The daring jungle rescue July 2 of 15 hostages held by Colombian guerrillas might never have happened if not for a controversial decision six years ago in Congress.
In August 2002, Congress approved a law to allow American military aid to Colombia to be used in a "unified campaign" against drugs and terrorism, an important expansion of the U.S. war on drugs that over time dramatically enhanced the ability of the Colombian military to combat its own obsession: the leftist rebels who had waged war on the government for 40 years.
"It was absolutely critical," said Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It facilitated a lot of the training and intelligence for the (rescue) operation."
Some feared deeper involvement in Colombia would lead the nation down a slippery slope into a Vietnam-style quagmire. Instead, almost six years and $5-billion later, the Colombian military is Latin America's most skilled fighting force.
"We like to think we helped conceive the plan and successfully execute it," said Maj. Paul Brister, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations officer who conducted training in Colombia. "It's a case study for military-to-military engagement."
Rebels off balance
The hostages' rescue was made possible by the breakdown of communications between the high command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and its regional commanders, who head rebel "fronts" scattered around the country.
The rebels were already in disarray after losing three senior commanders in March. One was killed by a military air strike, and another was executed by one of his own men after his unit was infiltrated by Colombian military intelligence. The third, legendary founder Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack at age 78.
Rebel documents captured this year revealed the significant disruption of guerrilla communications. Last November, a guerrilla commander wrote a worried e-mail to his boss.
"The (army) operation doesn't let up. The number of troops is enormous," wrote Ivan Marquez, one of the seven-member FARC directorate. The military had targeted his unit with radio messages by former guerrillas urging others to desert, he added. He had lost 10 fighters, four of whom had gone over to the army.
The search narrowed this year after American surveillance planes intercepted rebel radio and satellite phone communications. Unbeknownst to the FARC, they had purchased wiretapped satellite phones through an FBI front company in Miami. That enabled authorities to track the supply network for the unit holding the hostages.
Deserter turned spy
The three Americans, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, were first sighted thanks to U.S. remote-controlled, video monitoring devices installed along rivers in Colombia's southeastern jungle.
In mid February, a Colombian Special Forces team caught up with the Americans bathing in a river. But with armed guards standing nearby, a rescue operation was too risky.
Instead, Colombian military intelligence came up with a bold scheme to trick the FARC by using a rebel double agent trusted by the rebel high command. Rebel commanders had resorted to couriers to deliver their messages by hand.
The FARC double agent was able to intercept those messages enabling Colombian military intelligence to plant false orders instructing the commander of the unit holding the hostages to round them up for a supposed meeting with the FARC high command. U.S. spy satellites tracked their monthlong trek.
A helicopter belonging to a sympathetic aid group was supposed to transport them to meet the rebel chief, Alfonso Cano. In reality, the helicopter carried seven Colombian military intelligence officers.
Hapless, now heroes
U.S. Special Operations training provided many of the skills that showed "the way to open the door to these remote jungle locations that were in the past inaccessible to the Colombian government," said Maj. Brister.
In the mid to late 1990s, the Colombian security forces were so hapless that isolated bases were overrun and soldiers and police by the dozens were captured by the rebels.
But a combination of internal military reforms pushed by a new generation of dynamic generals, backed by a massive injection of U.S. aid, turned the Colombian military around.
It was a painful process, U.S. and Colombian officials agree.
"It started off backwards," said Shifter, of Inter-American Dialogue. "There was absolutely no concept of helping professionalize the Colombian military. It was all about drugs."
Prior to 2002, U.S. military aid had been directed at fighting the flow of Colombian cocaine to American streets. In 2000 Congress approved "Plan Colombia — a $1.3-billion aid package of mostly military assistance to eradicate coca crops in southern Colombia. U.S. Special Operations forces were tasked with training a counter-narcotics brigade.
Shifter co-wrote an independent report in 2000 that urged the Clinton administration to rethink U.S. strategy in Colombia away from a "misguided" drugs-only focus.
"The fundamental objective should be on attempting to professionalize the Colombian armed forces and police," argued the report, which was co-written with Florida Sen. Bob Graham and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration changed the thinking, asking Congress to allow U.S. aid to support counterinsurgency operations.
U.S. aid remained distorted toward counternarcotics, critics say. Adam Isacson, who monitors Colombia at the Center for International Policy, said, "It's the little things we've done that have had the big payoffs."
For example, U.S. aid meant mortar teams that previously had only 10 rounds for use in training could count on a steady supply of 600 rounds a week, said one senior Colombian military officer. There were enough helicopters, and fuel, for pilots to put in more hours of training, he added, including night-flying training on U.S. simulators.
The Colombian government threw more of its own resources into the military budget, including a $670-million war tax.
"We realized that a major restructuring was necessary," said Gen. Carlos Ospina, former Colombian armed forces chief (2004-2006) who is considered one of the principal architects of Colombia's military modernization.
Military units including Special Forces and an elite Commando Brigade were created. Eight regional intelligence units were set up with reconnaissance airplanes, and state-of-the-art air-to-ground communications. An Intelligence School was created, as well as a Counter Intelligence Center.
"It would have been a critical mistake if we had made counter-narcotics our main objective," Ospina said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this article. David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.