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Life as a FARC hostage

Three Americans describe their time in captivity — and criticize famous hostage Ingrid Betancourt.

Northrop Grumman employee Keith Stansell, a hostage returned safely to the United States after more than five years captivity in Colombia, gives a thumbs up as he arrives on at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, late July 2, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lance Cheung/Reuters)

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.