Perils face US rescue in Colombia

The US brings high technology to the ongoing search for three Americans, but local intelligence is key.

Monsignor Jorge Jiménez was terrified when armed guerrillas forced him out of his car and began a long march that wouldn't end for five days.

Prior to three weeks ago, when three Americans were abducted after their plane went down in the Colombian jungle, Father Jiménez, president of the Latin American Episcopal Bishops Conference, and Father Desiderio Orjuelo were the last high-profile kidnapping victims of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

They were abducted on Nov. 11, 2002, while driving to San Antonio de Aguilera, about an hour outside of the capital, to perform confirmations. Jiménez said the guerrillas made them hike through the jungle night after night, sometimes as many as six or seven hours. They slept on the floor in cambuches, or make-shift huts.

But Jiménez and Fr. Orjuelo's story had a happy outcome. Five days after their kidnapping, they were rescued in a military dragnet involving 800 members of the police, Army, rapid-deployment forces, counter-guerrilla battalions, and intelligence agents. They found the priests just 15 miles from the original abduction site, protected by only seven guerrillas.

"It was an instant," says Jiménez of the rescue, explaining he was too dazed to realize what was happening, "then we were in the hands of the Army."

Since Feb. 13, nearly four times as many troops involved in Jiménez's liberation have been engaged in a massive search-and-rescue effort for the three US Defense Department contractors downed near the town of Florencia in Caquetá, about 220 miles south of Bogotá. FARC says they are now holding the Americans. The US has sent 49 Special Forces to provide intelligence and technical assistance in the 3,000-troop manhunt.

Harder this time around

But all signs point to a significantly more difficult rescue effort than the one involving Jiménez. First, the Cessna single-engine 208 crashed in dense jungle territory that is home to the FARC; it is just outside the former demilitarized zone that was the site of failed peace talks between the leftist guerrilla group and former President Andres Pastrana. Full of endless mountain redoubts, the terrain is ideal for an extended game of hide-and-seek.

"I don't think a rescue effort is possible in the short term," Leon Valencia, a former commander of the leftist National Liberation Army who is now a political analyst, says bluntly.

One reason may be lack of cooperation by local villagers. According to Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos of the 5th Brigade, which led the rescue efforts in Jiménez's case, the collaboration of a sympathetic population just outside of Bogotá was crucial in the Jiménez operation. The farmers in Caquetá aren't likely to be as supportive of three "gringo" intelligence operatives.

"It is fundamental to highlight the support we had from the people," Castellanos told Semana magazine at the time. "They all rejected the kidnapping and pulled together their efforts in order to achieve their liberation, principally through information."

The information led to the capture of key suspects, including the chief of communications for the 22nd front of the FARC. This allowed the Army to tap into its internal communications and ultimately locate the suspects.

Simultaneously, the media reported plans to rescue the priests over the radio, prompting the guerrillas to move their charges 10 hours in a torrential rainstorm. What they didn't know was that the Army was following them.

President Alvaro Uribe Vélez gave the order for the rescue operation to begin at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning. By 10:30 a.m., the giant rescue force had the tiny village of La Chapa totally surrounded. The rapid-deployment units were the first to arrive, catching the guerrillas and priests by surprise. In the ensuing shootout, one guerrilla was killed. By 11:30 a.m., President Uribe was told the good news: the operation had been a success.

But the rescue of the priests is the exception to the rule in the kidnapping capital of the world. In 2001, there were 3,041 kidnap victims in Colombia, only 23 percent of whom were rescued.

The FARC has announced that it wants to trade the Americans, along with about 40 Colombian police and soldiers and 20 high-profile Colombian politicians, for guerrilla prisoners in Colombian jails. But the US has said it will not negotiate and both governments have vowed the rescue efforts will continue.

Though American troops do not intend to engage the FARC directly, their high-tech equipment and intelligence capabilities could be helpful in the difficult search, say military analysts.

"The one advantage [the Americans] have is in the air," Mr. Valencia observes, pointing to the numerous Blackhawk and Huey II helicopters that have been donated as part of "Plan Colombia," a 1998 measure that increased the US role in fighting drug-traffickers.

But he points out that there are many "stumbling blocks" to an air rescue, including complicated jungle terrain with low visibility and even the possibility of another crash.

Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the US Southern Command, which oversees operations in Colombia, says the American troops are providing helicopters, radar, cameras, night-vision gear, and radio-direction finders.

"They're people that are specialized in finding and recovering," says Mr. Lucas. "They have the technology to do that in any conditions."

Locals afraid of defying FARC

As in any successful military campaign, human intelligence may be the key to finding the kidnapped Americans. But Valencia noted that in Caquetá, there is no love lost between the residents and the military.

"It is a very secure place" for the FARC, Valencia says. He adds the farmers there grow coca, the principal ingredient in cocaine, which the FARC taxes and then markets overseas, creating a common economic interest between the two groups. Furthermore, the historic FARC presence has made the population afraid of defying the powerful militia.

Though US embassy officials will not comment on the progress of the operation, there has only been one public arrest. FARC member Fidel Casallas Bastos was charged with kidnapping and homicide after he was admitted to a local hospital with suspicious wounds to his hands and legs. It turns out he was planting land mines to protect the escape of his FARC colleagues after the kidnapping.

Two of the other plane's passengers, Thomas John Janis and Colombian Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, were assassinated by the FARC after the plane crash. All five were on an intelligence mission for California Microwave Systems, a division of US defense giant Northrop Grumman. It is unclear whether they were simply surveying coca crops or also guerrilla movements in the area.

While American and Colombian officials insist that the plane crashed as a result of engine failure, the FARC claims it was shot down. There were at least six bullet holes in the airplane, according to the attorney general's office.

"That is part of the investigation," says Alvaro Ayala, a spokesman for the attorney general.

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