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Life as a FARC hostage

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


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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Colombian ex-captives consider politics

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