About the Author: Ana Duque-Higgins serves as Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia.
One year ago today, July 2, 2008, the Colombian Armed Forces rescued 15 hostages, including three Americans, held by the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a daring and creative rescue. Operation Jaque, Spanish for “Checkmate,” was not only a great achievement in the history of the Colombian military, but also a victory for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, which had worked for five long years to free their three compatriots, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes.
The three American contractors were kidnapped in February of 2003 after their plane experienced engine trouble during a routine mission and had to make a crash landing in the middle of dense jungle occupied by the FARC. All five passengers aboard the plane survived the crash landing, but sadly American pilot Tommy Janis and Colombian Army Sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz were executed by FARC rebels shortly after the crash. The FARC held the three remaining Americans in inhumane conditions for more than five years, keeping them on the move constantly through the Colombian jungle to avoid detection.
During these five years, U.S. government officials from a variety of agencies joined Colombian government officials in the search for the three Americans and other long-held Colombian hostages. In 2008, the Colombian military came up with a brilliantly simple plan. Due to several blows against FARC leadership in the months leading up to the rescue, communication between the unit holding the hostages and the FARC’s top commander were severely weakened. The Colombian military used this weakness to their advantage and convinced the unit that FARC leadership wanted the hostages turned over to a nongovernmental organization that would send helicopters into the jungle to pick them up.
On July 2, 2008, two white, Russian made MI-17 helicopters bearing the logo of a non-existent NGO arrived at a previously agreed upon location. On board each helicopter were members of the elite Colombian Special Forces, disguised as employees of the NGO and members of the press. The hostages boarded the helicopter with the two senior FARC leaders in charge. Shortly after take-off, the Special Forces troops attacked and handcuffed the FARC leaders and exclaimed to the surprised hostages, “We’re the National Army. You are free!”
The helicopters were met at a Colombian Army base by U.S. Ambassador William R. Brownfield, who presented the three Americans with their new U.S. passports created using photos taken from proof of life videos provided by the FARC the year before. The three were then transferred to the Bogota airport where they were greeted by dozens of embassy employees, including members of the team that spent years working to free them and contractors who flew with them before their captivity.
Two days later, on July 4, 2008, the embassy celebrated Independence Day with an unprecedented level of jubilation, excitement and remembrance of what freedom truly means. On July 4, 2009, Americans and Colombians will gather together at the embassy to raise the flag and celebrate the 233rd anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence. On this day, however, we will all be remembering more than just that. Ambassador Brownfield will dedicate a plaque to the five heroes who went down with the plane in February of 2003. The plaque will hang in the lobby of the chancery where -- using traditional military symbolism -- for more than five years photographs of the hostages, yellow roses, lemons and salt were displayed to keep their memory alive.