- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — Guarded by hundreds of armed rebels deep in a jungle infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes, three American captives pass the time playing with a homemade deck of cards and dreaming of their families. The threat of death always hangs nearby.

The three U.S. military contractors have been cut off from the outside world since their capture by rebels seven months ago. That isolation was broken when a Colombian journalist traveled for days over rough roads and jungle rivers with a rebel escort, into remote southern Colombia, to interview them July 25.

“They were nervous and there were traces of fear on their faces,” free-lance reporter Jorge Enrique Botero said after interviewing the three, Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell.

They are the first U.S. military contractors captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Colombia’s 39-year guerrilla war.

The United States has long been providing military aid to halt cocaine production controlled by the rebels and their paramilitary foes, and recently began training and providing intelligence for counterinsurgency operations.

The three U.S. men were reportedly working for Pentagon contractor California Microwave Systems when their single-engine plane crash-landed in FARC-controlled territory on Feb. 13. The rebels reportedly executed a fourth American, Tom Janis, and a Colombian soldier, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, who also were aboard.

The three Americans, considered prisoners of war by the FARC, slept in an 18-by-18 wooden hut in beds fashioned from branches, Mr. Botero said Thursday.

“There is always a guard five yards away from them,” he said. “Any rescue attempt will end with their deaths.”

Mr. Howes and Mr. Gonsalves fought boredom by playing cards made from notebook paper and said they longed for a radio. Having one “would be medicine for the soul,” Mr. Howes said.

They knew nothing of America’s war in Iraq until Mr. Botero handed them a newsmagazine.

“They didn’t know that Saddam was gone,” Mr. Botero said. “They had no idea about what has been happening in the world.”

Photographs Mr. Botero took of the men show them appearing healthy and clean-cut, except for Mr. Gonsalves, who wore a goatee. Mr. Stansell’s hair was cropped into a flattop.

The men wore camouflage uniforms provided by the rebels, which would hamper rescuers from distinguishing friend from foe. In the photos, rebels holding Kalashnikov assault rifles stood behind the men.

Mr. Botero said that Mr. Howes, who at 50 is the oldest of the captives and has a young son with his Peruvian wife, spent a lot of time reflecting on his priorities.

“He is redesigning his list of values,” Mr. Botero said. “He says the real treasure is the family.”

A rebel commander told the Americans their only hope for freedom would be an exchange of hostages held by the rebels for imprisoned guerrillas. If President Alvaro Uribe rejects an exchange, the Americans face years in captivity, said the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre “Alfredo.”

Colombian troops and U.S. Special Forces have found no trace of the Americans in seven months of searching.

If they are ever located, U.S. officials say Colombian soldiers would carry out any rescue attempt. Washington is reluctant to further broaden U.S. military involvement in Colombia.

Mr. Botero said the three made clear they want to be freed through a prisoner exchange, not a rescue.

“I asked them, what do you think of the word ‘rescue?’ And the three said, ‘Death. Death. Death,’” he recalled. “The three reject that path.”

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Friday saying the United States seeks “to obtain the safe release of the American hostages without making concessions to the terrorists holding them.”

Mr. Botero said the Americans recounted their capture after the engine of their U.S. government Cessna cut out at 14,000 feet and they crash-landed in a clearing in southern Caqueta state.

Mr. Botero said the Americans told him the pilots, Mr. Howes and Mr. Janis, were knocked unconscious in the crash. Mr. Stansell, who had two broken ribs, and Mr. Gonsalves and Sgt. Cruz crawled out and tried to pull the pilots from the plane, afraid it might explode. They then saw rebels closing in.

“The Colombian shouted, ‘The FARC! The FARC! Let’s go!’ But [Mr. Gonsalves and Mr. Stansell] said, ‘No, first we’ll get our friends out,’” Mr. Botero said. “They got the pilots out, and when they finished doing so, the guerrillas arrived.”

The rebels captured all five, but separated the three from Mr. Janis and Sgt. Cruz, the captives recounted to Mr. Botero. The three later learned they were killed. Mr. Stansell said they were too afraid to ask the guerrillas how Mr. Janis and Sgt. Cruz died.

Their bullet-riddled bodies were later recovered, and the U.S. and Colombian governments have accused the FARC of executing them.

The FARC and a smaller leftist rebel army have been waging war on the Colombian government for nearly 40 years. About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, die in the fighting each year.

Mr. Botero, who has known some senior FARC commanders since they studied together in the former Soviet Union, will publish his account on the Americans in a Colombian magazine next week.

The Associated Press purchased Mr. Botero’s photographs of the American captives for international distribution.

He is also trying to sell a video he shot of the captured Americans to a U.S. television network. The FBI previously confirmed it has obtained copies of part of the video, apparently from an American producer.

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