Ex-hostage of Colombian rebels sceptical peace talks will bear fruit

As Colombian rebels negotiate in Cuba, former kidnap victim says talk of social justice is a lie

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 4:26am


For more than five years, Marc Gonsalves and two other Americans were marched through Colombia's jungles as hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, guerillas.

Now, as Farc and government negotiators meet in Cuba to hammer out a peace deal, Gonsalves, 40, said he was hoping for the best, but fears the intentions of his former captors. "I am quickly losing hope something positive will come out of it," Gonsalves said from his home in Stratford, Connecticut.

Negotiators from both sides met last week in Havana to plot a path that might allow Colombia's largest guerilla group to put down its arms after 48 years. There are five points on the peace agenda, including land reform and the political future of Farc. Talks continue this week.

But the political pretensions of the guerillas - deemed terrorists by the US and Colombian governments - grate on Gonsalves. "They haven't done anything good for the country; all they have done is terrorise the country."

Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, 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 fund itself.

Gonsalves fell into Farc's hands on February 13, 2003, when he and four crewmates were on a military surveillance mission with California Microwave Systems, a division of defence technology company Northrop Grumman.

The aircraft crash-landed in guerilla-controlled territory and was quickly surrounded by rebels. Thomas Janis, a US contractor, and Colombian Sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz, were executed. Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes were taken into the jungle, moved often, and locked in cages and chained to trees to prevent their escape.

During the first six months, the men were kept isolated and they did not know whether their families were aware they were alive. They were interviewed by a Colombian journalist and their translator was a young, pretty Dutch guerilla "who looked like she had just come out of the city", Gonsalves said. That woman, Tanja Nijmeijer, 34, is in Havana now as part of Farc's negotiation team. Nijmeijer joined the guerillas in November 2002, according to intelligence sources. He recalls her 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," Gonsalves said. "But the way she said it was very threatening. It was meant to scare the [expletive] out of us. And it was meant to let me know that 'we're going to kill you'."

On July 2, 2008, Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes were rescued along with former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages. The plan, called "Operation Check", was hatched by Colombia's special forces and has become the subject of movies, books and lore.

"I hate to see people being tricked by this romantic ideal of a guerilla group that strives for social justice," he said, "… it's a lie, a total farce."