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.
Although similar hostage swaps have been negotiated periodically, Uribe's administration fears that giving in to too many of the FARC's demands would encourage more abductions. Uribe's tough policy against the rebels has coincided with recent drops in kidnapping and violent crime, and surveys place his approval rating above 70 percent among Colombians polled.
"You can deal with the FARC, but it's not easy," said Vice President Francisco Santos, who was kidnapped by the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1990 and held hostage for about eight months. "They're tough as nails, and when you give up something, they see it as a sign of weakness, not negotiation."
Early last month, the possibility of a "humanitarian exchange" was raised again. Government officials said they expected to meet with FARC representatives within days to begin talks on a hostage swap. But instead, FARC leaders rejected the offer, complaining that the proposed meeting site, a church in a town 90 miles west of Bogota, the capital, was not in an officially demilitarized zone.
Potential talks are further complicated by the possibility that Uribe will run for reelection next year, if a constitutional amendment allowing him to do so is affirmed by the country's Constitutional Court. Analysts said freeing the hostages would be a public relations victory for Uribe's campaign, something the FARC would prefer to avoid.
Still, the government hopes to keep the door open. Now it has turned to the Catholic church for mediation, hoping church leaders might help restart peace talks. Some observers expressed cautious optimism, noting that the church is respected by all sides and that the guerrillas have been weakened by government actions to reduce their drug profits. But others said the rebels would start talking only if they believed that armed insurgency has failed.
"I believe the FARC will not go to the negotiating table . . . until they are persuaded that they cannot gain power through the use of arms," said Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, a former ambassador and a member of the National Conciliation Commission, who has participated in various peace attempts over 20 years.
Reports of the renewed efforts have made little impression on the hostages' families, who expressed bitterness toward their sons' captors and frustration with the governments they look to for help.
"I feel forgotten," Rosano said by telephone from Connecticut. "Here it is, 21/2 years later, and everyone still says they're doing everything they can. But whatever they're doing isn't working. I don't want my son to grow old in Colombia."
Silvio Hernandez often attends weekly demonstrations in the large square outside the Colombian Congress, holding up a portrait of his son while he and a handful of other parents gather to chant in support of hostage swaps. It gives him something to do, but he said it hardly lifts his spirits.
"Look around," he said during one small protest, watching pedestrians go about their business with unbroken strides. "No one is paying attention."
His wife stayed home, going through an album of letters and drawings from her son that were forwarded by the FARC. The most recent letter is now two years old, as are the videotapes of Elquin and seven other hostages that the FARC sent to a Colombian news program in April 2003.
But even though the family has no proof he is still alive, each week family members call a local radio station to tape a brief greeting, hoping the broadcast will reach their son in some guerrilla hideout.
"The messages to Elquin are like oxygen to me," Magdalena Hernandez said. "The day I don't send a message, he might worry. You cannot forget your children."