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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Hostages Held for More Than Five Years Rescued in Columbia

Aired July 2, 2008 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is an incredible story, and it is breaking as we speak.
A dangerous and dramatic rescue in a faraway jungle and three Americans, former hostages all, are right now heading home. They've been held captive in Colombia for more than five years. They're due back on American soil shortly.

We're getting conflicting reports -- 11:00 p.m. Larry heard at least 12:30 a.m. we're going to bring that to you.

But they weren't the only ones rescued. Twelve Colombians were also saved, including Ingrid Betancourt, who was running for the Colombian presidency when she was captured more than six years ago.

We're going to show you how it all came to pass without anyone firing a shot. We'll also hear from the American hostages' families, and you'll hear in her own words, Ingrid Betancourt, talk about what it was like to be held prisoner for more than six years.

We begin with the rescue, which according to Colombian authorities involved infiltration, deception and a dangerous roll of the dice. The three Americans military contractors Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes, were grabbed by left-wing guerrillas more than five years ago.

Now just for perspective, the Americans held in Iran endured 444 days of captivity, about a year and a quarter. Some of the other 12 Colombian hostages freed today had been held for more than a decade.

Again, the three Americans should be arriving at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio sometime shortly. We've gotten conflicting reports, as I said. We'll bring you the events as they happened.

Until then, there's plenty to say about how all of this began. In a high stakes, high risk operation, Colombian forces literally tricking the guerrillas out of their captives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Military video released today shows the moment the helicopter carrying the hostages lands, ending years of captivity for 15 people, including three Americans. It began with a breath taking rescue, one that was planned by Colombia, monitored by the White House, and supported by the U.S. The operation was daring and deceptive. Rebel forces were holding the hostages in a remote jungle area. The guerrillas assembled them in a field where a helicopter would take them to another insurgent- controlled location, or so they thought. What the rebels didn't know, Colombian forces had infiltrated the insurgency.

The trip was all a ploy to set the hostages free. One senior U.S. official tells CNN that the U.S. provided specific intelligence to help pinpoint the exact spot where the hostages were being held. But it wasn't until they were in the chopper that the captives were told they'd been saved.

INGRID BETANCOURT, FMR. COLUMBIAN HOSTAGE (trough translator): The helicopter almost fell because we started jumping. We screamed. We cried. We hugged.

We couldn't believe it. God carried out this miracle. This is a miracle.

COOPER: Ingrid Betancourt was held for six years. She was running for president of Colombia when members of the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, FARC, seized her.

BETANCOURT: I would not be here if it wasn't for all the commanders of the army that had the bravado and the bravery to plan this extraordinary operation.

COOPER: The Americans, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes were military contractors employed by the U.S. government on a counter-narcotics mission in 2003 when their plane went down, and they were taken hostage by FARC.

From time to time, FARC would release video of the men to prove they were alive. This one obtained by a Colombian journalist.

MARC GONSALVES, AMERICAN HOSTAGE: I love you guys. And I'm just waiting to come home.

KEITH STANSELL, AMERICAN HOSTAGE: Our thoughts of our family carry us through the day. This is what we have.

FARC has led a deadly campaign against Colombia, kidnapping hundreds, many still being held. But it appears that with U.S. help the country is making gains against FARC.

And today, in one of the most stunning and successful raids in recent memory, a long ordeal is over, and these three Americans are coming home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We want to get more details on this operation from CNN's Karl Penhaul. He lives in Colombia. He joins us by phone from there.

Karl, what do we know about how they were able to do this? I mean it's a remarkable operation, not a shot fired, and apparently involved infiltrating this guerrilla group, which is pretty remarkable.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT, COLUMBIA ON THE PHONE: Certainly, the Colombian military, Anderson, has no history of staging operations of these kinds in the past. In fact, when they have tried to rescue hostages in the past, the whole situation is usually ended in dire consequences with at least some of the hostages being shot, injured, or, in fact, killed.

But what we do know from this, sources at the Pentagon have said that they gained some intelligence as to the position of the hostages in the eastern jungle. They shared that information with the Colombian military.

The Pentagon also said that it helped plan and also support this operation. Now, they haven't said what kind of support specifically, but we do know that for the last several years, the U.S. military has had crack teams of Special Forces on hand to mount a rescue operation to rescue the three American hostages if the need arose.

Now at this stage we don't know if any special forces were on board these helicopters today, but we do know there was U.S. intelligence here planned.

The other thing that is also remarkable, as you point out, not a shot fired. How did the guerrillas let themselves be duped into handing over their prized hostages? These are the ones that they were really using as leverage to try and force a prisoner swap, guerrillas for hostages.

We don't know if any of these guerrillas had, in fact, been flipped. The Colombian military says it was a process of infiltration and surveillance that lasted weeks, if not months.

But we do also know that over the last few months President Uribe has, in fact, offered guerrillas huge rewards and amnesty if they turn themselves and their hostages over to the government. So there may have been an element of that in this as well today, Anderson.

COOPER: And in terms -- and again, the information is kind of shaky that we do know. It's hard to know how much is accurate, how much is you know hidden forces not wanting their role known.

So given what we do know, Karl, what can you tell us about how the prisoners were actually transferred from the rebels to the military authorities. They were told to go to some staging location. Do we know anything about how that happened?

PENHAUL: What we know from the accounts of the hostages that have now been released is that they were being held in three separate groups in the eastern jungles of Colombia.

These helicopters then land, and at that point the three groups of hostages were taken to a jungle clearing and put all together. Now, what they say is that both they and their guerrilla captors were told by personnel who arrived from the helicopters that they were all to be transferred aboard those helicopters to another location where the supreme commander of the FARC guerrillas would be waiting for them to meet them.

It does, however, beg at the least that a guerrilla commander, an experienced guerrilla commander who would have been holding these hostages could be duped in the arrival of a helicopter and simply load his hostages on board. The FARC do not use helicopters, and they certainly don't use helicopters to ferry hostages around the country.

That said, look again at the helicopters, and what I saw was that these helicopters were painted white and orange. Now, that was exactly the color helicopter -- they aren't used in Colombia, helicopters that color. But these helicopters of that color were used earlier in the year when the FARC unilaterally handed over hostages to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan helicopters that arrived were white and orange.

So it could be that that also was used to try and confuse the guerrillas into thinking that this was some kind of humanitarian effort, Anderson.

COOPER: I read one account, where Ingrid Betancourt saying that some of the people who we now know are Colombian military, had sort of badges on, they were wearing civilian clothes as if they were some sort of referees or FARC themselves. So certainly there's still a lot of details unknown.

What does this tell you, though, about the capabilities of FARC? I think they used to have like 18,000 or so forces, 20,000. I heard it's now down to 9,000; a big number no doubt, but their effectiveness has been severely hurt. That President Uribe has been very successful against them.

PENHAUL: In general terms, the FARC has been hit by a whole wave of desertion. The government, as I say, has been offering heavy rewards to the guerrillas to desert, and that has affected the guerrilla ranks.

In the course of this year, three of the top level command council have died or been killed. Two were killed in combat, and the third, the supreme commander Marilanda, Manuel Marilanda died of a heart attack, we're told.

But what this kind of thing specifically today also tells us, I would suggest, is that the communication structure, what the Americans call command and control of the guerrillas is in absolute tatters.

In the old days, when the FARC were still very strong, if they saw two helicopters or a helicopter dropping into a jungle clearing near them, they would have been on a system of radios immediately to the high command saying, hey, have you sent us a helicopter? Are we to put the hostages on?

But the fact that the disorder today went unquestioned that the hostages were loaded aboard those helicopters points to either the fact that the command and control communications are in absolute tatters across the FARC, or that some of those guerrillas, in addition to infiltrators, may also have flipped and in practice deserted across to the government side, Anderson.

COOPER: No one knows Colombia better than Karl Penhaul.

Karl, we're going to check in with you throughout this hour and probably into the next hour as well as we await the arrival of these three Americans. Former hostages all they woke up this morning believing today was like any other day.

For five years now more than five years they've been held in captivity. Today at this hour, they are near, coming home.

Ingrid Betancourt looked to be in good shape and high spirits on the tarmac in Bogota. But she has been through hell. This is a video of her in captivity just last year.

Dangerously thin, was said to be suffering from serious medical problems. Tonight her children, who live in Paris and are heading to Bogota now, say they cannot wait to hold their mother in their arms.

Keep in mind this was a woman who was running to be the president of Colombia when she was kidnapped more than six years ago. Her mother was on the tarmac to greet her in Bogota today. Miss Betancourt spoke at length about her ordeal.

Here she is in her own words.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETANCOURT: This morning when I woke up, I prayed the rosary at 4:00 a.m. and I committed myself to God. And we were all having the anticipation that maybe one of us one day, maybe we could be liberated by an international committee that you, the media, had talked about.

I owe a lot to the media. If it had not been for you, I probably would not be alive. Those of you who took your time to put us on radio air, to communicate with the families, I owe you so much.

We were able to dream. We were able to keep hope alive because we heard our loved ones; my mother during seven years at 5:00 a.m. my children, all of those who I love.

The chief of operations said, we are the national army, and you are all free. And the helicopter almost fell because we started jumping. We screamed. We cried. We hugged. We couldn't believe it.

God carried out this miracle. This is a miracle. This is a miracle that I want to share with all of you because I know that all of you suffered with my family, with my children, with me.

This is a moment of pride for all of us Colombians. There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation. We will continue fighting for the liberty of those who remain in captivity because we have to take out, and we have to bring out those who are still there.

And God willing, it will be through negotiation. But if not, let's have trust in our armed forces. And right now I want to think of those -- I'm also thinking of those who will never come. That this moment of happiness will not help us forget that it's a miracle that others died.

I think of the deputies in the state of Valle, and the victims and all of the hostages that have died at the hands of the guerrillas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: It is hard to imagine what today must be like for her and the other 14 hostages.

A reminder, we are waiting for the freed Americans, Stansell, Gonsalves, and Howes to arrive in Texas. That's a live shot of where they're expected to land. When it happens we'll have it here on CNN.

Up next, we're going to be talking with the daughter of Keith Stansell. She was just a teenager when her dad was taken and she hasn't spoken to him since then.

We'll have more background on the FARC as well.

Let us know what you think about the story. Join the conversation, our blog. Just go to our new Website, ac360.com. I'll be joining and blogging shortly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAUREN STANSELL, DAUGHTER OF EX-HOSTAGE KEITH STANSELL: I think both my brother and I have a very renewed sense of faith since this has happened. And it takes a lot of faith and a lot of support and a lot of prayers to get you through this. So we both know we're very blessed. And we had a lot of family and a good support network getting through this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That was Kyle and Lauren Stansell a short time ago reacting to news that their Dad is coming home tonight. Keith Stansell and his two compatriots expected shortly at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

His daughter Lauren joins us now by phone from Bradenton, Florida.

Lauren congratulations. This has got to be just an incredible day for you. Where did you the news, where were you? What were you doing?

L. STANSELL: I was actually at home, I had just gotten home and walk in the door and my phone ring. And I knew when I heard the other voice that she had good news, I knew it was good news about dad.

COOPER: Did you ever -- I mean, did you expect this day to come?

L. STANSELL: No, I didn't. In fact, there are many days where we often wondered if this was ever going to end. But the day is here and we are grateful. And just feel so blessed and so excited to see our dad and be reunited.

My brother and I have just been praying for this day for years now. And we just love him so much and are very anxious to see him.

COOPER: Have you been able to talk to him yet?

L. STANSELL: No, we haven't had any contact with him.

COOPER: What do you want to say to him? I mean, what do you say to someone you haven't seen like in five years?

L. STANSELL: I don't think there's going to be many words at first. I think it's just going to be a very long heartfelt embrace. Just going to tell him I love him and how much I missed him, and every day our efforts -- we've been working towards this day.

And my brother just loves him, and everything we do, we're trying to make him proud and just keep our chins up like he told us to do in the proof of life message that we had.

COOPER: Yes, I remember I had you on the air it was in 2007, when you got a proof of life, which was I think the first proof of life you'd gotten from him in about three years. I think 2003 was the first time you actually saw him in video.

How do you get through the days? I mean people say it's almost tougher for the families of hostages sometimes than the hostages themselves.

L. STANSELL: You know, I would hate to say that any of my days have been worse than my dad's, but my brother, my family, some of the days are a lot harder to get through than others. But because you have that support and the love of your family and you know -- we had the hope and the faith that we would see him one day.

So that's really what gets you through, even on the bad days. It pulls you through to knowing that tomorrow's a new day, and we have renewed hope, renewed faith, and we know that he was going to come home. And now it's just a matter of time.

COOPER: I guess you're not going to get a lot of sleep tonight.

L. STANSELL: I doubt I'll be sleeping for a couple of nights, but that's okay.

COOPER: Yeah, I'm sure it is. Lauren, it is great to talk to you. And I'm so happy things have worked out well. You had a lot of concerns -- I know your family had a lot of concerns when we talked before, last year, about a military operation going in because there wasn't a great track record. You've got to be just amazed at the capabilities of this group who did go in.

L. STANSELL: I am absolutely amazed, and more than anything, I am just so grateful for that effort. I mean, without those people, we wouldn't have my dad and Marc and Tom and have them in safe secure hands. So I'm definitely amazed and excited. And I tell you, I'm just bubbling with anxiety and excitement, so ready to see my dad again.

COOPER: Well, Lauren, I'm going to let you go because I know it's been a busy day and it's going to be a long night. Lauren I appreciate you joining us, thank you so much for joining us, and my best to your family and to your father.

L. STANSELL: Ok, thank you very much.

COOPER: All right take care.

Again, we're waiting for her dad's arrival in Texas where he and his two buddies will be getting checked out. We're going to bring that arrival to you as it happens on CNN.

While we are waiting a quick update on who these three Americans are.

Actually, I'm being told we have George Gonsalves, the father of a hostage -- Marc, who is on the phone with us as well.

George, how did you hear the news?

GEORGE GONSALVES, FATHER OF MARC GONSALVES: Well, I heard the news today from a neighbor. I was outside, and she came over, and she told me that they'd been freed. And I said, you know -- I couldn't believe what she was talking about. Who's been freed?

COOPER: I heard you were mowing your lawn.

G. GONSALVES: I'm sorry.

COOPER: I heard you were mowing your lawn.

G. GONSALVES: You heard correctly. I was actually mowing my lawn. And she came over, and she was very excited. And when she broke that news to me, it was like, you know, I couldn't understand what she was talking about.

We had -- and when it finally got to me, we come running into the house, put the news station on and lo and behold, it was about four minutes or so, and there's the picture of the three guys up there.

COOPER: When you -- you know, you haven't had any contact with Marc this entire time, but you have seen the sort of proof of life videos. How does he look to you?

G. GONSALVES: You know, the last one we saw, which was a little earlier this year, they looked -- all three looked very, very haggard. You know, you looked at them, and they had like dark circles around their eyes, and they just looked in very bad condition, very bad condition at that time.

COOPER: Have you heard anything about his medical condition?

G. GONSALVES: No. Actually, the only thing that I heard anyway, and that was from John Pinchao, he was the police officer that actually escaped from the FARC back in April. He was being held with Keith, Tom, and Marc. And he said that Marc looked like he had hepatitis at that time when he left him.

COOPER: What's the first thing you want to say to him?

G. GONSALVES: First thing I want to say to him is, my God, I missed you. I love you. And I want to hug him, and I want to touch him, and I want to hear his voice again.

I haven't heard him or said nothing to him in five years, over five years. We haven't exchanged even a hello. So, you know, there's a lot that's going to be said.

COOPER: How do you get through that time?

G. GONSALVES: It's not easy getting through that time. You know, I don't know how to describe that to anyone. You know, when you look at this and say, how do you not talk to like your son, your daughter in months. It's hard. And it goes to years.

You don't know how they are. You don't know what condition they're in. You can't see them. You can't talk to them. You can't exchange communication with them. It's very, very, very difficult; very difficult.

COOPER: Well, George I know your thoughts are not only obviously with your son and his two colleagues, but also all the others who are still being held hostage in Colombia. It's important on this day of celebration, I think, that we all point out there's still hundreds of people being held hostage.

G. GONSALVES: Absolutely. There's still a lot of folks there that are being held. It's an exciting moment for us, the families. We're very excited, and we should be.

But there's a lot of others that aren't as happy as we are tonight. And for those people, I still hope and pray that their loved ones will get released.

COOPER: Well, I echo that as well. George, I'm so happy for you and for your family. Give our best to Marc.

G. GONSALVES: Thank you.

COOPER: All right.

Just ahead, we're going to go live to CNN's Drew Griffin at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where the three hostages, the Americans, former hostages I should say, are expected to arrive shortly.

And we'll show you more about the FARC. Who are these guys? Fueled by drug money, they make hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from cocaine sales and trafficking. We'll tell you what they want and how to beat them. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Freed American hostages arriving in Bogota, Colombia, expected shortly in San Antonio, Texas, here in America. We're expecting them shortly; we're going to cover their arrival at it happens on CNN.

Coming up, former presidential candidate and long-time trouble shooter, Bill Richardson -- Governor Bill Richardson, who was involved in negotiations in this case.

But first, more on who these three Americans are as well as Ms. Betancourt and who the FARC is.

CNN's Randi Kaye investigates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Today after more than five years in captivity, they are free.

M. GONSALVES: I love you guys. And I'm just waiting to come home.

KAYE: This proof of life video was taken just months after Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell were kidnapped by the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, or FARC; a guerrilla group that survives in the jungles and has been at war with the Colombian government for decades.

It's blamed for hundreds of kidnappings, including police, politicians, and U.S. civilians. The FARC was established in the 1960s as the wing of the Colombian communist party. It later became involved in the cocaine trade during the 1980s for the purposes of fund-raising.

The American hostages were private contractors from Northrop Grumman working for the U.S. government. In February of 2003, their surveillance plane went down in FARC territory while surveying fields of coca, a key ingredient for cocaine.

The plane's pilot, an American, and a Colombian intelligence officer were shot to death execution style. The three surviving American contractors became hostages, joining an estimated 750 others, including Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, now free after six years in captivity.

BETANCOURT: Please join me to thank God. To the Virgin Mary, I prayed a lot. I imagined this moment very often with my mom.

Don't cry anymore. You don't have to cry any more.

Betancourt, a rising political star in Colombia was kidnapped while campaigning for president in a FARC stronghold in 2002. This video was taken just hours before she disappeared. Last year, a video surfaced showing the three Americans and the presidential candidate, sickly but alive. JUAN CARLOS LECOMPTE, INGRID BETANCOURT'S HUSBAND: We are right now in an emergency. We cannot wait any longer; more months or more years. We can wait only weeks or days.

KAYE: today the prayers of the hostages' families were answered, but it's been an excruciating wait with little movement.

Marc Gonsalves' mother recently told me she had visited Colombia three times to urge the government to find her son.

JO ROSANO, MOTHER OF FARC HOSTAGE: I look around, and I see all these mountains, and I say my son's somewhere up there. And I'm getting no help at all from this government, no help at all.

KAYE: the U.S. considers FARC a terrorist group and has discouraged everyone from negotiating with them, including the contractors' employer and the Colombian government. But the families of the missing kept pressing and hoping.

Keith Stansell's daughter talked to CNN last year about her dream that she would someday be reunited with her father.

L. STANSELL: It's going to be hard. He's missed a lot. There's so much to catch up on. But initially, I just want to see him. I just want to hug him. I just want to hold him.

I don't want to worry about catching up on anything or telling him anything. I just want to hold my dad. I just want to be with him. I just want to be with him.

KAYE: A bait and switch before FARC ever knew what hit them. Not even the hostages' families could have dreamed up that.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Joining us now on the phone is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who traveled to Colombia in April to try to negotiate the hostages' release, including the three Americans. He joins us now on the phone.

Governor Richardson, are you surprised that this was so successful?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON, (D) NEW MEXICO: Yes. Because I felt the best route was negotiations, intermediaries, the Catholic Church, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who had lines into the FARC. But you got to give credit to the Colombian military that did this operation in a risky way but safely.

And I think the real heroes are the hostage families, the three American hostage families, the French government that persisted in Ingrid Betancourt, in pushing the international community to do more. But really it was rather stunning that the military operation took place without a hitch. But it also shows, Anderson, that the FARC, the Colombian guerrillas, have really been weakened. They've lost their top leadership through assassination or death. They seem to be decimated. There's still 10,000 of them, so they're out there.

But this is a welcome development because possibly it could lead to humanitarian accord where hundreds of other Colombian hostages are also being held that might be released and a lessening of tension between Colombia and President Uribe and President Chavez of Venezuela and the president of Ecuador. They almost went to war several months ago over this issue.

So this is a good outcome, but I think credit has to go to the American families. They had asked me to get involved, and I went to Colombia, I went to Venezuela. I had some indirect lines out to try to get the hostages released, but this military operation seems to have succeeded.

COOPER: Yes, there was a military operation previously, which you referenced, which was actually in Ecuador. It killed one of the top guerrilla leaders. Another top guerrilla leader was assassinated apparently by his body guard, who cut off his hand as proof that the guy was dead so he could get a reward.

What do you make of what's happening to FARC? What do Americans, who haven't been following this closely, need to know about FARC? How do they make their money? Who are these guys, and how have they been able to last this long? It's been more than 40 years they've been around.

RICHARDSON: They've been around maybe 40 years. They control maybe 25 percent of Colombian territory. They finance themselves, many say, through narcotics.

They're Marxist guerrillas that want to overtake the Colombian government. But they've obviously in the last few years and in the last year been weakened severely, both by Colombian military operations and by defections and the assassination of their top leaders.

So this was a very vulnerable time for them with their top leaders dying, there being, I think, real disruptions within their leadership. We tried to get indirectly contacts to them to try to get the American hostages out and Ingrid Betancourt and a bunch of other hostages too. And there was no response.

So there was obviously real division. And I think the Colombian military that had a very good intelligence operation penetrated them at a time when they were weak, found out where the hostages were, and then conducted this very laser like operation which seems to have not had any casualties. So it's, I think, a very positive outcome.

The best news is possibly now the Colombian government has two options. One, they can try to bring the guerrillas in, negotiate with them, incorporate them into Colombian society. The other option they have is to go after them militarily at a time when they are weak. COOPER: And, again, it bears repeating. There are still hundreds of hostages, Colombian citizens being held in the jungles by this group. And how this operation is going to affect them, I guess, is unknown at this point.

Governor Richardson, we appreciate your time tonight. Governor Bill Richardson joining us on the phone.

Just ahead, we're going to go live to CNN's Drew Griffin at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where we're expecting these three American hostages to arrive shortly.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Some new information now on the freed hostages as well as what is in store for them when they arrive shortly in San Antonio. Drew Griffin is there, waiting for them. He joins us now with what he's learning.

Drew, what do you know?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Anderson, it looks like we're about two hours away yet from those three hostages landing at Old Kelly Field here in San Antonio at Lackland Air Force Base, at which time they're going to fly by helicopter, a short helicopter ride over here to the Brook Army Medical Center and then be taken in for evaluation.

The people here are not really sure what kind of medical attention they need. But I know, Anderson, you know that this is where a lot of the Iraqi soldiers come back to be reintegrated, be treated and reintegrated into society. They're calling that a reintegration kind of period that they're going to go through.

What we're not seeing is any family members yet. You've been talking to these family members, Anderson. I think they've been just about caught off guard as everybody else here. So we're not seeing them assembled.

In fact, the niece of Tom Howes up in the Boston area, we got a hold of her. And she said this is really a miracle. But they haven't been able to reach Tom Howes' wife yet, because she apparently is in Peru.

So this is catching a lot of these family members off guard, although the hospital here, the hospital staff trying to make arrangements for any kind of reuniting, which probably will take place tomorrow, if it happens here -- Anderson.

COOPER: So basically, they're going to get off the plane and then be helicoptered over to the medical facility?

GRIFFIN: Yes, that's right. And over at Lackland Air Force Base, the public information officer said they're probably going to land about 12:38 Eastern Time. I'm getting different numbers from different people here.

But that seems to be our best information, 12:38 Eastern Time. They land at Lackland Air Force Base in a C-17 and then take what has been told to me as, like, a few minute helicopter flight over to here.

At which point they'll be -- I'm standing at the helicopter pad right over here, and then they're going to get into a bus, just take the bus to this building in back of me, Anderson. So we'll get a shot at them. We'll look at them, but it doesn't appear we'll be able to talk to them.

COOPER: Drew Griffin, appreciate it from San Antonio. We'll check in with you.

Joining us now, Ken Robinson, who knows all three freed Americans. He joins us from Los Angeles.

Ken, what do you know about these guys?

KEN ROBINSON, KNOWS FREED HOSTAGES: Well, the -- Northrop Grumman, who is the contractor who hired these individuals, had a responsibility to find out where specifically coca production was taking place, trying to interdict both the cocaine going into the United States and also the source of money that fuels the FARC.

One of the things that the government Colombia, their strategy that has worked, has been aggressively trying to cut off the head of the snake, going after the senior leadership. And to do that, they've offered huge bounties, because there's been huge pressure to try to come to closure with this, but to do it in a smart way and prevent these guys from being -- being killed.

COOPER: So these guys are basically flying over an area that FARC was operating in and got shot down while in this -- this reconnaissance mission?

ROBINSON: It's an electronic warfare mission and also, it's photo interpretation, where they look in areas where there may be hidden coca production, coca paste being made and also areas where the stuff is then taken to covert air fields and then distributed and then brought back into this country.

And these missions are ongoing all the time because the consumption within the United States is driving the industry down there. This is an economy down there, just as kidnapping for the FARC is an economy. It provides them with the cash to be able to fight the government of Colombia.

COOPER: You have a lot of national security experience, a lot of national security expertise, military expertise. What do you make of this operation? I mean, it -- it sounds like something out of the movies.

ROBINSON: Well, Anderson, it's really a great example of policy and intelligence working. There's been a lot of commentary in the last few minutes about the families didn't know. That's intentional because, for the safety of the operation, they have to keep them in the dark.

Governor Richardson spoke about international pressure on the government of Colombia and also the United States. That pressure, although always good to keep these guys' names in the forefront of the American people, their names never left the forefront of the intelligence community from the day they were taken.

The issue for the intelligence community and the government of Colombia was always not could we, but should we, because every time you try to conduct one of these types of operations, they're bloody.

But here we see an operation where deception and where intelligence was brought together, where they shaped the battlefield, where they could not get at them in an area that was very thick and dense, and they convinced the FARC leadership, through a ruse, to move them to an area that they could exploit.

And then they created what we call a cover legend, where they created a scenario that the FARC leadership believed. And then from that, exploited it, picking the time and the place from which they would strike. It's classic, perfect intelligence operation.

COOPER: Karl Penhaul made an interesting point, that this really sort of speaks to the lessened military capabilities of the FARC that previously had two helicopters of unknown origin landed in FARC territory. The FARC guys could have gotten on their radios and communicated with other groups to find out the origin of these helicopters.

But the fact that they were able to -- and again, we don't know all the details -- but somehow trick three separate groups of hostage holders to come together, meet at a central point in a jungle, and then give up the most valuable hostages they have out of the hundreds of people they are holding, it shows that these guys are not, you know, as good, I guess, as they once were.

ROBINSON: Well, it's as you said earlier, where the FARC leadership is really on its heels. Many people have surrendered. Many people have been killed that are in the senior leadership.

And what's happening right now is they look to their left and right, and the bounties being offered by the government of Colombia from Bogota, they don't know who to trust. And so they are out of their decision cycle, their normal operational preparedness, military operational preparedness posture that they have.

They really are a military organization. They long ago left being a bunch of guerrillas; highly financed, highly equipped, large capability in terms of money. But right now their leadership has been so decimated.

I suspect that the government of Colombia won't let up on them. Negotiations is probably not the way to go. They'll probably now pursue, because the most high value, most publicly-identified hostages are released. There's still about 700 Colombian nationals and others who are being held. But they really have the FARC on the run, and they're going to go after them hard.

COOPER: I know you were down there recently. I was down there on vacation recently. And it is amazing the progress they have made in terms of reducing kidnappings. Walking around Bogota, I felt pretty safe. You know, we have all this image in our mind of what Colombia is like.

It's a place now that's pretty safe for tourists. It's only in these very far away edge of jungle regions where FARC really has the capabilities.

Ken I've got to go. I appreciate the time. Ken Robertson thanks.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

Up next, hostage negotiator Chris Voss who worked on this case until a year ago.

And in San Antonio, Texas, they are waiting for the hostages. It's a moment the families have been dreaming about for more than five years. We're going to bring you all the details as they unfold.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: A proof of life video, that's what they're called. The ultimate good news/bad news story, if you're ever unfortunate enough to see one.

Today's high-stakes rescue mission in Colombia ended a drama that has been dragging on for years.

Chris Voss is the former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator and he worked on this case from the beginning until his retirement just last year. He joins me now.

Chris, this has got to be kind of a remarkable day for you to be so closely involved in this and to finally see it come to fruition. What are your thoughts?

CHRIS VOSS, FORMER FBI LEAD INTERNATIONAL KIDNAPPING NEGOTIATOR: Well, it's -- Anderson, it's really been a long time that a lot of people in the U.S. government have worked this case. There's always been a lot of activity going on behind the scenes, although it hasn't looked like that much has been done.

So there are a lot of people in the U.S. government that are very happy to see these guys come out.

COOPER: And the Colombian government, as well. We're getting a lot of e-mails on our blogs from people in Colombia, saying this is a great day for the country of Colombia, for the armed forces of Colombia. VOSS: Yes, absolutely. The battle that's been going on with the FARC in Colombia has been going on for a long time. And the current administration down there, President Uribe, has done a really good job of knocking them back on their heels. It's been successful for quite a while. So yes, it's very good for the people of Colombia, as well.

COOPER: As I said before the break, I just went down there. The transformation is just -- is remarkable, in Bogota and elsewhere in Colombia.

What do you make of the details of the operation that you know about, that you can say about? Did you expect that a rescue operation like this could have worked, even a year or two ago, with the capabilities of the military?

VOSS: Well, it's a matter of opportunity -- excuse me. -- and timing. And there's been a lot of people with the government of Colombia and the U.S. military, both militaries have been waiting for the right elements to come together at the right time.

So yes, I thought this could happen all along. I was just -- I was just hoping for and waiting for the moment when it did.

COOPER: We have been told that U.S. intelligence found the location or got information about the location of these folks. Just in your past, in your operations, how much -- how much real-time information did you have, if you can say, about the whereabouts of the hostages or about intelligence from the FARC?

VOSS: Well, that's the big problem. There's very little real- time information. Typically, a lot of the intelligence you get in these cases is through intermediaries, and it's generally delayed.

The FARC is in the kidnapping business. That's been a big money-maker of theirs for a long time, and they've gotten very good at keeping people from knowing where they're holding the hostages.

COOPER: Do we know how often they would move hostages?

VOSS: It's -- not for sure. I understand they moved them fairly frequently, but I couldn't tell you exactly how often that would be.

COOPER: Do you know if they had set bases, or were they so mobile that they could go set up a new outpost somewhere and then bring people there?

VOSS: They would generally fix locations. They would prepare to take people places. They had set bases, but what they wanted to do is be as unpredictable as possible so you never knew for sure where they were taking people.

COOPER: Karl Penhaul talked about his experience, communications being better in past years when the FARC were, perhaps, double the size they are now and hadn't had their leadership cut down, that they had radio communication. Does -- you know, hearing the details of what happened it doesn't sound like they were communicating with other groups.

VOSS: No. They would -- the FARC has been decimated as far as the number of people they have. And as they lose people, they lose their ability to communicate with each other effectively. And they lose their ability to move effectively.

COOPER: And they're taking hostages why? I mean, is it -- I mean, on one hand, it's to make money from people trying to pay ransoms. And I guess, what, the other is political, trying to get prisoners released?

VOSS: Well, kidnapping has a remarkably effective destabilizing effect on any government and an economy. It has a tendency to drive out anybody that has any money. It's one of the most devastating economic things that criminals can do to an economy.

So it works for them a lot of ways. They keep control of the countryside through fear and intimidation of kidnapping. Anybody that has money or resources leaves the area. It's -- it's devastating for a government to try to deal with a kidnapping problem that's turned into an epidemic.

COOPER: Chris Voss, congratulations on all your efforts over the years. This is -- you share in the victory today for these hostages. So thank you for that and thank you for your expertise. Appreciate it.

VOSS: Thank you very much, Anderson.

COOPER: Still ahead, our crew is standing by at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, cameras ready, waiting for the three Americans. It is a breaking story. We'll bring you all the latest details. You won't get them anywhere else as they come in.

We'll talk to a former hostage in just a moment. Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back to our live continuing coverage of the return of three Americans; former hostages all returning to this country tonight. We expect them now in the next 15 minutes or so to touch down at Lackland Air Force Base. We will bring that to you live, that's in San Antonio, Texas there. That is where they will land in a plane, then be taken by helicopter to the U.S. military facility where they will be checked out.

It is not clear what their medical condition is. We saw them all three of them able to walk off the aircraft today. Three Americans have been held hostage now in Colombia, in the jungles under very difficult conditions for more than five years; Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.

We're going to have a live report from San Antonio, Texas as the plane arrives.

That was the first image we got of the Americans, the three Americans getting off the plane in Bogota. They were then taken onto another aircraft, flown to the United States and they will be landing shortly.

We've had extensive coverage throughout this evening. Our coverage continues to bring you this remarkable event live, an event many of the family members of these three American contractors who were shot down over the jungles of Colombia more than five years ago, this is a day some of those family members thought might never happen.

Joining us now, Ken Robinson, who knows all the three freed Americans and is also familiar with the work that they were doing. What were these guys doing, flying over that jungle in Colombia, Ken?

ROBINSON: They were working on identifying those locations where coca production or the distribution of coca paste or the production of cocaine was occurring so that they could detect and disrupt those production facilities and prevent it from being sent into the world, into the United States.

COOPER: So they're contractors to the U.S. government?

ROBINSON: That's correct. Northrop Grumman has a contract in Colombia looking with Signals Intelligence through imagery intelligence with these contractors. Many of them were former military and they provide information to the government of Colombia and to the United States in trying to inhibit the dissemination of drugs back into the United States.

COOPER: It's in some ways remarkable that these guys weren't killed early on. They were accused by FARC of being CIA officers. The fact that they have been able to survive this long, it's pretty amazing.

ROBINSON: It's remarkable. You know, the pilot and an intelligence officer from the government of Colombia were killed when that plane crashed, but they took these Americans hostage because hostage-taking is an economy down in Colombia with the FARC.

They've used this for negotiating to get territory, to press their demands, to get publicity for what they're trying to achieve, which was a Marxist state. They wanted to topple the government in Bogota.

COOPER: FARC holding more than 700 hostages still, with 15 released today, but more than 700 people still being held hostage under this organization. And they make money what, through narco trafficking?

ROBINSON: Originally they were Marxist-Leninist. They came out of a peasant revolution and were fighting to have representative government in Bogota. But Colombia has changed so much since the days when it started.

Since then, in the '60s when they began, they morphed into a group that was providing security for the drug cartels. They would provide security at airfields. They would provide security for transportation. And then they would also, some of them started getting into production themselves.

And so the whole economy of it changed, and then the FARC became very, very wealthy. They had the ability to buy large amounts of ammunition, large guns, and they became a real force to be reckoned with all throughout the '90s.

COOPER: Have you ever heard of or seen an operation like the one that apparently took place today? And, again, the details are still kind of sketchy.

It seems there was some U.S. involvement on the intelligence level. But basically, this seemed like a large-scale, very well planned out deception where FARC was basically duped into believing they were handing over these 15 hostages to another FARC group. And in fact that other FARC group were Colombian special forces.

ROBINSON: Well, it's reminiscent of the Entebbe raid that happened when an aircraft was taken hostage, and the plane landed in Entebbe, Uganda. And the Israeli commandos at that time put a very expensive car, a Mercedes, onto the aircraft and dressed someone to look like Idi Amin who was the dictator at the time.

And when they rolled off the plane, the ruse was that they thought the leader of their country was coming, and it bought them two or three minutes of uncertainty that enabled them to overcome the hostages, and they only lost one individual on that raid, a guy, it was Netanyahu, the brother of the former prime minister.

COOPER: It's a remarkable operation and one we have not seen before, frankly, from the Colombian military although they have been fighting the FARC now very aggressively, especially under President Uribe.

We're going to take a short break. We've got new information on the freed hostages as well.

Before we take that break, though, let's go to Drew Griffin who's standing by in San Antonio to greet this aircraft.

Drew, what are you hearing?

GRIFFIN: Yes, just basically what you're hearing, too. The first stop will be that Kelly Field that you're seeing over at Lackland Air Force Base. And from there, Anderson, they will actually take helicopters over to the Brooke Army Medical Center. That's where I'm standing. The helicopter pad is right behind me.

From there they'll take a very short drive to the hospital itself and get checked out. What we're hearing is perhaps tomorrow there will be a news conference on the grounds ere where we might be able to speak with them. But tonight just a transfer. I mean, just their trip alone today, Anderson, must be stressful, let alone coming out of the jungle after five plus years in captivity.

But we'll just wait and see what we'll see tonight. But we are expecting them to step off a helicopter right behind me and head into this medical treatment center from the army.

COOPER: Yes, we're not exactly sure of their medical condition. I think it's a like six-hour flight, if my memory serves me correct, from Bogota or six plus hours. We had heard from George Gonsalves, who we're going to talk to after this break as well; the father of one of the hostages, former hostages, Marc, who said that he had heard from a Colombian police officer who escaped from the FARC, that his son may be suffering from hepatitis. That's obviously one thing authorities will be looking at.

Again, we don't know the full medical condition of any of these hostages. Drew's waiting for them there. We've got a whole host of guests as well. We're going to take a quick break.

And we'll be right back with our live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And there it is, San Antonio, Texas. Kelly Field at Lackland Air Force Base where they are waiting and we are waiting for the plane carrying three Americans about to set foot back on U.S. soil after more than five years in captivity in Colombia.

We're also getting details on the rescue operation from Karl Penhaul. He lives in Colombia, joins us by phone from there.

Karl, there has been a press conference in this last hour, the Colombian president, military leaders, talking about new details of this operation. What are you learning?

PENHAUL: Well, this really is the key thing; some very new details are coming out now, Anderson. And from what they say, well yes, you think about successful hostage rescues in the past such as the Israeli raid on Entebbe, maybe the British S.A.S. in the Iranian Embassy in London. And this operation was nothing like any of those.

From what the Colombian generals have been telling us in that press conference, the deception started more than one month ago. The hostages, the 15 hostages that were released today were being held in three separate groups, 100 miles apart from one another. And so what the Colombian generals have told us is that they started radio deception. They started radio intercepts.