Four years ago today, the FARC captured three U.S. civilians, working on a Defense Department contract, whose small aircraft went down over the jungles of CaquetÃ¡ department in southern Colombia. We have since heard little about the health and whereabouts of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.
Now is not the moment to criticize the policy that put the three men on that small plane in the first place. Nor is it a moment for empty expressions of rage or solidarity. It is a good moment to ask the following:
Of the U.S. and Colombian governments: Please don’t pin your hopes on an armed rescue of the three hostages. If such an operation were to be successful, it would be a triumph equal to the Israeli raid on Entebbe or the raid on the Japanese embassy in Peru – and neither of those rescues took place in thick jungle, behind several rings of guerrilla security.
The FARC have shown in the past their cruel willingness to kill their hostages on the first indication that a rescue attempt is underway. The recent escape of hostage Fernando AraÃºjo, under cover of darkness in an area of weak FARC influence, was a happy but rare exception.
In this case, releasing the hostages will require more flexibility on the question of negotiating a humanitarian exchange with the guerrillas. This doesn’t mean agreeing to all guerrilla preconditions, or reaching a deal that opens the door to future kidnappings or allows freed guerrillas to re-join the group. But it does mean keeping the conversation going between intermediaries and continuing to seek agreement on the thorniest details.
Of the media: Please cover this story more. Even though there have been few new developments, please seek new information and run more regular updates. It is inexcusable that most Americans don’t know that three of their fellow citizens have been hostages in Colombia for four years.
Of the hostages’ family members: Don’t lose hope and please continue your efforts on your loved ones’ behalf. Even if you disagree on the solution (rescue or negotiation), please do more together to raise the profile of your loved ones’ situation. Anything that can keep their plight in front of the U.S. media would be a great contribution. As long as their captivity remains nearly invisible here at home, the U.S. and Colombian governments won’t feel any pressure to change the status quo and take the difficult steps necessary to seek their freedom.
Of the FARC, most of all: Maybe you think that you’re holding three strategically important intelligence agents or that you have three powerful bargaining chips in your possession. But you don’t. Your hostages are not architects of the policy you oppose – they are regular citizens who took a job because it offered a decent salary for them and their families. They are the pueblo with whom you claim to be in solidarity. Please make a show of goodwill and mercy and let the captives go. You would have nothing to lose – their military importance for you is small – and much to gain in the struggle for political credibility, which you have been losing badly.
Even if you refuse to take this important step, be more flexible in present and future humanitarian exchange discussions with the Colombian government and its intermediaries. For example, to demand a demilitarized zone in which only the FARC can carry weapons is to prolong the start of talks almost indefinitely. And please furnish some proof that the hostages remain alive and in good health.
Four years is a very long time. While the FARC bears the most responsibility, all involved must act to change the current impasse. Prolonging the status quo is simply unacceptable.