The big play up in the US press, not a single shot was fired, not one hostage got hurt, and Swiss radio reporting US$20 million having changed hands - all these tell China Hand that the "rescue" of Ingrid Betancourt looked rather dodgy.

Jessica Lynch


Jessica Lynch served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion by U.S. and allied forces. On 23 March 2003 she was injured and captured by Iraqi forces, but was recovered on 1 April by U.S. special operations forces, with the incident subsequently receiving considerable news coverage.
Lynch, along with major media outlets, have since accused the United States Government of fabricating this story as part of the Pentagon's propaganda effort to manipulate the American and global public opinion into accepting and sympathizing with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. - Wikipedia

[I am also grateful to a reader who pointed out that Betancourt and the other hostages appear to be in good physical condition after their ordeal, in contrast to the photograph documenting Betancourt's ill health while in captivity. Advance preparation by FARC to deliver healthy hostages would also be consistent with a planned, negotiated release - CH]

Hot on the heels of allegations [see sidebar on the right] on Swiss radio that Ingrid Betancourt was freed through payment of a US$20 million ransom instead of clever Colombian special forces derring do and US backup, we get a couple more data points:

In Counterpunch, Clifton Ross reports that the South American media has an interesting twist on the ransom story:

The story entitled "There was no such rescue but a media 'show'" that appeared in today's Diario Vea was drawn from the work of Bolivarian Press Agency writer Narciso Isa Conde and the Popular News Agency of Venezuela. According to the article the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) had agreed to turn over Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages to Swiss and French negotiators who agreed to arrange to pick up the hostages from various locations in two helicopters.

The Colombian military got wind of the upcoming release and took control of the helicopters. The collusion of the U.S. in the media spin, while yet to be proven, is quite likely, especially since McCain just "happened" to be in the neighborhood and would be able to take the spotlight in a crassly opportunistic attempt to boost his pathetic presidential campaign.[emph. added]

Apparently, Diario Vea is a pro-Hugo Chavez paper in Venezuela.

One might say "consider the source" and say these allegations are sour grapes from pro-Chavez forces resentful that their guy was sidelined and the Colombian government scored a big win.

But put that together with a report by Patrick McDonnell and Chris Kaul in today's LA Times on the Colombian government's attempts to knock down the ransom story as "absolutely false" by pinning responsibility for the leak to Swiss radio on one John Pierre Gontard, who it alleges is tainted by data on a notorious captured FARC laptop as a FARC bagman.

A few problems.

First, Gontard denies the allegation.

Second, Gontard is not some FARC fellow traveler. He's one of the key Colombian peace negotiators for the European governments, so acknowledged by the Colombian government.

Third, Gontard might have been the guy who negotiated the Betancourt release in the first place.

From the LA Times:

Gontard has been coming to Colombia for years as the Swiss representative of a three-nation team, including Spain and France, that has acted as facilitator for possible talks between the FARC and the government...

On June 30, the government announced that Gontard and French diplomat Noel Saez had arrived in Colombia to resume those efforts. Two days later, onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers were rescued after more than five years in rebel captivity.


So, on June 30 Gontard is a welcome emissary of the European governments.

On July 7, he's some creepy FARC hack.

That story line doesn't make a lot of sense.

Unless, as I infer from Ross's report, the Colombians hijacked Gontard's ransom-and-release operation.

The emerging outline of this story is one of FARC being willing to deal with the Colombian government, but the Colombian (and US) governments being averse to any explicit compromises that would give credibility to Hugo Chavez, European do-gooders, ransom payments, and negotiations in general and detract from the zero-sum "War on Terror" narrative.

Which makes you think that all the vaunted surveillance operations that the US (and apparently Israel, according to Haaretz) are claiming credit for were not directed against FARC (which, if news reports are to be believed, realize their communications are compromised and now pass messages mainly through human couriers); they were targeting the hostage negotiators in order to figure out their plans.

As reported by Ross, then the Colombian military could have zipped up to the airfield at the critical moment, commandeered the rescue helicopters, and grabbed the hostages and the glory.

Now, to cover their tracks, the Colombian and US governments attempt to swamp the true story of the release with a coordinated international media blitz.

And, when somebody, plausibly some disgruntled European negotiator who knows the real story, does leak the story to Swiss radio, the Colombians react by sliming Gontard - who was possibly on the FARC computer because he was delivering a downpayment on the ransom - to discredit the European negotiating team and squelch the whole ransom story.

That's a pretty persuasive hypothetical.

The emerging outline of this story is one of FARC being willing to deal with the Colombian government, but the Colombian (and US) governments being averse to any explicit compromises that would give credibility to Hugo Chavez, European do-gooders, ransom payments, and negotiations in general and detract from the zero-sum "War on Terror" narrative.

Certainly, if the Betancourt rescue was actually a world-class double-cross by the Colombian government, FARC (and, by the way, the European governments represented by Gontard) now realizes that any good faith negotiations involving Uribe's government is impossible.

If FARC is truly flat on its behind, this approach might work.

Then again, even if FARC still has some fight left in it and prospects for a peace-negotiated or imposed - evaporate, I expect the downside for Uribe is still limited.

After all, if the Uribe government doesn't bring peace to Colombia, it can console itself with the billions of dollars of US aid that an uncompromising and open-ended COIN operation demands.

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July 8, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt: This Year's Jessica Lynch?

By China Hand

South American affairs is obviously not China Hand's bailiwick, but I had the funny feeling that the the "rescue" of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages from the hands of FARC by the Colombian government looked, walked, and quacked more like a negotiated release than a genuine piece of special ops derring do.

It looks like I might have been right.

Swiss radio is reporting that it cost US$20 million to spring the hostages.

For those of you interested in how unworthy suspicions flower in the mind of an incorrigibly cynical blogger, I will regale patient readers with a rundown of the official story's fishier elements.

First, the Betancourt story got huge - suspiciously huge - play in US papers. In my hometime paper, the LA Times, it was the big A1 right-column, banner headline lead.

Well, Ingrid Betancourt, like Jerry Lewis, might be huge in France - she holds dual Colombian-French citizenship - but, quite frankly, before July 2 I had never heard of her.

Obviously, the US press was primed to push this story.

That's not by itself indicator of something fishy going on.

The US government has a strong interest in boosting the kinda-fascisty guys who run Colombia while running down kinda-commie Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

It also has a strong interest in discrediting and sidelining Chavez as a regional leader who can serve as a go-between and extract hostages and concessions from FARC.

So the story that the Colombians - with indispensable US support - sprung the hostages would have received some play in any case.

However, the orgasmic and uncritical US press coverage of the action, combined with the gratuitous jibes at Chavez (including energetically interpreting some neutral-sounding statements from Betancourt as veiled Chavez criticism), appeared so promptly, ubiquitously, and hyperbolically it appeared to me we were witnessing the previously-planned orchestration of a media event rather than the reaction to a slick rescue.

Another indicator was that getting Betancourt released was a big thing for President Sarkozy of France. The French pay for hostages. Full stop.

So there was a strong incentive to get Betancourt out by any means possible - including a ransom - to steal Chavez's thunder and save Sarkozy's political bacon.

Of course, the rescue story was something that, in the context of special ops rescues, sounded ridiculous, involving some scheme where FARC unwittingly gathered the dispersed hostages and loaded them on a helicopter that fortuitously turned out to belong to the Colombian government.

However, the story sounded completely plausible if somebody had made a deal with FARC and said, hey, we're sending a helicopter for the hostages. Load 'em up!

When Betancourt got out, she refrained from direct criticism of FARC, calling for a peace process instead of some no-holds barred war on the SOBs who imprisoned her for six years - another indication that a deal was involved.

For inquisitive reporters, I would consider another red flag the fact that nobody got killed. Indeed, not a shot was fired.

One would think that the Colombians would have taken advantage of an extraordinary intelligence and infiltration coup not just to helicopter out some hostages but also helicopter in some commandos and put a nice corpse-filled punctuation point on a signal victory in the war on terror.

So, a big media push would be needed not only be needed to capitalize on a deal that was in the works; it would obscure the suspicion that a deal was involved and also dissuade the press from taking a hard second look at the official story it had already splashed all over its front pages.

The press - apparently having forgotten the manufactured bruhaha over Jessica Lynch's rescue and eager to confirm the suspicion that it is more interested in any narrative that the government is willing to provide legs for than messy, fact-y, and critical reportage - happily obliged.

Add to that the allegations of a ransom appearing in the European media, and that's something that looks like it's worth pursuing.

Here's how the Guardian reported the Betancourt ransom story.

Ingrid Betancourt arrived in France today after being held captive for six years in the Colombian jungle, amid claims that a ransom was paid to free her.

The Colombian government said that she was freed in an audacious operation after the military tricked Farc into handing the French-Colombian politician over without a shot being fired.

But quoting "reliable sources", Swiss Radio reported that a ransom was paid of around $20m (£10m). It said that the US, which had three citizens among those freed, was behind the deal and that "the whole operation afterwards was a set-up".

The station reported that the wife of one of the hostages' guards was the go-between, having been arrested by the Colombian army.

If proved true, the allegations would be hugely embarrassing for the Colombian government which was showered with praise for the efficiency of the operation. Many commentators had predicted that it would even spell the end of Farc as a credible force.

However, I wonder how much play, serious investigation, or popular attention the Betancourt story will merit, now that its propaganda value as a one-day headline sensation has been realized.