- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The last few months have been a heady time in Colombia. In February an estimated 10 million citizens demonstrated against the guerrilla organizations, principally the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN).

In March, three of the FARC’s seven directors, died - after two were murdered, the group’s founder had a fatal heart attack. Shortly after, two senior FARC comandantes voluntarily surrendered. In recent years, FARC’s ranks have plummeted from more than 25,000 to fewer than 8,000.

Then on July 2, the Colombian military rescued 15 high-profile hostages in a daring helicopter mission. Seven specially trained, unarmed troops, impersonating guerrillas and foreign mediators, outwitted 60 FARC guards without a shot fired.

The dramatic rescue has significantly weakened the support base of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his fellow leftist presidents in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, all former FARC supporters.

Less radical Latin American heads of state have congratulated Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, effectively negating anti-Uribe attacks promoted by Mr. Chavez at March and May sessions of the Sao Paulo Forum, which includes eight leftist presidents, plus FARC and ELN representatives.

After years of pressure, particularly from overseas, to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the FARC, although every previous negotiation had failed, Mr. Uribe pondered doing so. (Captured documents reveal the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy paid several hundred thousand dollars to release Colombian-French leftist former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The FARC took the funds and kept Mrs. Betancourt.) However, in July 2007, when the FARC slaughtered 10 prisoners, all elected officials, buried them in the jungle and gave the Red Cross their location, Alvaro Uribe was convinced to continue pursuing the terrorists.

In an exclusive interview, Freddy Padilla de Leon, commanding general of Colombia’s armed forces, discussed the mission code named Operation Check (for the penultimate chess move before achieving checkmate) that rescued the 15 kidnapped individuals, including three American civilian trainers, 11 Colombian soldiers plus Mrs. Betancourt.

Phase I focused on rescuing the 15 hostages and taking their two senior FARC captors. It included intercepting and confusing FARC communications and their leadership, plus comprehensive training (manual combat, guerrilla dress and acting lessons - mimicking FARC members and pacific non-Colombian personalities who had participated in former rescue missions, plus a Cuban “adviser”). All 60 FARC guerrilla guards were fooled. The rescue party was on the ground just 22 minutes.

Phase II provided proof of the Colombians’ humanitarian strategy. Although a battalion of 500 specially trained commandos surrounded the FARC encampment, no action was taken to kill or capture the remaining 58 terrorists. According to Gen. Padilla, “Our motivation was twofold: to mentally disarm and disorganize them with as little bloodshed as possible, and to send a message to all terrorists that they have an opportunity to lead decent and peaceful lives.”

Colombia’s armed forces have perhaps the highest esprit de corps of any military in the world and enjoy great respect from the Colombian people. Intention to vote for President Uribe if he runs for an unprecedented third term in 2010 has jumped from 69 to 79 percent. Still, leftist organizations, including many leaders of the leftist Polo Democratico and Liberal political parties, Supreme Court members and university dons disparage the military’s and Uribe administration efforts.

Former Interior Minister Fernando Londono says the effort to discredit Colombia’s armed forces has deep roots. He cites numerous examples in which highly rated army officers “have been falsely accused of reckless murderous activities against sindicalistas [union members] who in fact are terrorists. A union member has a degree of protection and, if killed or captured, the military can be accused of human rights’ violations. Unfortunately, some members of the U.S. Congress have been convinced our government and military disrespect human rights.”

The cover of leading Colombian weekly Semana shouted, “The End of the FARC will be long and bloody.” Not so, according to Freddy Padilla de Leon: “We are winning this war faster and more efficiently than any one would have predicted. It should not take much longer to pursue the terrorists to el fin del fin [colloquially, the end of the road]. We will continue to fight against guerrilla and paramilitary leadership at the same time offering their troops every opportunity to rejoin society. They must pay a price, but we will be humane. Most terrorists come from poor, rural areas, recruited between the ages of 12 and 15, and often taken against their parents’ will. It has been relatively easy to indoctrinate uneducated youngsters with revolutionary ideas and against Colombian society.”

Corruption throughout government remains a major challenge, much of it fueled by narco-trafficking wealth. In the notorious Colombian jail system, wealthy prisoners can pay to luxuriate in as many as 12 cells with catered food, television and periodic visits from women; while regular inmates live in cells designed for two but which actually house four to seven.

In February, when 14 paramilitary leaders were extradited to the United States from three Colombian jails, 30 to 40 of their computers simultaneously disappeared. The computers undoubtedly contain incriminating information on paramilitary involvement with members of Colombia’s Congress and national police officials. Jail officials are widely suspected to have seized and disposed of them.

Civil leaders are campaigning for separate facilities for more than 700 prisoners who have renounced their revolutionary ways and prefer to remain in jail rather than be exchanged for hostages, as they are regularly abused by hard-core terrorist inmates. A former FARC comandante says, “The guerrilla leaders tricked us; they are gangsters, not revolutionaries. If we could reach every guerrilla, 90 to 95 percent would lay down their arms, provided they can trust the word of the Colombian government.”

Vice President Francisco Santos and many other government officials, including Gen. Padilla are working to build that trust. Indeed, increasing numbers of Colombian citizens believe Freddy Padilla de Leon is the man to at last write al fin del fin to decades of terrorist turmoil.

John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst focusing on developing countries. Dorotea Laserna is a commentator on Latin American affairs. Both are based in Bogota, Colombia, and welcome comments at thomson.john.r@gmail.com.

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