Hostages' Frustrated Families Keep Faith

Silvio Hernandez holds a picture of his kidnapped son, Elquin, during a demonstration outside Colombia's Congress.
Silvio Hernandez holds a picture of his kidnapped son, Elquin, during a demonstration outside Colombia's Congress. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 8, 2005

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In the apartment above his shoemaking shop, Silvio Hernandez and his wife, Magdalena, slip a worn videotape into a VCR. They watch the grainy footage through tearful eyes and listen once again to the only words they've heard from their son Elquin since he was abducted by anti-government rebels in 1998, when he was 22.

"Fortunately, I do not have children, because they would be suffering in this situation," Elquin Hernandez says on the tape, made in the rebels' jungle hideout. Flies crawl across the camera lens and swarm around him.

About 2,500 miles away, at her home in central Connecticut, Jo Rosano sometimes watches another video, taped by a journalist who was granted brief access to her son, Marc Gonsalves. A U.S. government contractor on an aerial drug surveillance mission, he was seized by rebels after his plane crash-landed in the Colombian jungle on Feb. 13, 2003.

"I want you to know I'm being strong," says Gonsalves, who was 31 when he was captured along with two other Americans on the plane. "I'm not being hurt or tortured. I'm just waiting to come home."

Hernandez and Gonsalves are among 60 hostages being offered as part of a prisoner exchange by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The guerrilla group, which has been waging war against the Colombian government for 41 years, says the freedom of the hostages depends on the release of about 300 rebels imprisoned in Colombia and the United States, some of them for drug trafficking and murder. Beyond the group of 60 hostages, there are estimates that several times that many have been kidnapped by the FARC. One of the most prominent is Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped in 2002 while campaigning for president.

"The government must negotiate for their release, because there's no other solution," Silvio Hernandez said after watching the video one recent evening. "We've been going through this for seven years. We have no horizon to our lives."

Negotiating a release with the FARC is exceedingly thorny. The 13,000-member insurgency has proved to be a relentless adversary of the government, and it controls substantial areas of the countryside. The group espouses a Marxist revolutionary ideology and has depended heavily on drug trafficking to finance its operations.

In the 1980s, a group of wealthy landowners banded together to establish a network of paramilitary operatives to defend against attacks by the FARC. The paramilitary groups, sometimes linked to members of the Colombian military, have been blamed by human rights groups and others for massacres of civilians.

The government of President Alvaro Uribe has pursued a policy of encouraging the paramilitary fighters to demobilize in return for resettlement and light penalties for their crimes. The offer has prompted some to surrender, and officials hope to demobilize 20,000 of them by the end of the year.

But officials and analysts say the FARC and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, are reluctant to give up their fight and have opposed peace entreaties from the government. The guerrillas also charge that Uribe has been softer on the paramilitary groups and more open to compromises with them.

The U.S. government, which considers the FARC a terrorist group, refuses to negotiate for the return of Gonsalves or the two other Americans captured with him: Tom Howes, now 52, of Merritt Island, Fla., and Keith Stansell, now 41, of Colquitt, Ga. All three were civilian employees of California Microwave Systems, a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp., working under U.S. military contract to conduct aerial surveys of areas where coca crops are grown.

The FARC routinely kidnaps people for short periods to raise money through ransom, but it has identified only the 60 long-term hostages -- including policemen, soldiers, politicians and the three U.S. contractors -- as "exchangeable" with the government.

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