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.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told the Bogotá-based El Tiempo newspaper that computer files name Gontard as the courier of the $500,000 in illicit monies that were seized from a FARC safe house in San José, the Costa Rican capital, by Costa Rican police at the request of the Colombian government. "This Mr. Gontard is going to have to explain why his name appears in email messages of [the now dead FARC commander] Raúl Reyes as transporter" of the $500,000, Santos said.
Some analysts believe that Gontard planted the conspiracy theory out of pique that the military operation to free the hostages upstaged his diplomatic efforts and effectively left him without a job. Gontard denies the accusations.
That the "source" would be someone from Europe seeking to undermine Uribe's hard-line security strategy against the FARC would hardly be surprising. After all, the Marxist terrorist group has many supporters among the battalions of armchair warriors that make up the European anti-capitalist left wing. Moreover, today's postmodern pacifistic Europeans always insist on diplomatic "soft power" over military "hard power," which in practice means they always pay ransoms to get their hostages released.
- Spain in April 2008 paid a $1.2 million ransom to secure the release of 13 Basque fishermen who were taken hostage when their trawler was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Although the Spanish government denied directly paying the pirates a ransom, it transferred the money to the ship's owners so that they, in turn, could make the payment. Asked about the ransom during a news conference, Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega said the government "did everything it had to do and nothing it did not have to do."
- France in April 2008 paid a $2 million ransom after pirates seized 30 hostages on the luxury vacation yacht Le Ponant off the coast of Somalia. While insisting that France did not pay a ransom, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, chief of staff of France's armed forces, admitted that the yacht's owners had. French troops later captured six of the pirates in the Somali desert as they were fleeing with $200,000.
- Denmark in February 2008 paid a $700,000 ransom for the release of the crew of a Danish tugboat that was seized off the coast of Somalia.
- Denmark in August 2007 paid a $1.2 million ransom for the release of the crew of a hijacked ship.
- Germany in October 2007 paid a $600,000 ransom for the release of a German engineer who was kidnapped in Afghanistan.
- Germany in May 2006 paid a $5 million ransom for the release of two engineers who had been abducted in Iraq.
- Italy in March 2005 paid a $6 million ransom for the release of journalist Giuliana Segrena in Iraq.
- Germany in December 2005 paid a $7 million ransom for the release of a German archaeologist who had been kidnapped in Iraq. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "The problem is not ransom payments but the reporting of them."
- France in June 2005 paid a $10 million ransom for the release of a French-Belgian journalist who had been kidnapped in Iraq.
- France in December 2004 paid a $15 million ransom for the release of two journalists who had been kidnapped in Iraq.
- Italy in September 2004 paid a $5 million ransom for the release of two Italian aid workers in Iraq.
European friends of the FARC are angry. How dare Colombia join the ranks of Britain, Israel, and the United States by refusing to negotiate with terrorists? How dare Colombia disprove the European mantra that all conflicts be resolved through diplomacy? How dare Colombia upstage post-heroic Europeans who, having lost the will to fight, believe anything can be bought for money?
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe summed it up well: "There are some who are bitter and who are seeking to discredit the operation. But these bitter people only know Colombia from afar. Aloof Europeans, what do they know about Colombian ingenuity? They believe that Colombian genius lies with the FARC. Someday they will know these military boys who carried out this operation."