- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Eighteen members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Washington on terrorism and weapons charges in connection with the taking of three U.S. citizens as hostages in Colombia.

Assistant Attorney General David Kris, who heads the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said the hostages — Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes — were held in the Colombian jungle by members of FARC for more than five years until their rescue by Colombian military forces in July 2008.

The indictment charges the 18 FARC members with conspiracy to commit hostage taking, hostage taking, using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and a designated foreign terrorist organization. In addition, several of the suspects face murder charges in relation to FARC’s execution of two other hostages seized at the same time as the three Americans.

FARC was designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

“We will not tire in our pursuit of all those responsible for this crime. I applaud the many prosecutors, agents and analysts who have worked tirelessly to bring about these charges as we seek justice for the victims of these hostage-takings,” Mr. Kris said.

It was not immediately clear how many, if any, of the suspects have been detained, whether in Colombia or the U.S.

Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell and Mr. Howes, along with two others, were conducting counter-drug aerial surveillance in southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003, when their Cessna aircraft experienced engine failure and was forced to make an emergency landing on a remote mountainside where a large contingent of FARC guerrillas were gathered.

All five occupants of the plane survived the crash, but were taken captive by the FARC guerrillas.

The pilot of the plane, Thomas Janis, and the Colombian national, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, were executed by FARC, and their bodies left near the crash site. Four of the defendants — Carlos Alberto Garcia, Juan Carlos Reina Chica, Jaime Cortes Mejia and Carlos Arturo Cespedes Tovar — are charged with murder of a U.S. national outside the United States.

That crime can carry the death penalty, but the U.S. often agrees in extradition deals with foreign countries not to seek execution.

Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell and Mr. Howes were held under what the Justice Department described as “barbaric conditions” for more than five years.

The indictment says the defendants used choke harnesses, chains, padlocks and wires to bind the necks and wrists of the American hostages to prevent their escape, and constructed a large barbed-wire concentration camp to hold dozens of civilian hostages in the jungle for more than a year, including the three Americans.

As Colombian rescue efforts intensified in later years, the indictment says the defendants forced the hostages to move long distances, from camp to camp, including a grueling 40-day march while carrying heavy backpacks through dense jungle to outrun Colombian military forces.

The indictment sheds new light on the international aspect of FARC’s hostage-taking enterprise, claiming the hostages were told at a 2003 meeting by several senior members of FARC’s Estado Mayor Central that their detention would assist FARC by increasing international pressure on Colombia’s government to capitulate to their demands. It also charges that the defendants transported the hostages, at times, into neighboring Venezuela to avoid Colombian authorities.

One of the defendants, Tanja Nijmeijer, gained notoriety in recent years in Colombia after her personal journal was recovered in a 2007 military raid. Excerpts of a video interview of her were made public this year.

On the video, Ms. Nijmeijer describes how she helped FARC as an operative in Bogota before eventually joining the group as an armed insurgent in November 2002. She says on the video she will be a “guerrilla until we are victorious or until we die, and there’s no turning back.”

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