It played out like a scene from a summer blockbuster. Outnumbered and in disguise Colombian commandos rescued 15 hostages from the jungle without a single casualty. Former FBI hostage negotiators say that sort of high risk operation rarely yields such a great pay-off.
"It is absolutely stunning how things unfolded there," said former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, now an ABC News consultant. "In the real world things like this rarely happen."
Internationally, kidnapping rescue attempts end without casualties about 10% of the time, said Cloonan, who still works in hostage negotiation with a private firm. "And consider that this was FARC, kidnapping is their specialty."
The FARC held their 15 hostages, which included three Americans and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, at separate locations in the jungle so that if one camp was assaulted the others could stay secure. Colombian intelligence officers somehow convinced the FARC to gather all of the hostages in one location under the ruse that they were going to be transported by helicopter to another location. When the FARC operatives boarded the choppers, they were quickly disarmed and handcuffed by the crew members, who were really commandos in disguise.
"You'd think somebody would've smelled a rat when those helicopters landed," said Cloonan. "It's just unbelievable."
"This was a very unusual approach," said former FBI agent Christopher Voss. "This tactic took a huge amount of courage and confidence."
Voss, who now heads up a company called the Black Swan Group, which specializes in kidnapping negotiations and response, said the intelligence officers must have worked a very long time to establish the trust of the FARC commanders in order to convince them to put all the hostages in one location.
"The FARC knows that is a hugely dangerous thing to do," said Voss. Most of the time when hostages and their captors are lured somewhere together, it is for the purpose of an assault, said Voss.
"This was a complete breakdown of FARC's usual protocol," said Cloonan.
In the end, there was no gun-blazing, no assault. Nonetheless, it was a very dangerous mission for the commandos.
"When those helicopters touched ground," said Voss, 'there were a lot more bad guys than good guys."
Hostage rescue attempts are always risky and the main goal is to avoid injuries or deaths of the hostages and the officers involved. Numerous times over the past years there was intelligence on the location of these hostages, but no previous rescue attempts were made because the rescuers could not find a way to mitigate the enormous risks, according to both Cloonan and Voss. Yesterday's success will be a "crushing blow" to FARC, predicts Cloonan.
"To pull this off without someone in FARC being complicit is almost unbelievable," Cloonan said. Cloonan predicts that many FARC foot soldiers will be killed by their commanders over the foul-up. "They'll be dead bodies all over the place."
Cloonan points out that while yesterday's operation was a huge success, it is not the norm. Last year, 11 hostages were killed in Colombia during one botched rescue attempt.
"It is just remarkable to me that no one was killed yesterday," said Cloonan.