one year after

Operation Checkmate’s lasting effect

What has changed in Colombia’s conflict since Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages were rescued?

One year ago, Operation Checkmate became the biggest achievement of the Colombian army and the biggest political failure in FARC’s history. The strategy used by the militaries to mislead the guerrillas and rescue 15 hostages has been seen as a perfect operation. But beyond the success, has the course of the war changed? Can the Operation be considered as a turning point for Farc? Has the initiative of the Armed Forces worn out after this achievement?

Checkmate was more of a political turning point than a military one. It reconfigured the confrontation between the government and the guerrilla in the medium term. Up to that point, the FARC was willing to pursue a humanitarian exchange process, especially because of international pressure. The operation put an end to this pressure. Once Ingrid Betancourt was freed, the topic was no longer an item on France’s agenda and in that country’s media. It also seems less important in other European countries. United States reduced its advisors in Colombia and Chávez took a step aside.

Without the pressure of other countries, Farc knows the exchange is far away. That is why it released politician Alan Jara earlier this year. They no longer speaks of a demilitarized zone, but they are not willing to give up on other conditions, like opposition senator Piedad Córdoba being part of the rescue operations. This explains why this guerrilla group has started to kidnap new soldiers and why it has halted the release of Pablo Emilio Moncayo, who has been kidnapped for more than a decade. In April and although he was wounded, soldier Josué Daniel Calvo Sánchez was taken hostage by this rebel group.

Operation Checkmate also brought some military changes both for the guerrilla and for the government. On the one hand, the Armed Forces have lost initiative. The lack of political pressure to release the hostages has also meant that there has been a decrease in military attacks, whereas the FARC are restructuring their troops and plans.

Although many have explained this decrease as a consequence of an alleged triumphalism of the Armed Forces, the truth is that there are some operational reasons behind it. “The bad thing about Checkmate was how it was all handled”, explained a high-ranked Army officer. He means that videos and secrets of the operation were revealed and thus gave FARC ideas of the tactics and resources used against the rebel group. Knowing, for instance, that their radio operators were impersonated by members of the Armed Forces, made FARC insurgents change their communication system.

Amidst this difficulty, the military must understand what impact Checkmate had on FARC rebels and imagine new operations, although it is difficult to conceive one as important as Checkmate. “The enemy learns”, said an officer. He explains that although they have tried to surround alias Mono Jojoy and alias Romaña, they haven’t been able to catch them, precisely because of the new mobility and defensive tactics the guerrilla has been using. Nevertheless, the Army has been effective against the guerrilla, especially in Cundinamarca province, near Bogotá.

Operation Checkmate also had a symbolic effect as far as the Armed Forces are concerned. It showed that intelligence is more important than weapons in order to fight against an enemy like FARC. It also increased confidence in the Army, although this confidence was affected later on by the ‘false positives’ scandal.

Sadly, whereas some were freed on July 2nd 2008, others have seen how their condition as hostages has worsened in the jungle and, particularly, how their freedom seems now a distant possibility.
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