Bogota hostage-taking tied to capture of guerrilla leader

The spark that triggered the guerrilla takeover of the Dominican Republic's Embassy in Bogota last week was the Colombian Army's capture of M-19 guerrilla commander Jaime Bateman on Feb. 22.

This is the conclusion of highly placed Colombian intelligence sources, who say that immediately after the Bateman arrest in downtown Bogota, guerrilla strategists held a meeting to determine what could be done to at least avenge the capture and perhaps obtain Mr. Bateman's release.

The scenario of activity by the Movimiento de 19 Abril (Movement of April 19 or M-19) can be pieced together as follows, according to Columbian officials:

M-19 strategists -- many of whom have family connections with the government, the local business community, and foreign diplomats -- quickly mapped their plan after Mr. Bateman was taken. They would seize the Dominican Embassy during Dominican independence day celebrations Feb. 27.

Although they had to work out details, they had long discussed a plan to seize an embassy when a number of foreign officials were present. Indeed, it is now known that M-19 had discussed such an strike as early as 1978. Mr. Bateman's capture provided the opportunity.

A key figure at the strategy session was probably Dr. Toledo Plata, a rural surgeon and former deputy in the Colombian Congress, who, along with Mr. Bateman , is a leading member of the M-19.

When the ambassadors had assembled, some 30 M-19 operatives, dressed in jogging clothes, ran down the dead-end street on which the embassy is located, opened their sports satchels, and pulled out a variety of weapons. With guns in hand, they stormed past guards at the gate of the embassy compound.

It is likely that the weapons used by M-19 were part of a cache of 4,200 weapons, mainly rifles and submachine guns, that were stolen by guerrillas last year from the Army's arsenal in Canton Norte de Usaquen, an outlying district of Bogota. Although some of the arms were recovered, at least a third of them remained in guerrilla hands.

The M-19 is an extremely well-organized and well-disciplined group. Its membership stands somewhere between 500 and 1,000 persons, and many of its members are sons and daughters of Colombia's elite. although M-19 is sometimes described as a leftist-Marxist guerrilla group, this is somewhat of an error, since the M-19 is less Marxist than similar organizations in other countries.

The Tupamaros, a tough and determined lot in Uruguay in the late 1960s and early 1970s, clearly espoused Marxist ideology. In comparison, the M-19 seems vague in its ideological approach.

M-19 manifestos call for a change in Colombia's ruling structure, for doing away with an economic order that perpetuates a small elite ruling over Colombia's 25 million people.

The group would replace the elite -- represented by the nation's Liberal and Conservative parties -- with a "truly democratic structure." But it says nothing about Marxism. It advocates Colombia remaining a part of Western society.

Colombian sources say that M-19 does not have links with Marxist governments represented diplomatically in Colombia. If this is true, it will somewhat deflate the idea that Soviet and East European embassies caught wind of the embassy takeover before it took place and had their ambassadors arrive and leave before the takeover.

These same sources say that it has been the practice of the Marxist-Socialist bloc ambassadors to come and go early.

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