I wondered why the Colombians would ever allow Chavez to send in the white Venezuelan helicopter to bring some prisoners held by the FARC to Venezuela. It looked like a big propaganda boost for Chavez at the time, as it certainly was. Apparently the Colombians had something bigger in mind: using Chavez's media stunt as a precedent to camouflage a daring mission of their own.
How else to rescue 15 hostages without anyone getting hurt?
This week the Colombian army sent in its own white helicopters, unmarked Russian Mi-17s supposedly under FARC control, on the gutsy freedom mission. The captives - the most important of an estimated 700 in terrorist hands - included former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, 11 Colombian policemen and three American private military contractors.
News coverage justifiably focuses on the amazing nature of the mission, which took months for the Colombians to prepare. Rescuing the three Americans, who were Defense Department contractors assisting a US-Colombian counternarcotics program, was a top priority of Admiral James Stavridis, head of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Initial news reports say that Colombian agents infiltrated the FARC at its highest levels, penetrated the FARC security detail in charge of the hostages, and mounted a complex deception operation to move the hostages on a 93 mile trek through the sweltering mountains to a point where the Colombian army could extract them.
Undercover Colombian agents wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and posing as FARC terrorists arrived at the extraction point in a unmarked white helicopters, allegedly to move the hostages to visit an unspecified international delegation. Once the 15 hostages were safely aboard and taken from the area, the agents identified themselves as Colombian military and announced that the captives were free.
It was a fantastically successful operation. And there's more mileage to be squeezed from it. Right now, the FARC is discredited, broken and factionalized. Its longtime leader is dead, the Colombians killed other senior commanders, FARC sponsor Chavez has rhetorically become very harsh against the organization, and the rescue has humiliated the group further. Even better, the Colombian military revealed it had infiltrated the FARC's seven-person central secretariat as well as the most sensitive parts of the group's security apparatus.
This means that FARC commanders can no longer trust one another. They must now become especially suspicious of one another: Who among them is a spy for the Colombian or American governments? Who has already betrayed who to whom? Who will sell out next?
Isolated extremist groups like the FARC tend to breed paranoia in their ranks, and this paranoia will only heighten as uncertainties swell about where the organization is headed now that its leadership is dead, compromised or factionalized. About 300 FARC members are defecting monthly, the group has lost its hero status and is widely viewed in Colombia as a mafia, and President Alvaro Uribe, who led the no-compromise fight, is the considered the most popular president in Colombia's history.
This is great news! Over the next few months, Colombia and its friends should play on FARC's divisions, humiliation and fears to goad FARC commanders to turn against one another, do one another in and sell one another out. Helping the FARC self-destruct is a big part of the game.
We can thank Hugo Chavez for the white helicopter idea. And also for the use of video camera crews to provide propaganda support for his "rescues" earlier this year. According to Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian planners deliberately mimicked the precedent he set, and they fooled the FARC completely. Gracias, Hugo!
(Time magazine has a rather good analysis, if late in the game.)
Photo: Venezuelans protest the FARC at a Caracas rally, February 2008. The placards read, "No more FARC."