Pawns in the Jungles of Colombia

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 2, 2008

Though it may be losing the battle in Congress over free trade with Colombia, the Bush administration is close to recording a major success in Colombia itself. Thanks in part to billions of dollars in U.S. aid and training for the Colombian army, the FARC terrorist group -- which has ravaged Colombia's countryside for four decades -- is close to collapse. Since March it has lost three of its top seven commanders, including legendary leader Manuel Marulanda. Laptops containing its most sensitive secrets have been seized by the Colombian government, and foot soldiers are deserting in droves.

Yet this achievement has come at painful costs -- some of which are shamefully little known to Americans. That point was brought home to me recently by Luis Eladio Pérez, a spirited survivor of Colombia's war against the FARC who has made the rescue of three of its American victims a personal cause.

American victims? Don't be surprised if you have never heard of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell; The Post has published only three substantial stories about them in the past five years. All three are U.S. citizens who were working for Pentagon contractor Northrop Grumman when their surveillance plane crashed in a remote Colombian jungle on Feb. 13, 2003. Since then, they have been hostages of the FARC, confined with chains and forced to endure a nightmarish life of isolation, disease and brutality.

The State Department and U.S. Southern Command routinely say that obtaining the men's release is a top priority. In practice not much has been done over the years, largely because any action would be difficult or contrary to larger U.S. interests. The Americans are among the most prized of the more than 700 hostages held by the FARC; they are heavily guarded and nearly impossible to find in Colombia's vast, triple-canopy jungle.

Even worse, from the perspective of the captives, their government and media rarely even speak about them. It's not just The Post: Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have visited Colombia in the past year, but neither mentioned Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell in their prepared public statements.

Pérez, a former Colombian senator, could not help but feel the men's distress. At the time Bush visited, Pérez was chained by the neck to Howe. Taken hostage himself in June 2001, Pérez lived with the Americans from late 2003 to late 2004, and then again from October 2006 until his release in February. The 55-year-old politician was freed in a deal orchestrated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and appears to be in remarkably good health now. But he is anguished about those he left behind. "It hurts me to be here enjoying coffee and knowing that they are there in the jungle chained to each other," Pérez told me. "I'm not happy to think of them rotting. I haven't stopped one day trying to help them."

Pérez came to Washington in part because the men gave him letters addressed to President Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the presidential candidates and The Post, among others. FARC guards confiscated the letters, so Pérez is trying to deliver their messages himself. "They are asking the country to please not abandon them," he said. "They are saying that they love their country, they love the flag, that they are rotting in the jungle and please do something for them."

What could be done? Pérez wishes that Bush would consider the FARC's demand that two of its members imprisoned in the United States -- including one sentenced in January to 60 years for conspiring to hold the Americans hostage -- be exchanged for the three men. He points out that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has expressed a willingness to exchange FARC prisoners for hostages and that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to accept FARC detainees temporarily in France if it will lead to the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who holds French citizenship.

Such suggestions get a cold reception in Washington, and for good reason. Among other things, the release of convicted FARC terrorists would undermine what has been a successful extradition program between Colombia and the United States and give a political boost to a crumbling movement. The implosion of the FARC has been a huge setback to Chávez, who was trying to rehabilitate it and use it as a vehicle to export his "Bolivarian revolution" to Colombia.

Therein may lie the Americans' best hope. Pérez confirms that the FARC "is looking for a political solution" in conjunction with Chávez. He's hoping its leaders can be convinced that such an end must begin with a unilateral release of the remaining hostages. "The FARC must make a decision," Pérez said. If Betancourt or other hostages die, he added, "it will be the end of the FARC." That would be a triumph for Colombia and for the Bush administration -- but not much consolation for three American families.

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