SEMANA/Revelation | 10/2/2008 12:00:00 AM
The ‘Gringos’ of Operation Checkmate
The first book to be published on the rescue of Íngrid Betancourt has revealed that 40 U.S. Rangers descended from helicopters into the heart of the Guaviare jungle and installed cameras and microphones that facilitated the operation. In the picture the three american contractors Keith Stansell, Marc Goncalves and Thomas Howes who were kidnapped by the Farc.
The book is called “Operation Jaque: Unrevealed secrets” by the Oveja Negra publishing house and draws upon journalistic investigations by newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. The book reveals that 40 members of the U.S. special forces, the Army Rangers, landed in the Guaviare department of Colombia last year in an attempt to rescue the three American contractors who had been kidnapped by the FARC. The decision to make this type of foreign excursion into Colombian territory was made after Clara Rojas and Consuelo González were freed in January of this year.
At that time U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield and his advisors took note of the precise geographic position where the liberation of those two hostages took place. “The U.S. then sent a small team of special forces to identify where the hostages could be transported by the FARC. The group had been trained to rescue persons in jungle conditions and together with a Colombian contingent, soon began to search for the guerrillas. In the following weeks the U.S. sent hundreds of soldiers, doctors, mechanics, engineers and telecommunications specialists to Colombia. The number of soldiers rose to between 900 and 1,000, exceeding the limit permitted by U.S. law that was 500 soldiers.”
This explosive revelation was made by the American journalist Steven Dudley, one of the book’s authors. The author, who has written often about Colombia, agrees with an article that was published in The New York Times in July, which is also highlighted in the book, in which their correspondent in Colombia Simón Romero says that “40 members of the U.S. Special Forces were involved in search and rescue missions of the kidnapped U.S. citizens.” Dudley and Romero both say that in the first few months of 2008 the U.S. had tried to arrive at the camp, where the kidnapped Americans were being held. They were being held by guerrillas of the 1st Front led by FARC commanders ‘César’ and ‘Gafas’.
“The strategy of increasing troops and specialists bore fruit, given that at the end of January 2008 they already had clear indications from over the past three years of the exact position of the kidnapped Americans. They moved to the Apaporis River in the northeast of Guaviare where teams of Colombian and U.S. Special Forces began to establish a security cordon in order to get closer to them,”, says another passage of the book.
“The U.S. cut its military presence in Colombia at the beginning of March after Alexánder Farfán, alias ‘Gafas’ commander of the group of guerrillas who held the three Americans, found an American tracking device planted in a remote area of southern Colombia which precipitated the abandonment of the site by the guerrillas.”
Asked about this episode by SEMANA, General Fredy Padilla de León, commander of the military forces, said that it is true that guerrillas found the mentioned equipment, but it was not ‘Gafas’ but rather one of his men.
What happened after ‘Gafas’ made this discovery? Did he communicate with the Americans or with Colombian intelligence? Did he make some sort of agreement with them? Why did the operation end at that moment? It seems odd that it was the same ‘Gafas’ , who later was one of the two captured guerrillas in the Operation Jaque and who at that very moment was carrying two memory sticks, that according to what has been recently revealed, ended up in the hands of the FBI.
Like a movie
The book details what the failed operation of the Americans and how 12 elite Colombian and U.S. troops were transported by helicopter into the heart of the jungle: “an intelligent and efficient monitoring system by foot known as ‘trekking’ was put into motion for more than a year by the U.S. Army to teach Colombian anti-guerrilla military personnel at the military base in Tolemaida… This trekking involves planting, using helicopters, a dozen groups of 20 silent soldier-spies surrounding a guerilla camp. Once the guerrilla camp was located, or the rivers which FARC boats would travel, a helicopter would land several kilometers away in the middle of the jungle, and three soldiers would descend down a rope carrying supplies and agricultural tools so that in 48 hours a parameter of 20 meters would be cleared away, which would serve as an improvised helipad. Two days later, a helicopter would land with 17 additional soldiers with arms, food, ammunition, night vision goggles, tiny video cameras and microphones…”
Another excerpt of the book describes the technology used. “The Colombian-American jungle commandos installed video surveillance equipment, provided by the U.S., which allowed them to get close and to take remote control shots along the rivers which is the only way to travel through dense jungle areas. U.S. reconnaissance planes intercepted radio and satellite telephone conversations of the rebels and took photos that could penetrate the jungle foliage.”
General Padilla de León confirms in his own way, the role that the envoys of the government of President George W. Bush played. “The United States never forgot their men and offered Colombia’s forces all the support they needed. But when the three Americans were sighted near the Apaporis River this year the ‘Gringos’ intensified their support”.
Indeed Washington never did stop seeking the freedom of the three American contractors (Keith Stansell, Marc Goncalves and Thomas Howes) since they were kidnapped. So much so, that the 40 Rangers who arrived this year were not the only ones to come to Colombia. “One of the operation participants in Washington said that 100 men form the Special Forces of the U.S. Army alone –had arrived since the hostages were taken. To understand the importance of this, you would have to say that these same Rangers were the first U.S. soldiers in the history of Colombia to participate in a military operation when, the day after the kidnapping, they guarded a team of the FBI while they revised the crime scene,” says Dudley in the book.
The book alleges what many in Colombia suspected: that the CIA worked day and night trying to directly achieve the freedom of the three Americans. “Since the beginning the CIA worked closely with the National Police and the Florencia office of the Gaula, the anti kidnapping unit, teaching them basic tactics and tips such as the importance of paying informants well. In the case of ‘Moncho’, second in command of the same outfit of Teófilo Forero who died in an ambush, for example, the three informants from the countryside received $900,000 USD from the US government. In other occasions, in addition to money, they have handed out US visas. The CIA, in turn, generously compensated members of the National Police and the Gaula who had helped them”.
But Dudley says that the turning point for ‘César’, who held the hostages, was the monitoring of Nancy Conde Rubio, alias ‘Doris Adriana’, girlfriend of the guerrilla. In this monitoring the Americans had a key role. “Anxious to get information about the kidnapped Americans, the FBI investigators began to follow a provider of satellite phones in Miami who seemed to be doing business with the FARC.”
He continues: “For five years investigators intercepted more than 5,000 calls and in 2006 even identified the voice of ‘César’, the commander of the 1st Front, who would have a more important role later on. They also captured some providers in Colombia, including a messenger who began to cooperate in the investigation with the FBI, the National Police and the DAS, the main security agency operated by the executive branch. In fact, the FBI, the National Police and the DAS met with members of Colombian military intelligence in February of this year just before the Colombian authorities captured Conde Rubio and 38 other members of this network. One of the main themes of this meeting was the case of ‘Doris’, because the Army had a parallel investigation”. ‘Doris Adriana’ was captured in Cúcuta at the beginning of this year, and she has an extradition request pending.
These are just some of the secrets about Operation Jaque that the book reveals. Surely many books will be sold and more accounts are sure to come out providing even more details on one of the most spectacular and effective rescue operations ever known. Nevertheless, for now, the prestige of the Colombian military forces as one of the major players of the historic rescue remains intact.