Kidnapped in Colombia

October 28th, 2007 - by admin

Mike Ceaser / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service – 2007-10-28 22:02:19

COLOMBIA (October 7, 2007) — “Hi Daddy, this is Thomas. I love you so much and know you’re coming back soon to be with me. I’m sending you a picture of my baseball team. My team was the winner this season. I pray every night so you can come back soon.”

The message from 9-year-old Thomas Howes Jr. to his father, Tom Howes, an American contractor held hostage by Colombian guerrillas, aired recently on “Voices of Kidnapping,” one of the world’s grimmest radio shows.

Each Sunday morning, Colombia’s airwaves fill with messages for the loved ones of kidnap victims who may or may not be allowed to listen, may have been held for more than a decade or, in some instances, have died. The program, “Voices of Kidnapping,” is a poignant symbol of Colombia’s civil war, which has dragged on for more than four decades.

Howe and fellow Americans Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were captured by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2003 after their drug surveillance aircraft was shot down in a remote jungle area. They were employed by the Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp.

While there has been little word of the Americans’ fate, there is renewed hope that their ordeal and that of thousands of Colombians held hostage may soon end, thanks to an unlikely collection of international leaders who were asked to help in finding a solution, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa.

Most analysts agree that Chavez is uniquely positioned to negotiate with the rebels because of their shared socialist ideals and antipathy toward Washington. In a communique last month, FARC leaders praised Chavez’s efforts, calling him a “comrade.”

Sarkozy has championed the release of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian-French citizenship. She was captured by FARC in 2002 with her vice presidential running mate, who since has had a child with one of her captors. Prodded by Sarkozy, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe freed 177 FARC guerrillas in June, including a high-ranking senior official named Rodrigo Granda who then flew to Cuba.

“Things are marching forward like never before,” said Alfredo Rangel, head of the Bogota think tank Security and Democracy.

In the past decade, an estimated 23,000 people have been kidnapped with some 3,000 currently held, mostly by leftist guerrillas but also by right-wing paramilitary militias and common criminals, the latter who often sell their prisoners to the rebels.

The kidnappings began in earnest in the mid-1980s after the nation’s two main leftist rebel groups – FARC and the National Liberation Army – began taking people for ransom to help finance their activities. Most rebel targets are politicians, businessmen, soldiers, journalists and sometimes foreign tourists. The right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia concentrates on leftist politicians and those they suspect of being rebel sympathizers.

Some observers say the sudden push to free the hostages may have been triggered by Gustavo Moncayo, 55, a schoolteacher from the town of Sandona near the Ecuador border whose soldier son has been held by FARC for almost 10 years.

Frustrated by what he described as a lack of political will by the Uribe government, Moncayo attracted national attention by walking 600 miles across Colombia along with hundreds of supporters.

When Moncayo arrived in Bogota at the end of August, he camped out for several weeks in front of the central plaza between Congress and the Supreme Court, where he was joined by thousands of supporters. He even engaged in a heated open-air debate with Uribe.

“The Colombian people identified with us and continue supporting us, and there are voices of support on all sides,” Moncayo said. “This has put the problem on a new track.”

The rural schoolteacher has since traveled to Caracas to meet with Chavez and to Europe in an effort to drum up support for a proposed swap in which FARC would free some 50 hostages – including the three Americans – in exchange for 500 imprisoned guerrillas.

The movement to release the hostages also follows the June killings of 11 lawmakers kidnapped by FARC in 2002. Although FARC leaders say they were killed in a cross fire during a bungled rescue attempt by the army, many observers say they were killed execution-style. The murders generated widespread protests and underlined the constant peril that the hostages face.

Also key to the new momentum, said analyst Rangel, is the unlikely warm relationship between Chavez and the conservative, pro-American Uribe, who has given his Venezuelan counterpart the go-ahead to contact the guerrillas.

In recent weeks, Chavez has met with relatives of the kidnapped Americans in Caracas and is expected to meet with rebel representatives sometime this month. Family members have given the Venezuelan leader letters and photos to give to the FARC, hoping the guerrillas may reciprocate with evidence that the Americans are well.

“This is the most hope we’ve ever had,” said Jo Rosano, the mother of hostage Gonsalves, who has written a letter to Chavez, calling him “our only hope.”

Even the Bush and Chavez administrations, despite long-running tense relations, have shown some flexibility.

In a rare encounter between senior diplomats of the two countries, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters that he spent much of an hourlong meeting Tuesday discussing the release of the three Americans with Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. envoy for the Americas. Maduro also said Venezuela welcomed Uribe’s proposal that a U.S. congressional delegation accompany Chavez in his meeting with rebels.

Most recently, Chavez made a rare overture to Bush, asking for support for his mediation efforts.

If Chavez, who relishes showing up the Bush administration and being considered a regional leader, succeeds in freeing the Americans, it “would certainly be a big embarrassment for the Bush administration that they needed their biggest adversary in the region to help them resolve this problem,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst with Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Adam Isacson, an analyst who follows Colombia for the Center for International Policy in Washington, is cautiously optimistic that Chavez can pull it off.

“We’ve seen more progress than we have before,” he said. “But once we actually get to the negotiating table … there’s all these sorts of insurmountable things.”

Uribe has ruled out several of the guerrillas’ principal demands, including the return of FARC commanders Ricardo Palmera and Nayibe “Sonia” Rojas from U.S. prisons. Rojas was convicted this year by a U.S. court of exporting cocaine, while Palmera – known as Simon Trinidad – is awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges.

“If I were to accept the demand that Mrs. Sonia and Mr. Trinidad be returned from the United States to participate in a humanitarian exchange with the FARC, that would be disastrous,” Uribe said after meeting in Bogota last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

He has also said he will not abide by the FARC demand that he withdraw army troops from two municipalities near the southern city of Cali, where negotiations would take place.

Meanwhile, radio journalist Herbin Hoyos, who created “Voices of Kidnapping” in 1994 eight days after being rescued by Colombian soldiers from guerrilla captivity, said he expects his program to continue for some time. He said the idea came from a fellow hostage.

“In the guerrilla camp, I met a 62-year-old man who had been kidnapped two years before, and had a radio in one hand while his other hand was chained to a tree,” Hoyos said. “And he told me, ‘Why don’t you journalists ever do anything for us?’

“I’ve always said that ‘Voices of Kidnapping’ will end when the last kidnapee comes home,” he said. “And for the time being, I know that the end of ‘Voices of Kidnapping’ is not close.”

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

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