Strange things are happening in the jungles of Colombia. After years of fighting a fierce, conventional war against the leftist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's military accomplished a major feat earlier this month without firing a shot. The Colombians used a complex ruse to free 15 hostages, including three Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, eliciting international acclaim and comparisons to the Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe. But what happened afterward—which hasn't been widely reported—was almost as remarkable, according to Colombian Vice Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón. The Colombian Army cornered the hostages' captors, the FARC's notorious 1st Front—the latest success stemming from Bogotá's tactic of dropping its special forces into the jungle and keeping the weakened guerrillas on the run. "But we took the decision not to attack," Pinzón told NEWSWEEK, because the government wanted to convey it had a new "strategic concept." "We want to send a message to the FARC and to the world: not to exterminate the FARC but to welcome back anyone who wants to come into the system." Last week, to drive that point home, the Colombian military equipped helicopters with loudspeakers that began booming Betancourt's recorded voice over the jungle, saying "Hey, guerrillas … demobilize now … You'll recover your family, your honor, your liberty."
By all accounts, the government of President Alvaro Uribe deserves a lot of credit for its recent successes against the FARC, which is now thought to be more disorganized and on the defensive than ever before. But Colombia's dramatic shift in strategy over the last two years also has much to do with a quiet U.S. effort to school allies in counterinsurgency and Special-Operations tactics. Even the strategy of infiltration used against the FARC—a turncoat guerrilla working with the Colombian military was key to the hostage ruse—is one that has been promoted inside the Pentagon against Al Qaeda and other terror groups. While U.S. officials stress that every insurgency and terror group presents unique challenges, similar principles are being applied in Iraq's Anbar province and now by the new Pakistani government in its Taliban- and Qaeda-infested tribal regions.
American-style counterinsurgency, in other words, is going global. "Colombia has done a really masterful job," says Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Vickers gives Uribe's government "the lion's share" of the credit for the hostage ruse and anti-FARC strategy in general. But he acknowledges that "the Colombians are very close partners of ours and we've provided the training and other things." Vickers, a former Green Beret, is the ex-CIA officer who became famous as the operational brains behind "Charlie Wilson's War"—the book and movie about how a handful of U.S. officials supplied the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets.
The evolving U.S. approach is a sophisticated blend of tactics: relentless manhunting with Special Forces teams, high-tech surveillance and intelligence gathering through phone calls and cyberspace, deception and infiltration, and a "hearts and minds" campaign that attempts to win over bad guys and turn the population against them. (The Colombians call its civilian informers cooperantes.) Added to that, says Vickers, is the use of conventional forces to "hold on to the gains," as in Iraq.
The Pentagon's main liaison to the Colombian military has been Vickers's deputy, retired Special Forces Col. Kalev (Gunner) Sepp, another former Green Beret. The Spanish-speaking Sepp has had extensive experience in Latin America going back to the 1980s, when he helped train El Salvador's military to fight leftist guerrillas, and in recent months he has been intimately involved, with Vickers, in the creation of a global counterterrorist network based on the lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. "Foreign partners are the bulk of the network," says Vickers. Colombia "is all Gunner was doing for the last several months," says one counterinsurgency expert who works on contract for the Pentagon and would speak about the relationship only on condition of anonymity. The rescue "was the Colombians' show—that's the official tale. But our Special-Ops Command has been deeply involved with Colombia for some years. We gave strategic guidance on the concept [of the ruse]. We pushed the whole infiltration idea." (Vickers played down Sepp's contacts with the Colombians, saying he has "had some interaction with them" only on broader strategic issues.)
The heart of the Colombian operation was a sophisticated con job that depended on breaking into the FARC's faltering communications network. With U.S. help, the Colombians planted a false message using an infiltrator, a turncoat FARC commander who has not been named. The renegade persuaded Gerardo Aguilar, the head of the First Front, to hand over his prisoners to what he thought was another rebel group. In truth it was a squad of Colombian commandos. Maj. Gen. Mario Enrique Correa, Colombia's Defense attaché to Washington, told NEWSWEEK that the idea for the ruse arose in the military's "lessons learned section" in which Colombian and U.S. officials "analyze every military operation worldwide."
News accounts have described the Colombia rescue as an operation with "no apparent precedent," as The Washington Post called it. But the United States and other countries have occasionally used such ruse tactics against terror groups. A deceptive infiltration strategy of this kind led to the 2004 capture of Ammari Saifi, known as Abderrezak le Para, the head of a North African terrorist network affiliated with Al Qaeda, says the U.S. counterinsurgency expert. While Al Qaeda is no doubt much more difficult to infiltrate than the FARC, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, a chief proponent of this strategy, cites the case of Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn as proof that it is an "open network." "If a confused young man from California can join up with Al Qaeda, think what professional operatives might do," he says. Vickers said he could not comment on such operations, but acknowledged: "That tactic has been used previously."
Another unheralded U.S. player in Colombia has been John Rendon, who became notorious a few years ago for the role that his consulting company, the Rendon Group, played in selling the war against Iraq. Rendon has pushed a policy of reaching out to dissident rebels within the FARC—the way U.S. forces did with Iraq's Sunni militias—and "psyops" that exploit dissension in the group.
But the "soft" side works only when it is accompanied by hard-hitting tactics. As Vice Minister Pinzón describes the shift, the Colombian military once fought the FARC to a standoff with conventional tactics: military outposts in villages and towns. Now those posts are manned by police, and the military is sending Special-Ops commandos into the jungle to keep the FARC running. As a result, the FARC has been hounded across the border to other countries, and in March the group's No. 2, Raul Reyes, was killed in a jungle bivouac in Ecuador. "It's a very good approach and it's paying dividends," says Vickers. And "amplifications" on that approach, he says, are "paying dividends elsewhere."