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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Then, the instructors turn to operational planning and tactics. "We have to tactically train them to walk for days, set up camp secretly, get close enough to do surveillance, and breach," says Mark Hunter, DS's assistant director for training. Rescues are carefully scripted, with each officer assigned a specific role, and drills are run repeatedly. "In basic training, you have to discriminate whether the person is armed, as well as different faces," says Tulio Francisco, a GAULA officer who heads the Colombian instructors. "If a person doesn't have a weapon, we have to learn to control our shooting."

The centerpiece of the effort is a U.S.-built "shoothouse" on a police base in Sibate, just outside Bogotá. The custom building is a maze of eight rooms, with a catwalk above where instructors watch GAULA units train on different rescue scenarios below. The thick walls that separate the rooms are filled with sand to stop the live ammunition used during the final exercises. "When the team hits, they use close combat, speed, the factor of surprise, and violence," says Capt. Giovanny Hernandez Palacios, a GAULA unit leader. "The most important thing is the safety of the hostage."

Handover. So far, 21 of the 32 GAULA units—some 600 soldiers and police officers—have completed the course, and the 22nd team is just finishing up. U.S. officials proudly point out that Colombia is taking over responsibility for running the ATA programs itself, a transition that began late last year. By 2009, Colombia is expected to fund the entire tactical portion of the training. "One reason why it's been such a success is that the Colombians have taken everything we've given them in almost a personal manner," says Victor DeWindt, a DS and U.S. Secret Service veteran who serves as the ATA program manager in Colombia. "They want to be brought up to the current standards."

The results have been dramatic. None of the ATA-trained units have lost a hostage during rescue operations. Colombian forces rescued 136 hostages last year, and only one hostage was killed during an operation conducted by a GAULA unit that had not yet undergone training. Guatibonza describes one recent case in which a 16-year-old boy was kidnapped from his Bogotá home. Fortunately, the boy was able to hide a cellphone in his underwear and managed to send a text message to his family. A GAULA unit was able to track the signal, along with several intercepted ransom calls, and was able to locate the house where he was being held. But before staging a rescue, the GAULA team found a nearby house with a similar layout and ran some practice drills. Fifteen days after the kidnapping, the rescue went off without a hitch, and four kidnappers were arrested. "We had," says Guatibonza, "a happy ending."

Colombian trainers have already taken over all of the teaching duties from U.S. instructors (who were all former law enforcement officers). As the Colombians send the remainder of the GAULA units through the program, they also plan to offer training to some of their Latin American counterparts, including Brazil. But Colombian officials are disappointed that U.S. officials are not replacing the anti-kidnapping training with other specialized efforts. Diplomatic security officials note that they remain involved, helping GAULA units design and install a new case management system to centralize all the data on kidnapping and suspects for the first time.

Places to hide. Kidnapping remains a problem. A number of hostages—U.S. intelligence agencies estimate some 750—remain in captivity. Many are middle-class Colombians, but there are also several dozen high-profile captives, like Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian woman and former Colombian presidential candidate. The guerrillas can still find places to hide in Colombia's jungle, which is almost the size of France. "That's the part of the territory the bad guys still know more about than us," says Colombia's Vice President Francisco Santos. "They have been there for 45 years, and we have been there systematically only for five."