By Mark Potter, NBC News Correspondent
To understand why Colombian forces crossed into Ecuador earlier this month to kill the second in command of the Colombian rebel group know as the FARC, along with 25 others at the guerilla camp, it helps to know that the government here and the FARC have been battling for four decades. Along the way thousands of Colombians from all walks of life have been kidnapped and held for ransom or political exchanges by those guerillas and others. Polls and recent anti-FARC demonstrations show that most Colombians are fed up with their tactics.
Kidnapping is a horrible act which often affects the families more than it does the actual victim. Colombia's current Vice-President, Francisco Santos, who was kidnapped for eight months by drug traffickers, says at least the victims are concentrating on survival and know the details of their situation. The families, he points out, are left in a painful vacuum, distraught in their lack of knowledge, fearing the worst. His own father, Santos says, aged 10 years during their eight-month ordeal.
In the first government of popular Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (he's now halfway into his second term), many of the leaders had personal experiences with kidnapping. The President's father was killed in a botched kidnapping, the Vice-president was kidnapped, the father of the Minister of Interior was kidnapped, the Minister of Culture's aunt was kidnapped and the Minister of Education's two brothers were killed in a FARC kidnapping and her mother was also seized.
"In the last 7 years there are 700 persons kidnapped by the FARC, they are unaccounted for. Most of them are probably dead now," said Santos. "And I have no doubt that kidnapping played a huge role in the psyche of Colombian society."
THREE AMERICAN VICTIMS
Caught in the middle of all this are three American defense contractors whose small plane crashed in FARC territory during a drug surveillance mission. Thomas Howes, Mark Gonsalves and Keith Stansell have been held for five years now, and their families are enduring the same agonies as those in Colombia. For our report tonight on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, we visited with parents Gene and Lynne Stansell, who have fought tirelessly for the release of those men.
The Stansells have visited with the Colombian and Venezuelan presidents, urging a negotiated hostage release. They have also written letters to President Bush, Secretary of State Rice and House Speaker Pelosi. When asked what response they got from those American leaders, Lynne Stansell said firmly, "Nothing. Absolutely no response whatsoever."
The Stansells believe the three men, all military veterans, all working for the U.S. government at the time of their capture, are being ignored. "That made me discouraged to be an American citizen," said Gene Stansell.
FAMILIES HOPE FOR NEGOTIATED RELEASE
The Stansells hope a settlement can somehow be reached between the FARC and perhaps a third party such as the Venezuelan or French governments, although they fear Colombia's attack on the rebel camp in Ecuador may have hampered any future negotiations. Colombia's Vice-President Santos is even less hopeful, arguing that perhaps the only option to free the Americans is a surgical military strike--an idea the families reject, fearing the rebels would then kill the hostages.
In the meantime, the men and all their Colombian counterparts, including the highest-profile Colombian hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, continue to languish in the jungles somewhere. And their families endure their frightened vigils.
Here in the United States it's hard to imagine so many kidnap victims in one country. But, they're not that far away and come from one of America's strongest allies in Latin America. Joining them are three Americans and their families who fear that in the passing years they have all been forgotten.