The Colombian army did not, as it said, rescue 21 of 23 kidnapped oil workers, one of the victims told Colombian radio on Tuesday. What’s more, the victim said the soldiers standing guard at the oil field in eastern Colombia where the workers were kidnapped were playing Parcheesi and watching movies when their kidnappers took them away.
The embarrassing revelation is part of a flurry of post-kidnap analysis and news, much of which is buried in the local press but may smother the current government spin that its security forces acted quickly to free the workers from leftist guerrillas.
The victim, Roger Bertel, told Caracol Radio radio that his captors, who authorities identified as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), released them when they found out they were low-level contractors. (See audio below.)
“They said they wanted people at a higher level,” Bertel told Caracol. “‘Go home,’ they said. ‘Nothing is going to happen to you.’”
The rebels kept one unidentified contractor who Bertel said was a topographer. The contracting company, the Canadian-based Talisman, has not issued any public statements regarding the incident.
Bertel added that the army post was just 100 meters from where they were kidnapped by four men and two women, but the soldiers were playing Parcheesi and watching movies.
When questioned about a rescue, Bertel said that he did not hear any army helicopters or other military personnel during the time he was under rebel guard and marching through the jungle. The first time he saw army personnel, he said, was when he returned to the area where they were taken.
Another worker, Efren Alvarez, told El Tiempo he did see an army helicopter flying overhead, but he did not specify whether it was during his capture or after his release.
A third, Manuel Lozano, told El Tiempo that the workers were released by the FARC, but did not mention an army presence.
Bertel’s and Lozano’s versions of events contradicts the army’s current version. On Wednesday, Colombia’s Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera publicly congratulated his forces for their “energetic” reaction and rescue of the 21 men. Another escaped on his own, the army said.
However, Admiral Edgar Cely, who led the rescue operation, admitted to Caracol Radio on Wednesday that there there was never any contact between the kidnappers and the Colombian Armed Forces. (See audio below.)
“Why do we say ‘rescue’? Because when we found the group, we picked them up,” Cely said.
The implications of the kidnapping are troubling, especially for companies that put their personnel at risk in remote areas and a government that would like to lure these companies to invest in oil, gas and mineral exploration.
The Colombian military has made strides towards securing these areas, but the FARC’s ability to easily penetrate this guard may leave many companies scratching their heads, especially when they hear the guards were playing board games and DVDs rather than keeping watch on the Talisman personnel.