Inside Colombia's War on Kidnapping

The State Department is helping train elite police units to go after kidnappers and rescue hostages.

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BOGOTÁ—Fernando Araujo has a unique view of the vast strides Colombia has made to improve its security situation. He was a captive of left-wing rebels for six years, held deep in the jungle after being kidnapped while serving as the country's development minister. When he was seized in 2000, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, was quite comfortable—and very well supplied. "My first two years, they gave me water bottles, fresh fruit, juices," Araujo says. "There was no presence of police." Over time, as the military moved into FARC territory, food supplies dried up and Araujo was cut back to only two daily servings of thin soup, seasoned with a little salt and rice. Finally, after six years, he escaped during a rescue operation, walking for a week through the jungle to a Colombian military camp.

Today, Araujo serves as foreign minister and one of the chief salesmen for Colombia's successful battle against the kidnapping epidemic that paralyzed the country only a few years ago. Once the most visible symbol of Colombia's troubles and a key revenue source for the nation's guerrillas, kidnappings have plummeted from a high of 3,572 victims in 2000 to 521 in 2007, according to the Ministry of Defense. The sharp drop has been driven by several factors, including much larger security forces that have put the guerrillas on the run. "In the past, there were some areas with no police presence, so FARC, the prime kidnappers, had areas where they could keep 20 people at a time, like a hotel," says Col. Umberto Guatibonza, the commander of the police wing of the elite antikidnapping forces known as GAULA. "We occupied those areas."

Colombian officials also credit an important but little-known program, run by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, that has trained more than 600 GAULA members. (GAULA is the Spanish acronym for Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty.) The DS training, offered under its Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, has focused in particular on rescuing hostages. "Before, there was the will and the people, but you want to turn it into something professional, especially for how you do a careful rescue," says Colombian Vice Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo. "When it gets to the nitty-gritty, you need expertise."

The $3.4 million ATA effort is only a tiny part of the broader Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program that has funneled some $5 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 under the aegis of the U.S. war on drugs. Plan Colombia, the bulk of which goes toward the Colombian military, has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to fighting drugs (overall production has remained relatively steady). "For the United States, it was always about narcotics," says Arlene Tickner, who teaches at the National University of Colombia. "For the Colombian government, the interest was born out of a need to combat an insurgency."

And indeed, the aid effort has helped the Colombians turn the tide against the FARC guerrillas. U.S. officials estimate that FARC, which numbered some 40,000 fighters at its peak, has dwindled to about 9,000. What only recently looked more like an intractable civil war now seems, perhaps, manageable. "The Colombia of 2008 might as well be a different country on a different planet in a different galaxy," says William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia.

" Like a sniffing dog. " While much of the U.S. counterdrug effort remains controversial—particularly aerial spraying to eradicate Colombia's vast coca crops—the more tightly focused ATA program is praised by Colombian officials, as well as by some government critics. What started as an anti-kidnapping effort expanded dramatically after September 11 into specialized counterterrorism training including dignitary protection and computer forensics.

In Colombia, the main training effort has been quite tactical. "Before, we were like a sniffing dog trying to find the person, but when you found the hostage, you didn't know what to do," says Sgt. Carlos Humberto, a senior GAULA trainer. "Now, we plan more." The six-week course starts with weapons training and moves on to specialized instruction for snipers and breachers (who break through doors and windows). The breachers practice on all kinds of doors—metal doors with metal hinges, wooden doors with metal hinges, roll-down metal doors—using both explosives and brute force.