New Film Reveals How Colombian Agents Infiltrated FARC Jungle Hideouts
Mauricio was the boat operator. Nelson wandered deep into the jungle. Freddy the city boy posed as a campesino. And Liliana, Freddy’s fictitious wife, served drinks at the local saloon.
All four were highly trained intelligence agents sent to infiltrate one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organizations. And for the first time, all four tell their stories in an 80-minute documentary that debuted late last month on the Spanish-language Univisión TV network. It has since been viewed by millions of people throughout the Americas.
“Infiltrados” is an intensely personal look at how the Colombian national police and its intelligence division, DIPOL [Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía Nacional] carried out undercover missions that brought down two of the top leaders of Colombia’s FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia].
The first, Operation Fénix, took place in March 2008 in Ecuador, just over the border from Colombia, and ended the life of FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes. The second, Operation Sodoma, was carried out in September 2010 in a guerrilla encampment 150 miles southwest of Bogotá, killing the commander of FARC’s powerful Eastern Bloc, Victor Julio Suárez Rojas, alias “Mono Jojoy.”
Featuring exclusive, real-life footage captured under dangerous circumstances, “Infiltrados” is also a human-interest story that took Colombian writer and director Juan Rendón a year to put together. He says his latest work portrays the success of Colombia's police and military, “and the brave men and women who went undercover” for the sake of their country.
“My documentary tries to show that intelligence comes down to people and human relations,” the 35-year-old filmmaker told Diálogo following a screening of the movie. “That’s the way it’s always been done, and it’s the way it’ll always be done: getting the enemy to trust you. I don’t think any tactical secrets are revealed here — certainly nothing that would ruin any upcoming operations — except in the way these personal relations were constructed.”
Since 1996, the film’s narrator explains, FARC terrorists have kidnapped more than 700 people. A U.S. government official says that the rebels now export 60 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States — and that with the help of Mexican cartels, earn between $500 million and $600 million a year through drug exports.
Yet before Operations Fénix and Sodoma, Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy were sheltered by a jungle canopy so thick that not even satellite images could penetrate their cover.
Douglas Farah, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Colombia began using intelligence agents to infiltrate the FARC leadership in the late 1990s, when it was clear that the country was on the verge of becoming a “narco-democracy.”
“This documentary puts a human face on several individuals who did their jobs at great personal risk,” said Farah, a former Washington Post reporter who has written two books on drug trafficking. “Colombia has much to teach us in this regard. It’s become a leader in the field of human intelligence. The police, the military and the political leadership were all able to work together in Colombia towards a common goal. And Colombia over time underwent a profound transformation from the brink of catastrophe to economic growth and prosperity.”
Narrated by Univisón News anchors María Elena Salinas (in English) and Jorge Ramos (in Spanish), “Infiltrados” includes interviews with both President Juan Manuel Santos, who was defense minister at the time of the two raids, and Gen. Oscar Naranjo, general director of the Colombian National Police and founder of DIPOL.
“We realized that there was a great sense of distrust between the operatives and the intelligence agencies,” Santos tells the interviewer at one point. “Why? Because the intelligence wasn’t very good, because each intelligence agency gathered its own intelligence but did not share it. The key was getting all the intelligence agencies to work as one single entity. It was only when intelligence became trustworthy, and the different law enforcement agencies began to work together, that we were able to start delivering serious blows against the FARC.”
Added Naranjo: “It was absolutely essential that the war against drugs take two paths: the judicial path, where every action requires the authority of a district attorney or judges, and the intelligence path, where action can be taken that allows for the use of non-traditional techniques and ways to penetrate deep into organized crime.”
In the documentary, the DIPOL spies — whose names are changed to protect their real identities — talk about how they spent between two to five years in the field, patiently gathering information on the most mundane details, passing it along to their superiors using various tried-and-true methods. The reason: DIPOL agents first had to identify and locate the leaders worth targeting before sending fighter jets to bomb targets, or jungle commandos to raid the camps where FARC leaders were hiding out.
Nelson, for example, posed as a local vendor, selling household items like pots and pans to gather information on Mono Jojoy’s jungle camp. One day, after many uneventful months passed, a customer asked for large quantities of cotton towels — then toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, soap and dental floss.
The intelligence agent knew he was onto something, and one day decided to join the guerrillas. He was given a Galil assault rifle, but even though he knew how to take apart a Galil and put it back together blindfolded, Nelson had to pretend he’d never seen a rifle before. Nevertheless, his ideological fervor endeared him to the local FARC chief, and Nelson the intellectual gradually rose through the ranks to become a trusted lieutenant.
Another agent, Mauricio, was ordered to seduce the sister of a guerrilla commander in order to gain information about him. But the mission almost failed when Mauricio was overcome by the girl’s body odor and bad breath; he ended up getting drunk in order to carry out the seduction and get close to her.
The third agent, Freddy, traveled to Colombia’s remote border with Ecuador, mainly to lay the groundwork for the raid that would later kill Reyes, FARC’s chief representative at the international level. He pretended to be the distant cousin of a local farmer who owned land near the border. Traveling on small boats up and down the Río Asís, he developed personal contacts with the guerrillas. Freddy communicated through a hidden drop box, leaving notes whenever he needed to get in touch with his handlers.
Freddy joined the local soccer club as a way to ingratiate himself with the locals. Eventually, he asked the local FARC commander for permission to bring his “wife” Liliana; the two had even arranged a fake honeymoon in Cartagena to back up their story. Liliana, who became a bartender, kept a satellite phone hidden among her luggage, as well as a shortwave radio to listen for encoded messages. The phony couple ended up spending three years undercover — an effort that paid off with the killing of Reyes.
Rendón, who was born in Cali and has a bachelor’s degree in economics and visual arts from North Carolina’s Duke University, said he got the idea for “Infiltrados” while writing and producing an earlier documentary for National Geographic. That film, “Operación Jaque,” told the story of the daring rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages being held by FARC.
“After interviewing everybody involved, from the president on down, I got really interested in the agents who posed as part of the humanitarian mission carrying the hostages from one camp to the next. Their stories had never been told,” he said.
Rendón said his team received no financial assistance from the Colombian government for the making of “Infiltrados.” The documentary was funded entirely by Univisión.
“Fortunately, the National Police agreed to let us talk to these four particular agents. They granted me two hours with them to get their stories. I interviewed them inside the Central Intelligence building in Bogotá,” he explained. “I think my biggest challenge was how to make stories told by people whose faces you can’t show, whose voices you have to alter. The answer to that was animation. We interviewed them with a green screen behind them, and gave them an animated background that represented their part in the story.”
In addition to the agents’ recollections, Rendón’s film also features FARC guerrillas offering their opinions on a variety of subjects ranging from ideology to their harsh tropical living conditions. But Rendón didn’t do those interviews himself.
“Univisión’s special correspondent, Karl Penhaul, spent a week with this mobile FARC column and he got those interviews,” he said. “They let him in with a camera. He wasn’t concealing anything.”
One of those guerrillas, Jagwin — commander of a FARC mobile unit — discussed on-camera how his men are able to avoid being detected from the air by Colombian planes and helicopters, and how they survive. He said that every time their jungle camps are bombed, they hide in their trenches, and when the bombs stop falling and they hear machine-gun fire, they come out shooting. And unless they hear it from the command, they continue to fight and believe in the cause.
When Jagwin was told about Mono Jojoy’s death, he said his men would just keep on doing what they were taught to do – and perform in the way their leader would have wanted them to perform. Jagwin himself was killed in April 2011 in a shootout with the Colombian Army.
Meanwhile, the DIPOL agents have gone on with their lives, though readjusting to normal society hasn't always been easy for them.
Liliana, who suffered partial hearing loss as a result of an infection she contracted during the jungle mission, told the interviewer she’s now in a social reassimilation program — and that she’ll never go back to undercover work.
“I’m afraid that, one day while walking down the street, I’ll run into one of the guerrillas I was with,” said the ex-spy, adding that one of the hardest things about city life is sleeping on a normal, soft bed after years of deprivation. “But looking back, everything was worth it. I would have sacrificed everything.”