BOGOTA, Colombia — The final stages of Operation Check-Mate began early Wednesday morning as the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia gathered 15 of their most valuable hostages in an isolated forest of the southern province of Guaviare.
The guerrillas planned to transport their hostages, which included former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, by helicopter to their new leader, Alfonso Cano, who was waiting at a hidden site.
A white helicopter with red markings touched down in the forest, with 13 men on board. Some of them wore T-shirts stamped with the image of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
The guerrillas believed a sympathetic non-governmental organization had offered the helicopter to help with the hostage transport. In fact, the helicopter was Colombian military hardware.
And that wasn't all.
In fact, Cano was not awaiting the hostages and the man in charge of the captives, Gerardo Antonio Aguilar, code-named Cesar, had been getting orders from a government mole in the FARC's elite secretariat instead of from an actual Cano aide.
Once the hostages, Aguilar and another guerrilla guard were on board the helicopter, the disguised government troops asked the armed guerrillas to hand over their weapons, saying the international humanitarian group waiting with Cano would be offended at seeing them armed.
The guerrillas agreed, and that's when the troops moved into action, wrestling the guards to the floor. Three minutes into the flight, the hostages learned they had finally been liberated.
In an interview with Lehrer New Hour Thursday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said government agents had not only infiltrated the leadership of the guerrilla group, known as the FARC, but also the jungle camp where the hostages were being held.
"Some of (the agents) were posing as a humanitarian mission from different countries, and they had different roles," Santos said. "We even referred to them as the actors, and we sort of staged a Hollywood scenario for them to practice all of the things that they had to do with a script."
Santos added that more troops were on hand Wednesday to surround the hostages and guerrillas in case the entire plot was discovered, with the idea of creating a "humanitarian cordon, which would sort of put pressure on (the guerrillas), tell them that they are surrounded, and convince them to release the hostages."
That daring blend of espionage and deception helped the Colombian military snatch some of the world's most prized hostages — Betancourt and three U.S. government contractors held captive since 2003.
Colombian army head, Gen. Freddy Padilla, said the success was a result of intense planning and endless rehearsals of the plan. Just the night before the operation, troops were practicing exactly how they would disarm and neutralize the guerrillas on board the helicopter.
"It was not an improvised operation," Padilla said. "From the time that the helicopter landed until the hostages were freed lasted 22 minutes and 13 seconds. It was the longest time of my life."
The rescue not only showed off the professionalism of the battle-hardened, U.S.-funded Colombian military but also the disarray of the FARC as they strain to fight an ever more confident government, said Frank Mora, national security studies professor at the U.S. National War College in Washington, D.C.
Many estimate the FARC ranks have fallen from a peak of 17,000 troops in 2002 to its current level of about 8,000. Three of its seven top leaders, including founder Manuel Marulanda Velez, died in 2008. A Colombian military raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1 also turned up laptops containing potentially sensitive information.
"The weakness and rather rapid decline in the effectiveness and coordination of the FARC had much to do with the ability of the Colombians to infiltrate and execute this operation," Mora said. "Their so-called fronts are completely isolated."
The day after the rescue, U.S. officials said they had assisted the Colombian military in pulling off the rescue but insisted that Colombia deserved all the credit.
U.S. Army Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for the military's Southern Command, said the command's head, Adm. James Stavridis, knew in advance of the operation and was aware of the planning for it.
Since the three Americans were taken hostage, Costello said, the Pentagon outpost had run 3,500 "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" flights in efforts to gather information that might free the men.
They chased 175 intelligence leads, spent $250 million on the effort since February 2003, and devoted 35 full-time staff to the effort, mostly focused on reconnaissance, Costello said. Those 35 people were full timers across the years of the captivity, and were not based in any one place.
"Intelligence builds upon itself," Costello said. "Bits of information that are collected are added to other bits of information and the operating picture gets clarified all the time. Information was shared, and led to an opportunity for yesterday's successful operation by the Colombians."
Colombia has been the United States' closest ally in South America and received about $430 million in U.S. security aid in fiscal year 2008, which ends Sept. 30. The vast majority of it was used for counter-narcotics programs, according to State Department budget documents. The country is also among the top recipients of U.S. Anti-Terrorism Assistance training.
President Bush has strongly backed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and Washington has hoped to turn Colombia into a model of counter-terrorism operations outside the Islamic world.
That confidence paid off Wednesday, as praise for the Colombian operation came in from all over the world.
Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Bridges reported from Bogota, Colombia. McClatchy correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington, and Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed from Miami.