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 about them."
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 the FARC.
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 El Tiempo.
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 in 2004.
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.