- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

A founding member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has been indicted on terrorism and weapons charges stemming from the kidnapping of three Americans who were rescued last month after five years in captivity.

Hely Mejia Mendoza, known as Martin Sombra, served as the “jailer” of the three American hostages for the first two years they were held, according to an indictment unsealed Friday in federal court in the District.

The three Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes — were held for five years before members of the Colombian military posing as aid workers tricked their captors, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, into releasing them July 2.

The operation also freed Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian troops.

The three Americans, who were U.S. military contractors, were conducting aerial drug surveillance in 2003 when their plane crash-landed in the southern state of Caqueta. FARC, which the U.S. describes as terrorists and the world’s largest cocaine dealers, quickly executed two other occupants of the plane — American pilot Thomas Janis and Colombian national Luis Alcides Cruz — before taking the other three men hostage.

According to the indictment, Mr. Sombra, 55, designed and supervised the construction of a jungle prison camp that was surrounded by barbed wire and confined the Americans and other hostages.

Mr. Sombra also bound the necks and wrist of the Americans with chains and wires and made them wear heavy backpacks before forcing them on a grueling 40-day march through jungle to elude Colombian authorities, according to the indictment.

He also is accused of telling underlings to kill the Americans and other hostages if it appeared that Colombian authorities could rescue them.

According to the indictment, Mr. Sombra also took part in filming a 2003 “proof of life” video of the three Americans. FARC said in the video that they wouldn’t release the Americans until the group’s political demands were met.

Mr. Sombra, who was among the 43 men who founded the FARC in 1964, was arrested in February by Colombian authorities. The details of his capture were not clear Monday.

The Justice Department said Monday that Mr. Sombra is the highest-ranking FARC member ever captured. He remained jailed in Colombia, though U.S. authorities are expected to seek extradition.

He would be the second high-ranking FARC member to face trial in the U.S. on charges stemming from the kidnappings of Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell and Mr. Howes.

Last year, Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda, known as Simon Trinidad, was sentenced to the maximum of 60 years in prison. Prosecutors said Trinidad’s job was to make political demands in exchange for the release of the hostages.

If convicted, Mr. Sombra would face the same maximum prison sentence, since that’s the longest prison term permitted under Colombian law for citizens extradited to the U.S.

Two other FARC members also have been arrested in connection with the kidnappings, but remain jailed in Colombia.

A second indictment related to the American hostages also was unsealed Friday and charges six top-ranking FARC members.

Two of them, the two-highest ranking members, Manuel Marulanda Velez and Raul Reyes, were killed earlier this year.

The U.S. is offering rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of any of the other four FARC leaders under indictment.

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