Held for Ransom

Once the kidnapping capital of the world, Colombia is fighting back.


Posters of missing Colombian kidnap victims lie on a Bogotá square.


Ahead of the meeting, scheduled for the afternoon of November 28 in a public square in Bogotá, undercover officers surround the area. As soon as Polla Ronca is identified, police arrest him and begin the interrogation. "When he realized how involved we were, he decided to cooperate with the authorities," says Maj. Carlos Bernal, the deputy commander of the GAULA Cundinamarca unit. Polla Ronca explains that Castro is being held in a ramshackle house perched on a hillside in a dangerous slum in southern Bogotá. But there is one problem—the gang is waiting for Polla Ronca's call. "At that point, we did not have much time," says Bernal. "Roberto Carlos's life was in danger."

With dusk approaching, GAULA Capt. Gustavo Adolfo Diaz briefs the rescue team on what will be its first operation since returning from the U.S.-funded training course. Each member gets a specific assignment. Using yellow tape to mark out the interior walls of the house, the team runs practice drills for 30 minutes. "If we make one mistake," says Bernal, "the operation will fail."

Around 6:30 p.m., Diaz and 31 members of his team begin creeping single file up the poorly lit dirt road toward the house. As some neighborhood dogs begin to howl, the soldiers worry that the kidnappers will hear them coming. Inside, Castro is watching television, still chained to the bed. Diaz's men attach an explosive charge to the metal front door and quickly receive the command to enter. They blow the door, and the GAULA team rushes inside. "Down on the floor," yells one soldier, grabbing a suspect. Other GAULA men hurry to the bedroom where Castro is being held, throwing a bulletproof vest over his head.

It is all over in less than 30 seconds. A relieved Castro is handed a cellphone to call his father. "Thank you, Papa," he sobs into the phone. "Forgive me. It's my fault that this happened. I give you my word I will change."

Quick work. Only three hours have passed since the team first learned where Castro was being held. Nine suspects are in custody. "We were able to apply all the lessons of close combat," says Bernal, "surprise, speed, the violence of the attack, and making sure the victim is safe." Castro is the 44th hostage rescued by military GAULA units so far this year; police GAULA teams have recovered an additional 97 hostages.

The GAULA Cundinamarca team is clearly proud of its performance, which is also a redemption of sorts for the soldiers after their troubled operation earlier in the year. "For us, it is very gratifying to know that we are giving happiness and tranquillity to his family in Colombia," says Bernal. "Our work should be known in the rest of the world so that they can see Colombia is really working against extortion and kidnapping and that we are really committed."

Today, Castro remains visibly traumatized by his 39 days in captivity. When asked whether he will go back to business school, he chokes back a sob. His father, Helmer Castro, who spent 10 months in rebel hands in 2004, credits the government for the rescue and the improving security situation in Colombia. But he is still trying to arrange for Roberto to resume his studies abroad. "It's not bad luck," Helmer Castro says, referring to his family's multiple abductions. "It's the country where we live."