As Colombia and FARC rebels edge toward peace, a former U.S. hostage recalls his captors

 

Miami Herald

BOGOTA For more than five years, Marc Gonsalvez and two other Americans were marched through Colombia’s jungles as hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

Now, as FARC and government negotiators meet in Cuba to hammer out a peace deal, Gonsalvez, 40, said he’s hoping for the best, but fears the intentions of his former captors.

“I am quickly losing hope that something positive will come out of it,” Gonsalvez told The Miami Herald from his home in Stratford, Conn.

Negotiators from both sides resumed meeting in Havana Monday to plot a path that might allow the nation’s largest guerrilla group to put down its arms after 48 years. There are five points on the peace agenda, including land reform, victims’ rights and the FARC’s political future.

But the political pretensions of the guerrillas — considered terrorists by the U.S. and Colombian governments — grate on Gonsalvez.

“They haven’t done anything good for the country; all they have done is terrorize the country,” he said. “I don’t think the FARC have the right to discuss political reform or land distribution or land reform or any of that. This type of peace process should be about the terms of their surrender and what kind of amnesty they will get if they turn in their weapons.”

Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC has found support in rural areas where poverty runs high and the state’s presence is tenuous. But the group has increasingly turned to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping to finance its survival.

Gonsalvez fell into the FARC’s hands Feb. 13, 2003, when he and four crewmates were on a military surveillance mission with California Microwave Systems, a division of Northrop Grumman.

The airplane crash-landed in guerrilla-controlled territory and was quickly surrounded by the FARC. Thomas Janis, a U.S. contractor, and Colombian Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, were executed. Gonsalvez, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes were taken into the jungle, moved constantly, and often locked in cages and chained to trees to prevent their escape.

MEETING TANJA

During the first six months, the men were kept isolated and they didn’t know if their families were aware they were alive. That routine was broken when they were taken to a small village, forced to shave and cut their hair, and dressed in military uniforms made in Venezuela. They were interviewed by a Colombian journalist and their translator was a young, pretty Dutch guerrilla “who looked like she had just come out of the city,” Gonsalvez said.

That woman, Tanja Nijmeijer, 34, is in Havana now as part of the FARC’s negotiation team. Nijmeijer joined the FARC in Nov. 2002, according to intelligence sources. Her background and command of multiple languages allowed her to rise quickly through the ranks. She was with the FARC’s top military strategist, Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, better known as “Mono Jojoy,” when he was killed in an airstrike in 2010.

The government worries that Nijmeijer could become a powerful propaganda and recruiting tool for the FARC in Havana, as she appeals to elements of the European left. In the Netherlands, the long-haired activist turned guerrilla has been the subject of movies, books and much speculation.

Gonsalvez doesn’t see her as an idealist role model but as a “real-deal terrorist.” In between video takes that day, Gonsalvez said he approached her, starved for information. He was hoping their cultural connection might stir some compassion in her, and he asked what she thought would happen to him.

He recalls her taking a drag on a cigarette, shaking her head and telling the men that they would be executed if there were any attempts to rescue them.

“I can never duplicate the way she said it. I don’t have that terrorist thing,” Gonsalvez said. “But the way she said it was very threatening. It was meant to scare the s--- out of us. And it was meant to let me know that ‘We’re going to kill you.’”

Nijmeijer went on to explain how the FARC was simply an answer to the terrorism of the Colombian state. And she said the United States would never lift the embargo on Cuba because it was scared its citizens would flock to the island paradise “because it’s so great there.”

“The more she spoke, the more I realized she’s insane and the more frightened I became because these are the people holding us,” Gonsalvez said. “That was really my first taste of the FARC leadership.”

Nijmeijer is facing charges of abduction and rebellion in Colombia and has been indicted in the United States for the kidnapping of the U.S. contractors.

Even if the peace talks succeed, Gonsalvez said he doubts the United States would drop those charges.

“I see her future as death in the jungle, or one day she will be captured and brought here to the United States,” he said.

VICTIM RIGHTS

One of the most sensitive issues of the peace talks might be how the government balances the rights of victims like Gonsalvez against the need to broker a deal with the guerrillas. Many of the FARC’s high command are facing murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking charges.

Gonsalvez said the government should be lenient with the rank-and file, but that justice can only be served by punishing the leadership.

“Victims’ rights should be at the top of the agenda not the bottom of it,” he said. “But we want peace in Colombia and you’re not going to get a terrorist group to turn in their weapons unless you offer them some type of — if not amnesty, then some sort of negotiated disciplinary measure … I think you have to offer them something to give them an incentive to turn in their weapons and stop terrorizing the country.”

RESCUED

On July 2, 2008, Gonsalvez, Stansell and Howes were rescued along with former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages. The daring and inventive plan, called “Operation Check,” was hatched by Colombia’s special forces and has become the subject of movies, books and lore. Gonsalvez and his companions wrote their account of the rescue in Out of Captivity — Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle.

Since his release, Gonsalvez continues to work with Northrop Grumman and volunteers with the Miami-based Developing Minds Foundation, which provides mentoring to child soldiers, many of whom have come out of the FARC ranks.

Gonsalvez said many of the troops were teenagers or adolescents who were trapped in the organization. “I saw several of them commit suicide. That was their only way out,” he said.

“I always thought that one way to really hurt the FARC is to get the attention of these kids and try to call them out of the jungle,” he said, “let them know that there’s a better life on the outside.”

He’s also hoping the talks will end Colombia’s half-century conflict. But he worries that people might forget that the FARC are terrorists who have kidnapped children and infants, make their living off the cocaine trade and killed his two crewmates.

“I hate to see people being tricked by this romantic ideal of a guerilla group that strives for social justice,” he said. “The argument is wonderful and, if it was true, it would be something. But it’s a lie, a total farce.”

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