Betancourt Freed – Where Now for Colombia?

July 4, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Ingrid Betancourt, a, Colombian presidential candidate in 2002 for the Oxygen Green Party who was taken hostage by the FARC on the 23rd February that year, has finally been freed after six long years of captivity following the success of a risky operation launched by the Colombian military. Together with her, another 14 people have been rescued, aincluding three American military contractors and eleven Colombian policemen and soldiers.

Ingrid had become a worldwide symbol of the Colombian hostage crisis. Having been the most visible prisoner in the hands of the guerrillas, her detention became the target of several solidarity campaigns across the world. Her name is known even to people who have little familiarity with Colombia and its domestic issues, but who came to symphathise for a woman who vied to make her country a better place and was unjustly captured by the guerrillas.

Following her arrival in the Tolemaida air base near Bogotá, she has seemed relatively healthy, though considerably emaciated. Her first speech has been vivid and frank, showing no loss of vitality and tenacity. She has expressed her utmost gratitude to all those who contributed to her liberation, in particular the military, the president of Colombia, and the French government. However, she said her mind is still directed towards all those hostages that are still detained, and ‘to all those that will never come back’. Moreover, she pledged to fight for the liberation of those who are still imprisoned.

Her liberation has been welcomed by messages of happiness and congratulations from all over the globe. Sarkozy, who had made her liberation one of the top priorities of his foreign policy, has been among the first to talk to Ingrid on the phone, even though the Élysée seems to have been entirely in the dark with respect to the operation. Ingrid, who holds French citizenship thanks to her ex-husband, a French diplomat, is about to undertake a trip to Paris, where she is expected to meet the President.

The FARC always tried to exploit her detention to snatch some concessions from the Colombian government, such as as the military clearing of an area of the country (Florida and Pradera) in order to establish a humanitarian inter-exchange dialogue. She was part of those high calibre hostages that the insurgents call ‘exchangeable’, a small group, now reduced to a bit more than 30 persons, held to negotiate the release of imprisoned guerrilla fighters. However, the total number of hostages hovers around 700, with the great majority detained for ransom.

It would be silly not to admit that the democratic security policy and the stubborn insistence on military rescue has this time been able to deliver in terms of the hostages’ liberation. But the freeing of Ingrid and the other 14 hostages furnishes a particular insight into the successes of Uribe’s strong hand against the insurgent group. The liberation has not come about through a pure manu militari intervention, as the philosophy hitherto deployed by Uribe would have envisaged. Rather, it has happened through a sophisticated infiltration of the highest echelons of FARC’s organisation, which tells a great deal about vulnerability of the group.

News about the diminution of FARC’s membership (by around 50%) has already become public knowledge in the last year. Plagued by military extermination and demobilisation, as confirmed by the surrender of Katrina, one of the most fearsome female rebels, as well as the recent loss of three members of the Secretariat, the strength displayed by the group in the 1990s is now only a blurred memory.

The dynamic of the operation, named ‘Jaque’, clearly demonstrates the level of professionalism of the Colombian army and the vulnerability of the FARC. The version supplied by the Defence Minister Manuel Santos and the Armed Forces Commander Freddy Padilla, confirmed by Ingrid upon her arrival, has pointed at the setting up of an elaborate and thorough deception. The different groups holding the 15 hostages were gathered in a place near San Jose del Guaviare, after months of infiltration of the Secretariat and close vigilance on the movements of the commands that held the captives. These groups were driven there under the supposed order of FARC’s leader, Alfonso Cano, with the goal of moving the hostages to a safer place with an helicopter. In reality, the message was issued by infiltraters, who immobilised without a single shot the few insurgents on board little after the camouflaged helicopter departed for the supposed transfer.

Beyond any conjectural machination, the happy liberation of Ingrid Betancourt comes as pure oxygen to Mr. Uribe and his government. The deep waters that were making the project of a second re-election – a potential third mandate- a distant and difficult horizon, are now swept away by the advent of the news that had been awaited for years. Despite the huge popularity obtained thanks to his war on the FARC, a recent scandal had seriously undermined the credibility of the government.

The so-called Yidisgate has directly questioned the legitimacy of the current executive. Yidis Medina, a formed Congressman, has been condemned by the Supreme Court to almost 4 years of home arrests for the selling of her vote in a decisive parliamentary discussion in 2005 that eventually led the modification of the constitution, which permitted the re-election of the President. The vote was fundamental, but the favours promised by various officers of the government were not accomplished, leading Yidis to confess.

The political temperature rose last week as the Supreme Court has officially asked the Constitutional Court to revise the legitimacy of 2006 elections, as these were the fruit of a violation of the rule of law: “It is incompatible with the social and democratic rule of law that…an altered juridic act, with criminal connotations, has validity and executability.” Uribe’s answer has been prompt, asking for a referendum to confirm the elections that guaranteed him a second term, but his discomfort in the face of an unexpected crisis was evident.

The political future of Colombia seems again to be dictated by the successes of Uribe against the insurgents. However, the scenario is anything but predictable, and the landscape is in the making. Different factors make for different developments: will the FARC accept a negotiated solution or will they keep their arms providing Uribe a strong political weapon? Will the Yidisgate lead to a major fallout? Will Uribe manage to further modify the rules of the game and guarantee himself a second re-election? Will Ingrid Betancourt re-enter politics with the high profile conferred by her long captivity? And, if so, on which side? Her first words lend themselves to different interpretations. These are all elements which offer little certainty in the coming months.

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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini

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