Families of abducted contractors eagerly await word
MIAMI — SOUTHCOM officials say rescuing the three U.S. hostages in Colombia remains a top priority, but families of the men say they’re frustrated by the lack of progress.
“They really haven’t gotten anything done in five years,” said George Gonsalves, father of contractor Marc Gonsalves. “We know the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), but we can’t seem to do anything about it. It’s really an embarrassment.”
The three contractors — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — were captured by the FARC in February 2003 when their plane crashed in the jungle during a counternarcotics mission.
The three, all veterans, are the longest-held U.S. hostages anywhere in the world.
U.S. military officials said pilot Thomas Janis, another American contractor, and Colombian Army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz survived the crash but were found shot to death; the circumstances remain unclear.
Military officials had little knowledge of the status of the other three men until July 2003, when a Colombian reporter filmed them in FARC captivity. Last fall, another videotape and letters home from the men were released to U.S. officials.
SOUTHCOM commanders said that over the years they have logged more than 17,000 flight hours searching for the hostages and assigned a 35-person unit to the rescue.
“For this command it’s a top priority,” said Army Col. Jorge Matos, deputy director for U.S. Southern Command’s strategy and security. “We’re constantly in communication with the [military personnel] there. We all want to bring them home safely.”
But Gonsalves’ father said he’s frustrated by what he sees as a lack of effort from top U.S. officials, noting that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez met with the men’s families last year to pursue the issue while President Bush has not.
“I’m just surprised and disappointed that there hasn’t been any real efforts to get them out of there,” he said.
Stansell’s parents, Lynne and Gene, said the five-year nightmare has been hardest on Stansell’s two children, 19-year-old Lauren and 15-year-old Kyle.
“They were so young when it happened, and the absence has been so rough on them,” Lynne said. “We just keep waiting. That’s all we know how to do.”
Gene said he’s reluctant to trust Chavez’s motives, but notes he was sincere and sympathetic when he met with the U.S. families last year. He also successfully negotiated the release of four Colombian hostages last year, a sign of hope for all the families.
“We don’t have to agree with his politics,” he said. “We just want our guys out of the jungle.”