Writing an End to Colombian Terrorism

Article excerpt

Byline: John R. Thomson and Dorotea Laserna, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …