The stunning rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors owed its success not just to artful deception, but also to a five-year U.S.-Colombian operation that choked their captors' ability to communicate.
Known as "Alliance," it began with a satellite phone call in 2003, just weeks after the Americans' surveillance plane crashed in the southern Colombian jungle, according to U.S. and Colombian investigators and court documents.
The call came from Nancy Conde, the regional finance and supply chief for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whose boyfriend would become the American hostages' jailer. She was calling confederates in Miami to see if they could supply the rebels with some satellite phones.
What Conde didn't know was that state security agents were listening.
Providing compromised phones
U.S. law officers arrested the Miami contacts, who in exchange for promises of reduced sentences put Conde in touch with an FBI front company, according to a U.S. law enforcement official involved in the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Over more than four years, that company provided wiretapped satphones and other compromised telecommunications equipment that threw the rebels off balance and eventually helped authorities strangle their supply lines.
The operation laid crucial groundwork for the brazen July 2 commando rescue of 15 hostages held by a rebel unit that Conde supplied, the biggest blow ever dealt to the FARC.
In all, U.S. and Colombian agents intercepted more than 5,000 rebel phone conversations, investigators told The Associated Press.
They allegedly heard Conde and her coconspirators negotiate shipments of everything from assault rifles to condoms for distribution to about a third of the FARC's estimated 9,000 fighters, including the 1st Front that held the hostages.
"We're not talking just about finances, communications equipment, food and weapons — but also medical supplies, medicines and people who cared directly for the wounded," said Luis Ernesto Tamayo, the security official who ran the Colombian side of the operation. He wouldn't say whether hostages were discussed in any of the intercepted conversations.
Rebel 'call center'
Many of the calls went to a rebel "call center" in the gateway city of Villavicencio, where radio communications from the jungle were relayed to international phone circuits.
It was in Villavicencio that Conde, 35, allegedly operated several front companies. Located where the Andes mountains open out onto Colombia's southeastern plains, the city's airport was a key conduit to airstrips in rebel-dominated zones.
In addition to Miami — a major shopping destination for Latin Americans — she had suppliers and buyers in at least seven countries and territories including Brazil, Venezuela and the three Guyanas, the U.S. investigator said. The FARC units operating in her area were major cocaine exporters.
"A big part of the business was drugs for arms," the American official said.
Conde allegedly acquired supplies that ran the gamut from death-delivering devices to personal beauty accessories, according to Colombian and U.S. court documents. They included:
- Two ICOM V-8 military-grade portable radios;
- 20 high-tech compasses and assorted GPS devices;
- 350 satellite phone minutes from the United States;
- Rifles, rifle scopes, pistols, shotguns, bomb fuses and ammunition;
- Instruments "for surgery and body reconstruction."
On Feb. 2, authorities pounced on Conde, arresting her as she entered Colombia from Venezuela, where she'd gone to give birth. They rounded up a total of 39 alleged members of her supply and communications network, including three doctors — one of them a 61-year-old Cuban — and two of Conde's three female deputies.
The arrests, which began in 2006, notably included the capture of Jose Maria Corredor at a jungle camp. He allegedly shipped in hundreds of assault rifles from Venezuela in exchange for cocaine.
"With this operation we neutralized a great deal of the (rebels') logistical and financial support," Tamayo said.
Hostages noticed fewer supplies
So much were rebel supply lines squeezed that Betancourt could notice it in captivity.
She said upon being rescued that over the past year, "we've eaten very little, with very little variation in the food," adding that there was trouble getting boots and underwear. "Logistics could be in trouble," she said.
News coverage of Conde's arrest — the army chief was widely quoted as saying she was wanted for extradition to the United States — almost certainly prompted her boyfriend, hostage jailer Gerardo Aguilar, to seriously limit if not shun radio communications, officials say.
Conde and 10 others had been indicted in the District of Columbia in September on charges of conspiracy to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization. The group included Aguilar, alias "Cesar," and Alexander Farfan, alias "Enrique Gafas," both of whom were captured in the July 2 rescue mission and also face charges of hostage-taking and terrorism.
The United States is seeking their extradition.
The U.S. indictment, unsealed in February, says "Cesar" and "Enrique Gafas" had the three Americans in their custody at least as early as 2006.