BRUSSELS – The rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages who had been held for years by FARC guerrillas marks more than a turning point in Colombia’s long war against its drug-running, Marxist guerrillas. It also confirms the emergence of a new troika of Latin American leaders – Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón – who are set on finishing off Latin America’s destabilizing drug cartels and guerrilla movements, as well as isolating the region’s demagogic upstart, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Uribe’s status as one of Latin America’s historic leaders was assured even before the rescue of Betancourt and the other hostages. Uribe won an unprecedented re-election two years ago with an absolute majority in the first round of the vote. But it is Uribe’s resolve not to negotiate with the FARC over kidnappings, and instead to pursue relentlessly the armed insurgency that murdered his father that has defined Uribe’s presidency. In the process, he transformed a country that was in the grip of drug barons and on the verge of becoming a failed state.
The professionalism of Colombia’s armed forces, coupled with Uribe’s popularity and a growing economy, has delivered, for the first time in three decades, normality to Colombia’s cities and, increasingly, peace and the rule of law to much of its vast jungle regions. Uribe’s relentlessness has brought on waves of defections from the FARC, which is now down to 9,000 guerrillas from a peak of 16,000 in 2001. Indeed, many FARC defectors now prefer to fight for their cause at the ballot box under the new left-wing Polo Alternativo Democratico.
But the benefits of Uribe’s apparent defeat of the FARC extend far beyond Colombia. The hostage rescue mission has also forced Chávez, still recovering from his failed power-grab referendum of last year (a moment when Chávez’s own army high command allegedly refused his demand to fudge the result) onto the defensive. The Uribe-Lula-Calderón axis appears set on keeping him there.