U.S. Hostages Held for 5 Years

What if militant extremists murdered an American citizen and kidnapped his three colleagues? Wouldn't the U.S. government marshal its resources to free the hostages? The answer is a disappointing "no," according to the families of three men who've been missing in the jungles of Colombia since 2003.

Five years ago this month, a Cessna 206 airplane carrying four U.S. civilian contractors over southern Colombia developed engine trouble and crashed into a hillside field of coca. A unit of rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) happened to be in the vicinity of the crash site and quickly surrounded the men, who were conducting aerial reconnaissance of coca farms for the Pentagon under the auspices of a U.S.-financed anti-drug initiative. One of the plane's pilots, Tom Janis, and a Colombian Army sergeant accompanying the flight crew were executed on the spot. But the three remaining Americans--copilot Thomas Howes, flight engineer Keith Stansell and systems analyst Marc Gonsalves--were marched off into the thick bush of the Colombian hinterland where they remain to this day.

In the 1,821 days since the contractors were taken prisoner, President Bush has spoken about them only once in public, in response to a question near the end of a press conference held in Bogota in March 2007. "These are three innocent folks who have been held for too long," said Bush, standing alongside Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "I am concerned about their safety, I really am."

Both Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have met with relatives of the men to discuss ways of persuading the FARC to free them, but not Bush--nor, for that matter, has any senior official in his administration. The State Department officially classifies the Americans' FARC captors as a terrorist organization--yet the activities of Islamist terrorists seem to be the overriding priority of this White House.

Furious relatives of the three men say Bush's almost complete silence on the topic is an apt metaphor for the U.S. government's meager efforts to procure their release. Washington has a long-standing policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, and Keith Stansell's parents, Gene and Lynne, say they understand that position. But they and other loved ones of the captives don't understand Washington's reluctance to support the efforts of France, Spain, Switzerland and other countries to open a dialog with the nominally Marxist guerrillas over the liberation of dozens of political hostages in their grip.

The Stansells vividly remember a phone call they received from a State Department official on the eve of their departure for Caracas advising them that the U.S. government had no objections to their upcoming meeting with the Bush-bashing Chávez. "That's the most support that's been expressed to us, that they didn't object," marvels Lynne Stansell. "I'd give the U.S. government a D minus," adds Keith's father, Gene, a retired 75-year-old Miami school principal. "No one ever asked them to negotiate with the terrorists, [but] if they don't deal with the FARC and France and several other countries are, why in the world can't U.S. officials have them pass the word on to the guerrillas?"

American officials deny allegations of having abandoned the contractors, who at the time of their abduction were working for a subsidiary of the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The State Department has offered a $340,000 reward and a possible U.S. visa to anyone with information leading to "the successful resolution of this hostage crisis." A captured FARC commander was sentenced last month in a U.S. federal court to 60 years in prison for conspiring to abduct the Americans, whose detention is more than four times the length of captivity of the U.S. diplomats who were taken hostage at the embassy in Tehran in 1979.

U.S. officials have defended the policy of no talks with the FARC and other terrorist groups on practical as well as moral grounds. "The U.S. policy to grant no concessions is designed to make the FARC and other hostage holders understand that there will be no benefit to taking American hostages," said U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood in 2006. "We have to think of our hostages today as well as potential hostages in the future."

"B.S.," says Jo Rosano. The 59-year-old mother of former Air Force intelligence officer Marc Gonsalves says the U.S. government would have expended far greater energy and resources on her son's behalf if he had still been in the military. "They don't care, that's why they use contractors, to avoid accountability," fumes Rosano, an Italian-born resident of Bristol, Conn., who has visited Colombia on three occasions for information on Marc's health and whereabouts. "They say 'We don't leave our own behind,' so I guess these are not their own. But they are our own, and I certainly don't appreciate the way the U.S. government has treated Marc, Tom and Keith."

Northrop Grunman says it is still working with the U.S. Congress, U.S. agencies and other groups to work toward freedom for the hostages. "Throughout this ordeal, the company has and will continue to provide support and assistance to the hostages' families, such as continuance of full salary and benefits and access to various other company benefits, resources and services," said a company statement released to NEWSWEEK. "Meanwhile, all of us at Northrop Grumman continue to hope and pray for the day when Tom, Keith and Marc are safely reunited with their families back home in the U.S."

Compounding the human tragedy of the hostages and their families is how easily their five-year-long nightmare could have been averted. In the fall of 2002, two pilots who were also carrying out anti-drug aerial surveillance missions under Northrop Grumman's contract with the Pentagon wrote letters to company executives urging them to replace the single-engine Cessnas with twin-engine aircraft that would give the crews a backup motor in the event of a mechanical malfunction. "The failure to address these safety concerns will catch up to the company and could possibly result in loss of human life," read one of the letters penned by pilot Douglas Cocker. Two months later it did, when the engine of the plane carrying the doomed Americans started making a strange whirring sound only minutes away from their destination, an air base in the guerrilla-infested wilds of southern Colombia. "It's easy to look back on what happened five years ago with 20/20 hindsight," says a State Department spokesperson.

Rosano and the Stansells got a glimmer of hope last spring when a captured Colombian police sergeant escaped from a FARC camp and confirmed that the American contractors were alive. Their outlook brightened further in January when the FARC released two high-profile Colombian women hostages, and still more encouraging news emerged this month when the guerrilla movement, which has been implicated in extensive drug trafficking to finance their insurgency, said it would soon free three former Colombian lawmakers.

But relatives of America's forgotten captives remain guarded in their optimism. "Any time anyone is released, it tends to make us more hopeful because it had been many years since they had released anybody until just recently," says Gene Stansell. "But for the past five years, our life has been on a roller coaster of hopeful news and worrisome events. It's been quite an ordeal." And there's no sign that it will end any time soon.