As Colombia pursues peace with FARC, an American hostage shares the country’s doubts

In this July 25, 2003, picture, Marc Gonsalves, center, is comforted by Keith Stansell, left, and Tom Howes, partially seen at right, at an undisclosed place in southern Colombia on Friday, July 25, 2003, as he watches a videotaped message made by his mother, Jo Rosano.
In this July 25, 2003, picture, Marc Gonsalves, center, is comforted by Keith Stansell, left, and Tom Howes, partially seen at right, at an undisclosed place in southern Colombia on Friday, July 25, 2003, as he watches a videotaped message made by his mother, Jo Rosano. ASSOCIATED PRESS

For five and half years, Marc Gonsalves and two colleagues — all American contractors — were hostages of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. During those 1,967 days, Gonsalves saw friends executed. He was chained by the neck, locked in a cage and lived in fear he would end up buried in a forlorn hole in the jungle.

As Colombia tries to salvage a peace pact with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Gonsalves, 44, shares many of the doubts that this nation also seems to harbor about the deal and its leniency toward a guerrilla organization that the United States considers a terrorist group.

“These are people who tortured me and others, and they have committed terrible crimes,” Gonsalves, a Connecticut native who lives in Port Charlotte, Florida, said of his one-time captors. “So to see them sign-off on a deal where they will not be truly punished...I am not happy about it.”

But he also understands the desire for peace in a country that has suffered for more than five decades. “It’s sad, because people are tired after 50-plus years of conflict and war,” he said in a phone call, “ and they just want it to stop.”

Colombians went to the polls Oct. 2 and narrowly rejected a peace plan that would have allowed thousands of FARC fighters to lay down their weapons and reenter civilian life. The 297-page peace pact drew international praise and won President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize last week because it seemed to offer a way out of a conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives.

Punishment and politics

But there were two items in particular that worried critics and helped sink the deal: punishment and politics.

Guerrillas accused of serious crimes wouldn’t serve jail terms as long as they confessed to a truth commission and provided reparations to their victims. Instead, they would serve five to eight years of “effective restriction of freedom” — a term that would be defined by a special tribunal. The confinement, however, “in no case [would] be understood as jail or prison,” the document states.

In addition, the FARC would be allowed to run for office. And during the first two electoral cycles, the group would be guaranteed five seats in both the House and Senate.

The FARC have suggested those two conditions — transitional justice and political participation —aren’t negotiable. And proponents of the deal argue that’s what peace is all about, allowing the guerrillas to defend their ideas through ballots not bullets.

But Gonsalves says he understands why people can’t stomach the thought.

“Can you imagine having these guys that terrorized your country for more than half a century and now they are given political office?” he said. “Where’s the democracy in that? They are not even voted in, they are just given seats. They go from terrorist to politician.”

Many victims’ groups here favor the deal, saying forgiveness — on all sides — is the only way to stop the violence. And while Gonsalves doesn’t harbor revenge fantasies, he does think real justice is an important ingredient to lasting peace.

The capture

Gonsalves’ ordeal began Feb. 13, 2003. He was a civilian Pentagon contractor with Northrop Grumman, a global security company, doing aerial surveillance of Colombia’s outback when the group’s single-engine Cessna crashed deep in FARC territory.

The men have always maintained they were identifying coca crops for eradication, but the guerrillas considered them prisoners of war.

“Luckily all of us survived but we were all injured and hurt,” Gonsalves recalls. “But instead of offering help, [the FARC] executed two of us.”

American pilot Thomas Jannis was shot in the head, and the Colombian intelligence officer who was accompanying them, Luis Alcides Cruz, was shot at close range in the abdomen.

The three surviving Americans — Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes — were marched into a jungle nightmare that would last half a decade.

“They would try to hurt us psychologically and physically,” Gonsalves said. “They would withhold food. They would not allow us to go to the bathroom. We were put in cages and in boxes. We had hangmen’s nooses tied around our necks...and they would walk us like dogs. It was cruel and unnecessary.”

The three men described their ordeal in the 2009 book “Out of Captivity,” but Gonsalves says there’s one particular moment that sticks with him.

That was when one of his jailers, who was just a teenager, told him what they did to hostages who were no longer valuable: the guerrillas would dig a hole in the jungle and force the captives to lay down in it.

“One of the things that the hostages always did was cry. No matter what, they cried when they got into the hole,” Gonsalves recalls being told. “They would force them into the hole and shoot them in the head and bury them.”

He thinks about those who have disappeared during the conflict and wonders if they met similar fates.

“There are so many Colombians that are missing to this day and nobody knows where they are,” he said. “But the sad reality is that they very likely were put into a hole and shot because their family didn’t pay ransom.”

The guerrillas gave up kidnapping in 2012 when formal peace talks began. And they’ve agreed to help find and account for some of the estimated 45,000 people listed as missing. In addition, they’ve been asking victims’ relatives for forgiveness.

The rescue

On July 2, 2008, Gonsalves, Stansell, Howes and a dozen other hostages, including one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, were rescued in a bloodless military operation ripped from a Hollywood script.

The mastermind of that action, called “Operation Check,” was Juan Manuel Santos, then the minister of defense. Now president, Santos is facing what may be an equally difficult task: salvaging the peace deal. In order to do so, his negotiators will have to revamp the hard-fought pact enough appease critics without having the FARC abandon the table.

In the days since the national vote, there has been much debate about who’s responsible for killing the peace deal. Last week, tens of thousands of people marched on the streets demanding the pact, as is, be signed.

But Gonsalvez said nobody should be judged for voting against the deal.

“It’s not fair to put the blame on anyone else but the FARC,” he said. “They are the ones who decided to be kidnap people, plant landmines all over the place. It’s no one’s fault but theirs.”

Gonsalvez quit working at Northrop Grumman a few years ago and now has rental property on Florida’s Gulf Coast. But he says he keeps trying to do his part for this country. He occasionally works with Miami-based Developing Minds Foundation talking to former FARC child soldiers.

“That’s another way of fighting the FARC,” Gonsalves said, “trying to mentor kids who came out of the jungle and give them some hope and motivation to continue the hard struggles they have ahead and not go back to the guerrillas.”

As for the future of Colombia, Gonsalves said he hopes the nation finds a way to renegotiate the deal and bring an end to the grinding conflict.

“Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want peace?” he said. “The Colombian people want peace but they also want something that’s fair.”