BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — They were the forgotten hostages.
On Feb. 13, 2003, U.S. military contractors Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes were kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas after their drug-surveillance plane crash-landed in southern Colombia.
But what should have been an intriguing, heart-wrenching story went largely unnoticed because the contractors were abducted just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With the eyes of the nation focused on Baghdad, hardly anyone realized that three Americans were missing in the Colombian rain forest.
After enduring more than five years in captivity, the three hostages were finally rescued last summer by the Colombian military. And now, Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes are finally having their say.
In "Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle" (by William Morrow), the three men recount the details of the crash that led to their abduction by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. And they write of forced marches, sleeping in chains, jungle illnesses and a strange diet that included everything from popcorn to bowls of soup bobbing with the heads and feet of chicken.
But in the book and in telephone interviews with the authors, one of the most surprising revelations was that getting along with their fellow prisoners proved almost as difficult as dealing with their cruel prison wardens.
They describe several captured Colombian soldiers and police officers as “trusties” who collaborated with the guerrillas in exchange for food and other favors. In addition, Colombia’s class divisions held sway in their prison camp, with upper-crust Colombian political hostages looking down their noses at the Americans and the captured troops, who came from peasant backgrounds.
But the authors save their most withering criticism for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped a year before the Americans, and who was the most famous of the hostages. The authors claim that the married Betancourt carried on an affair with a fellow hostage, hoarded scarce food, books and a radio and tried to order the other prisoners around.
“We had one set of bosses and that was the FARC,” Howes said in a telephone interview from New York. “Not too many people want bosses inside the prisoner community.”
Stansell claims that in an effort to remove the Americans from the prison camp, Betancourt tried to convince the prison guards that the American contractors — who were working for military contractor Northrop Grumman photographing drug labs — were CIA agents.
“We could have been executed because she wanted more space in the camp for herself,” Stansell wrote in the book. “It was reckless and irresponsible and I was so angry I could hardly see straight.”
Their portrayal of Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen who became a heroine in Europe during her six years in captivity and was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize, contrasts sharply with the description offered by other former hostages.
Luis Eladio Perez, a former Colombian senator held hostage alongside the Americans and Betancourt, said Betancourt nursed him back to health after he fell into a diabetic coma. Showing great courage, he said, she also tried to escape on several occassions but was promptly recaptured.
“The Americans' book is repugnant,” said Humberto de la Calle, a former Colombian vice-president. “The way they treat Ingrid is undignified and unacceptable.”
Betancourt has refused to comment.
To kill time, the Americans built a set of weights out of logs. Gonsalves spent months whittling a chess set, which led to epic, multi-day matches. And they dreamed about taking a motorcycle ride around the United States if they were ever liberated.
But the perils of the jungle were always present. The Americans suffered from malaria, a flesh-eating disease called leishmaniasis, and worm-like parasites that burrowed into their bodies and could only be extracted by blowing cigarette smoke over the open wounds.
They were constantly conspiring to escape but realized that evading the guerrillas, navigating the thick jungle, and reaching freedom would be next to impossible.
“If you’re going to try to escape, you have to use your brains, not just your balls,” Stansell said. “We talked about it many, many times but we never saw ourselves in a spot where the odds were in our favor.”
They languished for so long in captivity because the FARC wanted to trade the Americans, Betancourt and the other political hostages for imprisoned guerrillas. Instead, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe set out to crush the FARC.
The rebel organization’s deterioration comes through in the book.
When Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes were captured, the FARC fielded about 18,000 fighters and kept its prisoners in a series of well-supplied, semi-permanent camps. By the end of the book, a U.S.-backed Colombian offensive had cut off FARC supply lines, food was scarce, the rebels kept the hostages on the run, and many of the guards had been killed.
The Americans had a love-hate relationship with the Colombian military. Though they dreamed of being saved, they knew their rebel minders were under orders to execute them in the event of a rescue attempt.
That’s why the Operation Checkmate — the July 2, 2008 military fake-out operation that led to their release — was so ingenious. Colombian army agents disguised as humanitarian aid workers persuaded the FARC to put the Americans and 11 other hostages aboard a helicopter. After disarming the guards, they flew the hostages to freedom. Not a shot was fired.
“My God,” Gonsalves exclaimed at the end of the book when he realized that he was no longer a hostage. “I can’t believe it. This is it. We’re free.”
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