Bogota, Colombia – He called himself “César” but his real name is Gerardo Aguilar Ramirez. As “Commandanté of the 1st Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” and one of the top ten leaders of the hyper-violent FARC — he has well-earned credentials as a drug-dealing terrorist with a penchant for trading in hostages. This Thursday, U.S. DEA Agents put Mr. Ramirez, aka César, in shackles, marched him aboard an aircraft here in Bogota and took him to the U.S. to stand trial for his crimes. Our FOX News War Stories team was here to record the event — and a whole lot more — so that we can tell the story about the heroes who are waging — and winning — the shadowy fight against narco-terror.
That may not be a familiar term to most of us, but narco-terror is nothing new to the 5,300 Special Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration – or the allies they have made in 63 nations around the world. Here in Colombia, source of half the world’s cocaine, FARC thugs like César have made themselves “high value targets” in the twilight struggle against illegal narcotics and terrorism. When he was arrested on July 2, 2008 during a dramatic hostage rescue operation, César was holding fifteen hostages; among them, Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and three American citizens.
Ms. Betancourt was taken hostage by the FARC on Feb 23, 2002, while she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency. The three American civilians were taken hostage on February 13, 2003, when their U.S. government drug surveillance aircraft crash-landed in Colombia’s southwestern Caqueta province — not far from a FARC stronghold. Guerillas quickly surrounded the wrecked plane and proceeded to murder the American pilot, Tom Janis, and a Colombian intelligence specialist, Sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz. The remaining three Americans, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, were taken hostage and hauled off into the jungle. They were about to endure an absolutely horrific experience.
Efforts to find the missing Americans began immediately after their plane went down. Searchers found the wreckage — and the bodies of the two dead crewmen within hours. More than a dozen Colombian National Policemen and soldiers were killed and wounded as they searched for the hostages. A special U.S./Colombian intelligence, military and police task force – focused solely on the hostages — was up and running in days. At a U.S.-controlled site, intelligence specialists were “surged” into Colombia to assist in finding the missing men. One senior intelligence officer told me this week, “We deployed every possible intelligence platform and expert available from every possible agency in this effort. It took longer than anyone wanted for it all to work.”
Official and unofficial emissaries from the U.S., France, the European Union and the United Nations descended on the U.S. Embassy in Bogota to “assist” in bringing about the safe release of the Americans. Colombian President Alberto Uribe, whose father had been murdered by the FARC, was pilloried in the domestic and international press for not doing enough to free more than 1,000 Colombians held hostage by the FARC — and Ms. Betancourt — who is a dual-national French-Colombian citizen.
A senior U.S. official in here in Bogota told me this week, “Meeting with the families of those being held is always difficult for all involved. The hardest part is not being able to tell them everything we were doing to find them and rescue their loved ones.”
For more than five years César tried to barter the hostages in exchange for the release of FARC terrorists jailed in the U.S. and Colombia, political concessions, the promise of safe-havens, and even other hostages. Throughout the time they were held, all the hostages suffered excruciating privation: hunger, lack of medical attention, exposure and physical abuse. Constantly moved from one FARC camp to another — they never knew if they would eventually be released or killed.
Operation Jaque — that rescued the three Americans, Ms. Betancourt and eleven Colombians — one of them held by the FARC for more than ten years — also netted César and his “Deputy Commandanté.” It was a stunning success thanks to the close cooperation and relationships that have been forged by a host of U.S. government agencies and their Colombian counterparts.
The very fact that César has been extradited to stand trial in the U.S. is a tribute to the work of thousands of selfless Americans and Colombians over the last two decades. But credit should be given where due. When César was frog-walked across the tarmac at Reagan National Airport on Thursday night, he was “escorted” by U.S. DEA Special Agents.
It was Gerardo Aguilar Ramirez’first trip to the United States. Thanks to the DEA, he won’t be visiting Disneyworld.