Monday, June 2, 2008

The Hostages No One Talks About

US citizens have been held hostage in Colombia for five years, and aside from very casual mentions in the media, they have largely been forgotten. Speaking their names isn't even something this government can do when it is on Colombian soil--it would draw attention to another diplomatic failure.

Don't be surprised if you have never heard of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell; The [Washington] 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 three men were taken hostage after their plane crashed into the remote Colombian jungle. This was certainly not the first or only time the US has lost aircraft and personnel in Colombia:

In July 1999, an American spy plane monitoring the skies and intercepting communications traffic crashed into a mountainside in Colombia, killing the seven men on board - five of them US military personnel.

It's difficult to specify what, if anything, the Bush Administration has done to secure their release. By antagonizing the government of Hugo Chavez, the United States cannot expect any help from the Venezuelan allies of the FARC.

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.

[Luis Eladio] 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.

Taking care of our own and doing the difficult work of diplomacy is the Achilles heel of the Bush State Department. Letting a few narco-terrorists go would do what in the war on drugs? Set us back a decade or more? We're so far behind in the war on drugs that it wouldn't make a lick of difference if we let a few of them go. Good luck to them--anyone we let go would be ostracized by their former associates anyway. Keeping them in prison does what for us when we could let them go and get our personnel back?

It all comes down to the State Department. It used to work pretty well. It used to be something to be proud of. Good people led astray and held back and forced to retire is the best way to describe what we have right now. We have eviscerated our diplomatic corps. We have hundreds of empty positions and a desperate need to engage our friends, enemies, and neutral partners on every level.

Jackson Diehl goes on to say:

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.

Perhaps the next President will solve the problem. Sad to say, we're just running out the clock.

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