Colombia's military on Wednesday rescued 15 top-level hostages including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans in a risky bait-and-switch operation that involved infiltrating the top echelons of a Marxist rebel leadership.
These were the most highly-prized hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, a militia that's waged a brutal, decades-old insurgency against the Colombian government. The captives brazenly were taken from under the noses of FARC leaders, a beaming Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced.
"For the FARC this is a mortal blow. They will never be able to recover form this," says Alfredo Rangel, military analyst and director of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá. This happens at the worst moment for the FARC, he added, following the death of three members of its top secretariat this year, including legendary top leader Manuel Marulanda.
Following those setbacks, "the FARC is trying to regroup," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "[Colombian President Álvaro Uribe] felt that before [FARC was] able to regroup, this was the time to take a risk. I think it illustrates the disarray of the FARC but also the improved capacity of the Colombian government and their greater intelligence."
In describing the operation, Mr. Santos said Colombian intelligence had managed to infiltrate the FARC's ruling secretariat, and arrange for a transfer of the hostages to the top FARC leader, Alfonso Cano.
A government mole arranged for three groups of hostages to be united in one camp then taken to a helicopter that the FARC believed belonged to a friendly non-governmental organization that would take the hostages to Mr. Cano. Instead, it was a Colombian military helicopter piloted by intelligence officers, who whisked the 15 hostages to freedom.
For Mr. Uribe, the operation could not have come a better time. His government had been thrown into a tailspin by a corruption scandal that cast doubts on the legitimacy of his current term as president. "It's like a soothing balm for Uribe," says Mr. Rangel.
It's also a coup for Uribe because the conservative leader's leftist nemesis in neighboring Venezuela – Hugo Chávez - had been scoring big PR points by brokering the release of several FARC hostages in recent months.
"[The fact that Mr. Chávez was not involved] bolsters Uribe," says Shifter. "It offsets Chávez's argument that he's the only one who can succeed in releasing hostages. It dilutes Chávez's bravado. This is something the Colombian government did on its own."
The rescue also came as Republican presidential candidate John McCain was visiting Colombia.
Ms. Betancourt was the highest profile captive held by the FARC. The French-Colombian dual-citizen became an international symbol of the suffering of the hostages since she was kidnapped in 2002.
American hostages Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, captured in February 2003 were freed along with Betancourt, who was held since February 2002. Eleven Colombian police and military officers freed Wednesday were taken captive during various rebel attacks on military bases and towns.
Another two dozen high-profile hostages remained in the hands of the FARC after Wednesday's rescue, and Santos said the government would "continue working for the release of the other hostages."
Uribe's government had been under tremendous pressure to secure the release of the hostages, which the FARC were holding to pressure a swap for jailed rebels.
• Staff writer Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Mexico City