Months of careful intelligence work led to the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by Colombian guerrillas. The Colombian government's triumph is a blow to FARC rebels, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and France's Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was almost as if those six years of captivity had left her untouched. The torture, the stress, the illness and depression, the loss of the will to live that she had described in her last letter to her family. All that seemed to have evaporated. It was as if the nightmare had turned into a Hollywood happy ending.
The Isabel Betancourt who emerged on the gangway of the aircraft that flew her to the Catam military base in Bogota was full of life, cheerful, confident and obviously in good health. She carried a heavy rucksack on her back, her eyes shone almost impishly beneath a huge camouflage sunhat. Wearing a Colombian army uniform, Betancourt's voice was steady as she thanked her liberators in Spanish and French.
The book she wrote eight years ago, "Until Death Do Us Part," which had described her crusade against the political elite in her Colombian homeland, now seemed a distant memory. Back then she had been derided as the black sheep of her prominent family and another rebellious middle class kid, but now she has now grown into the role of the great reconciler.
She embraced her mother Yolanda Pulecio, who had fought tirelessly for her daughter's release. Then she thanked her one-time political foe, President Alvaro Uribe, the man who had been accused of being hard-hearted and ruthless and who was now celebrating his great success.
Betancourt's mother hates Uribe, who she blames for the hostage crisis. She had repeatedly chosen to instead praise Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba. The latter had presented herself as a mediator but then information on the laptop of the assassinated FARC commander Raul Reyes seemed to show that she was in fact a FARC accomplice: Cordoba is said to have asked the rebels to release Betancourt last, as she was the most important bargaining chip they had.
On Wednesday Betancourt made sure to thank Chavez and his Ecuadorian counterpart Rafael Correa for their efforts but she also pointed out that the Colombians had elected Uribe and that their democracy should be respected. She said her release was a "sign of peace."
She could turn out to be right. FARC, the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, looks as though the end is nigh. And "Operation Checkmate," the name given to the dramatic rescue of the 15 hostages, shows just how far FARC has fallen.
Officially, Colombian government officials have always assured journalists that it was impossible to trace the movements of guerrillas beneath the forest canopy using intelligence satellites. That, though, appears not to have been the whole story. Since the beginning of this year, the Colombian military was -- using ultra-modern American spy technology -- able to pinpoint the location of the hostages and their guards. Still, an operation to free the prisoners had long seemed too risky.
The result was Plan B. Colombian military intelligence agents were able to infiltrate the highest levels of FARC -- the group of leaders known as the "secretariat." At the beginning of March, one of those spies provided the decisive tip as to the location of Raul Reyes, number two in the FARC leadership. While the resulting military strike on his headquarters across the border in Ecuador set off a mini-crisis in the region, it also led to a treasure falling into Colombian hands: Reyes' laptop complete with his correspondence, secret strategies, maps and FARC's international contacts.
American and Colombian specialists, said Colombian military commander Freddy Padilla on Wednesday, were able to use the saved e-mails and other information on the computer's hard drive to reconstruct the entire leadership structure of the guerrilla organization as well as its channels of communication. A number of FARC leaders either turned themselves in or were shot in the ensuing weeks.
Even worse for the guerrillas, Manuel Marulanda, the legendary leader of FARC, died at the end of February. It is still not clear if he died a natural death or if he fell victim to a military operation. Either way, the collapse of Colombia's guerrilla organization seemed only a matter of time.
A side-effect of FARC's recent rough patch has been that, in recent weeks, rebel groups spread out across Colombia have had difficulties communicating with each other -- a situation that made it relatively easy for the Colombian military to falsify orders from the FARC secretariat. They ordered, for example, groups holding hostages separately to bring their prisoners together in order to present them to the new FARC head Alfonso Cano. A helicopter arrived to pick them up -- and it was only when the helicopter was once again in the air that the undercover Colombian military personnel on board revealed their true identities, overpowered the FARC guards and flew the hostages to safety.
The question now is how the guerrillas will react. FARC still has some 700 hostages in its possession. Even as thousands of rebels have deserted in recent months, security experts still estimate that the group has some 5,000 to 6,000 armed guerrillas. The government now wants to surround all those rebels holding hostages and lay siege until they release their prisoners.
Family members of the remaining hostages, though, are worried. Now that the well-known Betancourt and the three American contractors -- who were flown to a military hospital in Texas on Thursday -- are free, they are concerned that interest in the remaining prisoners will evaporate. But the collapse of the FARC seems to have developed its own momentum of late. Rewards for desertion could encourage even more rebels to turn over their hostages and turn themselves in. "We are not going to let the rest of the hostages rot in the jungle," said President Uribe on Wednesday.
The message Uribe is conveying is that any rebel who is willing to put down his weapons should be given a chance to rejoin Colombian society. The Colombians want peace, he says.
The man with the iron fist has succeeded in gaining the support of the Colombian people, and now he's experiencing the zenith of his triumph. The political scandal surrounding allegations that votes were bought for a constitutional amendment that allowed for his re-election will be forgotten -- at least for the time being.
And he has easily secured a place for himself in history. Now, it seems, would be the appropriate time for Uribe to step aside and clear the path for the next generation. But can he be a big enough person to resist the temptation of running again? Potential candidates to succeed him are already lining up in the wings, with Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos emerging as a leading contender. Ingrid Betancourt, the new wild card of Colombian politics, will also no doubt play an important role in the political and moral renewal of the political system.
By stepping aside, Uribe would be doing more than a service to his country's democratic culture -- he would also get another chance to disgrace his power-thirsty antagonist Hugo Chavez. Compared to the chaos of Venezuela, plagued as it is by crime and supply shortages, today's Colombia feels like a bastion of stability.
Sarkozy Caught by Surprise
Indeed, it is Chavez who has been the big loser as a result of the positive developments in his neighboring country. With the fall of FARC, he has lost an important ally. His dream of a cross-border Bolivian revolution has failed, and at home he is fighting for his political survival.
There's a second loser in this drama: Nicolas Sarkozy. The French appeared to have been just as surprised as Chavez to hear about Betancourt's release on Wednesday. Paris had only just managed to establish fresh contact with the new FARC leader Alfonso Cano. Sarkozy had hoped that the French could score a coup by negotiating Betancourt's release and flying her directly to Paris. Colombian government officials had spoken reproachingly about what they often deemed to be politically motivated attempts at intervention on the part of the French.
Betancourt will no doubt soon travel to her second home in France. But she won't be landing in Paris as a broken and needy ex-hostage. Instead she will arrive as a self-confident politician. And who knows? At some point she may even visit as the Colombian president.
William John Hagan