South American affairs is obviously not China Hand's bailiwick, but I had the funny feeling that the the “rescue” of Betancourt and the other hostages from the hands of FARC by the Colombian government looked, walked, and quacked more like a negotiated release than a genuine piece of special ops derring do.
It looks like I might have been right.
Swiss radio is reporting that it cost $20 million to spring the hostages.
For those of you interested in how unworthy suspicions flower in the mind of an incorrigibly cynical blogger, I will regale patient readers with a rundown of the official story's fishier elements.
First, the Betancourt story got huge—suspiciously huge—play in US papers. In my hometime paper, the LA Times, it was the big A1 right-column, banner headline lead.
Well, Ingrid Betancourt, like Jerry Lewis, might be huge in France—she holds dual Colombian-French citizenship—but, quite frankly, before July 2 I had never heard of her.
Obviously, the US press was primed to push this story.
That's not by itself indicator of something fishy going on.
The US government has a strong interest in boosting the kinda-fascisty guys who run Colombia while running down kinda-commie Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
It also has a strong interest in discrediting and sidelining Chavez as a regional leader who can serve as a go-between and extract hostages and concessions from FARC.
So the story that the Colombians--with indispensable US support--sprung the hostages would have received some play in any case.
However, the orgasmic and uncritical US press coverage of the action, combined with the gratuitous jibes at Chavez (including energetically interpreting some neutral-sounding statements from Betancourt as veiled Chavez criticism), appeared so promptly, ubiquitously, and hyperbolically it appeared to me we were witnessing the previously-planned orchestration of a media event rather than the reaction to a slick rescue.
Another indicator was that getting Betancourt released was a big thing for President Sarkozy of France. The French pay for hostages. Full stop.
So there was a strong incentive to get Betancourt out by any means possible--including a ransom--to steal Chavez's thunder and save Sarkozy's political bacon.
Of course, the rescue story was something that, in the context of special ops rescues, sounded ridiculous, involving some scheme where FARC unwittingly gathered the dispersed hostages and loaded them on a helicopter that fortuitously turned out to belong to the Colombian government.
However, the story sounded completely plausible if somebody had made a deal with FARC and said, hey, we're sending a helicopter for the hostages. Load ‘em up!
When Betancourt got out, she refrained from direct criticism of FARC, calling for a peace process instead of some no-holds barred war on the SOBs who imprisoned her for six years—another indication that a deal was involved.
For inquisitive reporters, I would consider another red flag the fact that nobody got killed. Indeed, not a shot was fired.
One would think that the Colombians would have taken advantage of an extraordinary intelligence and infiltration coup not just to helicopter out some hostages but also helicopter in some commandos and put a nice corpse-filled punctuation point on a signal victory in the war on terror.
So, a big media push would be needed not only to capitalize on a deal that was in the works; it would obscure the suspicion that a deal was involved and also dissuade the press from taking a hard second look at the official story it had already splashed all over its front pages.
The press—apparently having forgotten the manufactured bruhaha over Jessica Lynch's rescue and eager to confirm the suspicion that it is more interested in any narrative that the government is willing to provide legs for than messy, facty, and critical reportage--happily obliged.
Add to that the allegations of a ransom appearing in the European media, and that's something that looks like it's worth pursuing.
Here's how the Guardian reported the Betancourt ransom story.
Ingrid Betancourt arrived in France today after being held captive for six years in the Colombian jungle, amid claims that a ransom was paid to free her.
The Colombian government said that she was freed in an audacious operation after the military tricked Farc into handing the French-Colombian politician over without a shot being fired.
But quoting "reliable sources", Swiss Radio reported that a ransom was paid of around $20m (£10m).
It said that the US, which had three citizens among those freed, was behind the deal and that "the whole operation afterwards was a set-up".
The station reported that the wife of one of the hostages' guards was the go-between, having been arrested by the Colombian army.
If proved true, the allegations would be hugely embarrassing for the Colombian government which was showered with praise for the efficiency of the operation. Many commentators had predicted that it would even spell the end of Farc as a credible force.
However, I wonder how much play, serious investigation, or popular attention the Betancourt story will merit, now that its propaganda value as a one-day headline sensation has been realized.