September 28, 2007
Family members of three Pentagon workers held captive by Colombian guerrillas for more than four years flew to South America to raise the profile of their plight
After more than four years of lonesome despair, it was an occasion to relish the attention.
In less than 72 hours the Florida-based relatives of three Pentagon contractors held hostage by left-wing guerrillas in Colombia traveled to three countries to meet with two presidents and one U.S. ambassador.
And they came away with a sense that for the first time the rock-hard geopolitical realities that have kept Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves somewhere in the Colombian jungles are beginning to crack.
''I feel very good about what is happening,'' said Howes' wife Mariana, of Cocoa Beach, their 10-year-old boy Tommy at her side. ``I feel that everyone is ready to do whatever it takes to make this happen.''
The three were captured by the FARC in 2003 when their drug surveillance aircraft went down in the Colombian jungle. Their relatives are emerging from anonymity as international negotiations to secure their release pick up.
On Saturday, some met in Orlando with Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba, who has Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's blessing to act as a mediator in a swap that would see 45 high-profile hostages exchanged for 500 jailed FARC guerrillas.
On Monday, they boarded an aircraft leased by Northrop Grumman, the employer of the three hostages, and headed to Caracas, where they met with leftist President Hugo Chávez, who also has offered to mediate a swap.
The relatives had nothing but praise for Chávez and said they feel he is sincere in his efforts.
''He's very clear, he wants to make the humanitarian exchange [happen] . . . As he said at the meeting, I have no cards under the table, my agenda is to get the Americans home,'' said George Gonsalves, the father of one of the Americans.
They then flew to Bogotá to meet with U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, who has said he welcomes any efforts to get the Americans released.
This is welcome news for the relatives, who feel the U.S. government abandoned them for too long.
''We were totally disillusioned that there was no American support for this,'' said Lynne Stansell, the mother of Keith, standing beside her husband, Gene, and Keith's 15-year old son Kyle.
''Three Americans were held for four and a half years and no one knows, our neighbors don't even know about it,'' said Stansell, who lives in Sarasota. ``It's just amazing to us that Israel would go to war for one soldier and America has had three [hostages] for four and a half years. It's been very frustrating.''
The family members then flew back to New York to talk with Uribe on Thursday. They put out a statement saying they were ''extremely grateful'' for the chance to meet the Colombian leader.
The group is not entirely sure the hostages are alive. The last video of the three is more than three years old. Earlier this year, Jhon Frank Pinchao, a Colombian policeman, escaped from captivity and later gave the relatives some details about the lives of the Americans in captivity.
The family members handed Chávez letters and pictures to give to the FARC, in the hopes that the guerrillas may reciprocate with evidence that the Americans are in good health.
France, Spain and Switzerland have also weighed in to support the swap, as has the Catholic Church. There was even talk of U.S. members of Congress traveling to Caracas to meet with the FARC on Oct. 8.
But peace negotiations in Colombia have been long and hard in the past.
Some of the difficulties were laid out by Uribe at a U.N. General Assembly speech Thursday, where he refused significant concessions but did not shut the door completely to a deal.
He dismissed a demand by the FARC for a demilitarized zone in Colombia that would be used to negotiate the swap.
''We are open to a humanitarian agreement,'' he said, ``but we cannot allow demilitarized zones, which are ultimately concentration camps run by terrorists.''
Any FARC guerrillas freed in a swap also would have to agree not to ``return to crime.''
He also demanded that any U.S. congressional delegation involved in the talks should include Republicans.
Whether any members of Congress -- Republican or Democrat -- would agree to meet with Chávez and the FARC is not clear.
Massachussetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern has said he would go to Caracas only if such a meeting held the promise of tangible results.
Uribe also said he has made many concessions already. Prodded by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is pushing for the release of French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, Uribe freed several FARC guerrillas, including a senior official known as Rodrigo Granda.
Uribe bristles at the idea that the FARC could score political points through the negotiations.
''The options open for the release of the kidnapped victims . . . are not options for the political positioning of terrorism,'' he told the General Assembly.
Uribe softened his tone somewhat after meeting the family members. ''It was a moving meeting,'' he said, recalling other meetings he had with Colombian relatives of the hostages. ``They are in a lot of pain, they are good people.''
But he declined to go into details or make any promises. ''I answered all their questions from the heart,'' he said.