While Colombians and other freedom-loving peoples around the world were celebrating the spectacular July 2 rescue of 15 hostages held in the jungle by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), many Europeans were incredulous.
Just hours after news of the audacious rescue operation codenamed “Checkmate” became public, the Swiss public radio station Radio Suisse Romande began quoting a “reliable” source as saying that the Colombian government had paid a $20 million bribe to secure release of the high-profile, long-term hostages. The hostages “were in reality ransomed for a high price, and the whole operation afterwards was a set-up,” the radio’s French-language channel said. The report raised doubts about the official version that the heroic mission involved tricking FARC rebels and then spiriting their captives away by helicopter.
It was not long before the conspiracy theory version of the hostage rescue was front-page news across Europe. France’s newspaper of record, Le Monde, suggested that Gerardo Aguilar, the rebel in charge of the hostages, had given them up in return for a promise of amnesty. “Was Aguilar turned by the army, or even bought? Questions and doubts remain,” Le Monde pondered.
The French online newspaper MediaPart, which was founded by the former chief editor of Le Monde and other “elite” French journalists, reported that the hostages had actually been freed through an agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, which involved the payment of a ransom as well as political asylum for FARC rebels in France.
French state media raised questions about the healthy appearance of ex-hostage Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, upon her release, compared with her gaunt and frail look on a video that was made public in November 2007. France Inter radio suggested that the hostages may have been given food and medicine before a planned release.
Dominique Moïsi, founder of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI) in Paris and one of France’s most prominent foreign policy experts, told French state television that it was “probable” that money had secured the cooperation of FARC leaders. “They were bought in order to turn them around, like Mafia chiefs,” he said.
In Germany, the respected center-left newspaper Die Zeit ran a headline asking: “Ransom Paid for Ingrid Betancourt?” Germany’s leading business newspaper Handelsblatt said: “Betancourt’s Freedom Was Possibly Purchased.” The German tabloid Bild asked: “$20 Million Ransom Paid for Ingrid Betancourt’s Freedom? Puzzling New Questions About the Jungle Hostage.”
Germany’s leftwing Der Spiegel wrote: “The circumstances of Betancourt’s liberation from the FARC rebel camps are now at the center of speculation. Some say the Mossad was behind the operation. Then again, it is reported that the much-vaunted heroic operation never happened — instead 20 million flowed to pay ransom. Both rumors were immediately denied. The official version is still: Betancourt was free because the military undermined the rebels. But what are we to make of this, coming as it does from the world of secret intelligence agencies?”
European friends of FARC
Frederich Blassel, a journalist with the Lausanne-based broadcaster, told Colombia’s Radio W that the unidentified source was “close to the events, reliable and tested many times in recent years.” Colombian officials believe the source was Geneva-based Swiss diplomat Jean-Pierre Gontard, who had represented Switzerland in recent efforts to broker a peace deal with the FARC. The Colombian government suspects that Gontard, who by day was acting as an impartial mediator, worked by night as a cash courier for the FARC.