An army commando who took part in the June 13 military rescue of four FARC hostages reveals that the mission was called “Operation Chameleon” because the army posed as guerrillas to get close to the jungle camp.
In a first-hand account given to Semana on Saturday, which includes previously unseen photos, the commando explained that the twenty soldiers who directly participated in the rescue mission “approached [the FARC camp] perfectly disguised as guerrillas.”
He explained that the approach to the camp was “the most problematic” part of the operation, because they had to approach the camp without alerting the guerrillas.
“We could have been perfectly camouflaged, but they could have detected us and alerted the others,” the commando said.
Despite three months of careful planning and intelligence gathering, and 300 troops supporting the operation, the operation nearly went wrong as they approached the camp.
“We arrived at mid-day to the perimeter of the camp. From there we started to move in, disguised, in order to locate the hostages,” the commando recalled.
The plan was for the twenty commandos to break up into two units of ten, with one unit approaching the camp disguised as guerrillas, and the other to wait behind until the first group had a visual confirmation on the hostages’ locations. As they moved closer to the camp, the were able to identify eight guerrillas and two of the four hostages.
“We placed red badges over our arms” the commando continued, “in order to distinguish ourselves from the real guerrillas.”
It was at that point, however, when things began to unravel; a FARC guerrilla had spotted the commando unit and noticed something was awry.
“One of the guerrillas saw us, and was startled. With that, there was no time for thinking, we immediately took the decision to move in, we entered the camp firing in all direction,” the commando said, adding that the first thing they did upon entering the camp was to “throw myself on General Mendieta [a hostage] to protect him, because we didn’t know what the guerrillas would do.”
“Fortunately for us,” the soldier went on, “backup arrived a few minutes later,” and because the FARC “thought there were more [commandos] than there really were,” they fled the scene, enabling the soldiers to establish a perimeter around the captured guerrilla camp and secure two of the hostages.
However, there were still two hostages unaccounted for. “We began calling them and setting off colored smoke-grenades to signal them that we were Colombian army. While we were searching for them, we dressed [the two secured hostages] in army uniforms and harnesses, in order to take them up into helicopters, but the choppers couldn’t land where we were and we couldn’t deploy cables to hoist them up neither … Several hours later, we found [the other two hostages], and we were able to get them out of there safely, which yielded the final results the country knows today,” he concluded.
The four men, Colonel William Donato, General Luis Mendieta, Colonel Luis Enrique Murillo and Sergeant Arbey Argote, were held as FARC hostages for over twelve years.
The rescue was the result of a three-month operation that, according to the military, started after the capture of “Marcos Parrilla,” a member of the FARC’s 1st Front, which is responsible for holding the hostages.
“After we found him, the man decided to demobilize and gave us the exact location of the area where the hostages were kept. At that moment we began to organize the rescue operation,” armed forces commander General Freddy Padilla said.
Following the testimony of the demobilized guerrilla, army intelligence officials began to follow the guerrillas and their hostages.
After receiving the presidential go-ahead, some 300 members of the army, supported by the air force, gathered in San Jose de Guaviare in southern Colombia.
There were no deaths during the operation, but a few hours later army Officer Edward Milciades Guzman Baron died from wounds he sustained in combat in the surrounding jungle.