Operation Checkmate in which the Colombia armed forces tricked the FARC into releasing Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages on 2 July was immediately declared a great success. Bush congratulated his counterpart President Uribe, not least because three former US soldiers were amongst the released.
In a staged press conference that evening, Uribe asked the commander of the Colombian army “General, can you confirm to the world that our helicopters did not carry insignia?” General Mario Montoya replied “No insignia, señor President, no insignia of the Red Cross nor anything like it, nor of any humanitarian mission, absolutely not. It was a special mission”.
Colombian tv channels showed a heavily edited, apparently heroic video, and the international press swallowed the story – hook and line at least – see for example ‘Colombia Hostage Rescue’ in The Observer of 6 July 2008.
Uribe’s focus on the detail of the Red Cross emblem was already somewhat strange, the more pressing question was why did the FARC not shoot at the helicopters as they approached? The answer is that the helicopters were none of the US manufactured models normally used by the Colombia armed forces, they were two Russian designed Mi-17s, of identical type to the helicopters Venezuela had provided the International Red Cross in an earlier attempt that had been sabotaged by Uribe. The Colombian army painted their hired Mi-17s white with orange trimmings, very similar to the Red Cross colouring, with International Humanitarian Mission insignia, a group they invented with its own fake website.
The Colombian army had fraudulently simulated a humanitarian mission, knowing that the FARC guerrillas were willing to cooperate. Uribe had already pushed Chávez out of the negotiations, and killed FARC’s principal negotiator Raul Reyes in the raid into Ecuador on 1 March, interposing himself as the political beneficiary of their goodwill. A truly cunning plan, made possible by two additional factors: the US military presence that oversaw the entire exercise, and a compliant media.
Yet the sinker was about to come. On 12 July Minister of Defence Juan Manuel Santos insisted again that Red Cross emblems were not used. Then the CNN broadcast a second version of the video that shows an army rescuer wearing a Red Cross bib. Uribe had to admit the wrongful use of the Red Cross symbol, but argued this was an individual error; the captain concerned had contradicted orders. As the helicopter was about to land, president Uribe explained, in nervousness from seeing so many guerrillas the officer pulled the bib from his pocket and put it over his jacket. Uribe said that the captain had done this out of fear for his life, and that no action would be taken against him.
While insisting that his government had not authorised the act, Uribe assumed responsibility for the error and reported his army commanders had met with the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to ask forgiveness. The ICRC stated that they would not be taking legal action against Colombia, but they demanded that their symbol be respected since its misuse compromises their work.
What the bib was doing in the captain’s pocket was not explained. On 5 August Colombian TV channel RCN broadcast a third, still edited but fuller video of the operation, which plainly shows the captain wearing the Red Cross bib in a posed for posterity team photo immediately before the operation. After the rescue, the captain is seen waving the bib whilst being hugged by the very same General Mario Montoya who had borne witness to the world that there no Red Cross insignia.
(This report also shows soldiers disguised as journalists from Telesur and Ecuadorean TV channel Ecuavisa, indicative of the Colombian establishment’s contempt for its neighbours).
The ICRC now accuses the Colombian government of a deliberate misuse of its insignia, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Uribe has made a fresh apology but, to put it mildly, he and the army have a double agenda. The BBC World Service reports presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria defending the fraud, “deceit is a virtue”.
For those who argue that the end of the hostage release justifies the means, in all probability Betancourt and company could have been released months earlier were it not for Uribe’s intransigence. His latest manoeuvre has left it all the more unlikely that the remaining 30 political, and some 700 economic hostages in FARC’s hands will be released, not forgetting the 7,000 political prisoners held in similar or even worse conditions.
Uribe’s attention is elsewhere right now, he is mounting an internal investigation into who leaked those second and third videos. Enquiries have been complicated because officers involved in Operation Checkmate are just now returning from holiday leave in the US, where they were sent as a reward.