BOGOTÁ - U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Colombia was accompanied
by signals that Washington may step up its efforts to secure the release of
three U.S. intelligence operatives who have been held hostage by the main guerrilla
group, the FARC, since early 2003.
Bush said he had spoken with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who is
working on strategies that he hoped would achieve the hostages' safe release.
The U.S. leader, speaking during his seven-hour stopover in Bogotá Sunday,
was referring to Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, and Keith Stansell, who were seized
by the leftist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) on Feb. 13, 2003,
after their plane crashed in the jungle while carrying out an intelligence mission.
The three are contractors with Northrop Grumman Corp., a U.S. company that
has contracts with the U.S. Defense Department for airborne reconnaissance and
surveillance as part of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency
strategy whose second phase is now being discussed in Washington.
"In terms of the hostages, I am concerned about their safety," Bush
said in Colombia. "I'm worried about their families. These are three innocent
folks who have been held hostage for too long, and their families are concerned
A few days earlier, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Thomas Shannon became the first U.S. official to refer in positive terms to
the possibility of a humanitarian prisoners-for-hostages swap, as demanded by
He said the U.S. would "be very happy" if the Colombian government
would negotiate a humanitarian accord that would result in the release of the
hostages. Such an accord would involve an exchange of imprisoned FARC members
for a group of military personnel and civilians held captive by the rebel group.
However, U.S. officials have refused to hand over two guerrilla fighters who
were extradited to the United States and are standing trial there a condition
set by the FARC for negotiating a humanitarian swap.
Besides the three U.S. contractors, the hostages held by the FARC with the
intention of swapping them for imprisoned insurgents include 20 politicians
the most well-known being former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt
14 members of the army, and 21 police officers.
Uribe has recently been discussing a military rescue of the hostages, some
of whom have been held since 1997. But the families of the hostages are staunchly
opposed to any rescue attempt, which would pose an enormous risk to the captives'
lives, as their guards have orders to kill them in case of an attempted rescue.
U.S. press reports indicate that the Bush administration has decided to increase
the resources dedicated to the hostages issue in Bogotá, where the U.S.
has its second biggest embassy in the world, after the one in Baghdad.
"I know nothing about that," said the right-wing Uribe when, at the
end of Bush's visit late Sunday, a reporter asked him whether there was direct
U.S. military participation in an operation carried out in the southern town
of Remolino del Caguán, as reported Saturday by the Colombian newspaper
Remolino, in the department (province) of Caquetá, where the army and
the FARC are involved in a turf war, is one of the objectives of Plan Colombia.
According to the information provided by El Tiempo, which was corroborated
for IPS by a source familiar with the region, whose name is omitted for security
reasons, U.S. troops arrived by air on Jan. 28 to Remolino, the third-largest
town on the Caguán River, which was once a busy center of trade in coca
paste, the raw material for cocaine.
The U.S. military personnel, who according to agreements with Colombia must
restrict their activities to training, logistics, and technical advice, "forced
open the door and shattered glass" at a building in Remolino, a local resident
told El Tiempo.
The U.S. troops then arrested a woman who runs a small hotel, as well as a
local peasant farmer, under suspicions that they knew the whereabouts of the
three U.S. hostages.
They were flown by helicopter to the northwestern military base of Larandia
the biggest in the country which is off-limits to the press, and were
not released until two days later.
Most of the several hundred U.S. military advisers taking part in Plan Colombia
are based at Larandia.
The FARC, a rural insurgent group, emerged in 1964 out of the embers of a civil
war that broke out in the mid-1940s. The Colombian army estimates that the group's
members number around 16,000. However, some analysts put the number much higher.
Canadian sociologist James Brittain, for example, estimated it as high as 46,000
Through Plan Colombia, which was launched in 2000, the United States has channeled
some $4 billion into the country to fight the FARC and cut off one of its sources
of income, the cocaine industry.
Colombia is the world's leading producer of the drug, and the United States
is the largest consumer market.
As a condition for negotiating a humanitarian prisoners-for-hostages swap,
the FARC initially demanded, in December 2002, that the military and police
be withdrawn from two departments, covering a total of 115,000 square kilometers.
But in December 2004, the group downgraded its demands to the demilitarization
of the municipalities of Florida and Pradera in the western department of Valle
a total of 760 square kilometers.
Uribe, after agreeing to withdraw troops from a 180-kilometer strip in that
region, then backtracked and said there would be no demilitarization at all.
This year started out with the news that Fernando Araújo who was
just recently named foreign minister was successfully rescued by the military,
which encouraged Uribe to continue talking about a military rescue of the other
hostages, and to state that 2007 is "crucial" in terms of a rescue.
So far, the United States has refrained from sending in rescue commandos as
no one knows where the three U.S. hostages are being held, the press in the
United States reported.
But the U.S. military personnel who reportedly took part in the operation in
Remolino were specialists in rescues of kidnap victims, El Tiempo reported.
U.S. intelligence officials have allegedly contacted people who supposedly
have access to the guerrilla leadership, offering them money in exchange for
information that could guide them to the rebel leaders.
These agents have even tried to pay journalists to write reports with the aim
of sniffing out high-level members of the FARC and finding out what the group
wants, IPS has been told by sources who will remain anonymous.