame firmly on the terrorists.

I admit that I know very little about whether or not FARC has been met with strict resistance or appeasement during the last forty years - and further, I claim that I don’t need to know the details to know the answer.  The simple fact that FARC exists and makes a living on extracting ransom money (to supplement their drug-dealing income) indicates that appeasement has been the rule, not the exception.  As I indicated in Note 2, I hold blameless the friends and relatives of hostages that pay the ransom, but it is undeniable that such Danegelt has literally created a market for further hostage-taking.  In an interview, Mélanie Delloye mentioned that 80% of the world’s hostages are in Colombia!  If this is even close to an accurate figure, it is a testament to the fact that capitulating to terrorists is a formula for failure.


1.  Photo from NY Times, Bold Colombian Rescue Built on Rebel Groups Disarray(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/world/americas/04rescue.html), 4 Jul 2008. 

2.  This view would be consistent with a 2005 interview in which Mélanie Delloye definitely favored a “humanitarian agreement” to end the hostage crisis.  This involved a sort of diplomacy: discussions and “mediation” between the United Nations and FARC.  However, I must stress that I am not directing my criticism toward Miss Delloye herself; I would not expect a distraught nineteen year old girl to advocate sending in commandos with guns blazing to rescue her mother.  I am criticizing the idea that negotiation and appeasement with killers is effective.

3.  Even in successful rescues there are often at least some casualties.  Interestingly, the Betancourt rescue on 3 Jul 2008 marked the 32nd anniversary of the Entebbe Raid of 3 Jul 1976, in which the Israeli Defense Forces rescued some hundred or so hijacked travelers from a Ugandan airfield.  In this operation, the IDF performed brilliantly and rescued the hostages, though the leader of the assault Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed in action and three hostages were killed in the crossfire. 


I fixed some spelling errors.


C. August said...

Thanks for this post, Stephen. This is the type of analysis that I wish we could see in the Boston Globe or WSJ once in awhile. It is a fresh and insightful look at hidden and unquestioningly held assumptions around this type of issue that only serve to confuse the public. People are left to throw up their hands and say "Oh! That problem in South America! What a mess. I just know I'll never travel down there."

You know, this makes me think of one of my favorite movies. It seems strange to call it a favorite, but now that I think about it, it is. Man on Fire with Denzel Washington.

From memory, this is a movie about an ex-CIA (or other US military/other) agent who has fallen on hard times for whatever reason. He takes a job protecting the little girl of a Mexico City family, and despite his demons and addiction to alcohol, begins to love her as a daughter. Then she is kidnapped.

The rest of the movie is his relentless pursuit of the kidnappers and their destruction at his hands. I suppose it is just a revenge-flick, and I'll have to do some more thinking about it, but it seems like more than that.

It's about a man identifying a value and realizing that he has something to live for, something worth achieving. He is cold, brutal, unflinchingly rational in his pursuit and his attempt to rescue the little girl he loves. He faces government corruption and organized crime at every turn, and he prevails.

Writing this makes me want to watch it again. It is definitely violent, but the violence is not arbitrary, as far as I remember. Or perhaps, as the father of a little girl, I just think that the kidnappers deserve whatever hellish treatment they get, and I'm OK with that.

Anyway, the rescue of Bettancourt and your post reminded me of this movie. Washington portrays a one-man show that perhaps reflects the real-life efforts of Bettancourt's heroes.

Stephen Bourque said...

I've never seen that film, so I'll have to check it out some time. Thanks!

The movie that comes to mind for me is Proof of Life, which I liked very much. I don't recall if the film was explicitly set in Columbia - they may have made up a fictional leftist group operating in a unnamed South American country - but the terrorists were unambiguously based upon FARC. I think I remember squirming a little because of the violence, but Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan had good chemistry together and created a convincing love story.

Anonymous said...

i think YOU should know it is spelled Colombia,


Stephen Bourque said...

Thank you for the correction!

Laura Bradley said...

Nice Article. And I'd like to agree that it was an "intelligence" operation and very little military were involved. I might also add that the ability of Colombian military to spoof the transfer order was due to the work of the U.S. Army MI group that had broken high-level FARC codes. This allowed a "message" to be sent to the FARC commander that seemed to be authentic!