Features

Kidnapping threats not hindering mission work

International | But guerrilla presence forces heightened security measures

Issue: "Flawed to the Ameri-Corps," Oct. 19, 1996

Danny Shaylor bows beside his kitchen table to thank God for the filets of balenton his wife has prepared for lunch. The huge catfish came from the wide Orinoco, which flows past the kitchen window and through the jungle northward to the Caribbean. But the blessings of catfish, yucca root, and mangos laid before him aren't the only things on Mr. Shaylor's mind.

Like his fellow New Tribes missionaries throughout Venezuela, he prays for "the hostages" as he has done for years.

"The hostages" are the three Americans of New Tribes Mission kidnapped 3-1/2 years ago by Colombian guerrillas. Earlier this year, the Colombian government announced its official assumption that Richard Tenenoff, Mark Rich, and David Mankins were dead. The New Tribes missionaries here in Venezuela, however, noting reported sightings of the hostages by Colombian nationals, and with unswerving faith in God's power to deliver, have not given up hope.

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There have been unconfirmed reports of the safety and ongoing work to secure the release of the three men, but their lengthy captivity has rattled procedures and assumptions here-100 miles from the Colombian border.

Mr. Shaylor, 54, is a member of the newly formed three-man Tama Tama Administrative Council. He has spent his life here in the remote jungles of Amazonas state near the southern tip of Venezuela. In 1946, his father, Robert Shaylor, came 500 miles up the Orinoco-five days by boat from Puerto Ayacucho (called P.A.)-and pitched camp on this tropical knoll. That was the beginning of this tiny mission base, now the home of Robert Shaylor Academy, a boarding school for missionary kids drawn from the mission bases scattered across Venezuela. About a dozen New Tribes families form the local support community for the school.

Fifty years ago, the greatest physical threats were vampire gnats, grouchy tigers, and the occasional long arrows of primitive tribesmen. Guerrilla attack was never considered a threat-until last fall.

Last September, rumors drifted in from an Indian who claimed to have seen strangers with Colombian accents coming up the river. He said they talked about stealing the plane from the small airstrip behind the knoll at Tama Tama.

Then it was reported that the Venezuelan military had intercepted a radio transmission between someone with a Colombian accent and someone with a Venezuelan accent. They discussed stealing a plane and kidnapping a pilot from Tama Tama.

The rumors were pooh-poohed by Indians living here. It was rainy season, and the floodwaters of the Orinoco spread for miles into the trees, making it nearly impossible for guerrillas to survive in the jungle long enough to sneak this far from Colombia. And an ex-guerrilla who now works for the Venezuelan government said the Colombian rebels would never have revealed their plan on radio.

The Venezuelan general commanding the National Guard garrison at P.A., downstream, relayed his assurances that Tama Tama was safe. He conjectured that someone was merely scheming to get the Protestant missionaries to leave-not a new problem. The rumors, however, spread alarm among New Tribes missionaries at the secluded school.

The Colombian guerrillas have no history of hurting children-probably, say Venezuelan security experts, because they want to maintain some modicum of nobility in the eyes of Colombian peasants. But the threat of guerrilla attack prompted some of the missionary parents to want their children out of Tama Tama. Their fears were subsequently allayed and all students remained.

New Tribes Mission security adviser Guy Sier, a former Green Beret, was sent to Tama Tama from Mission headquarters in Florida to help the administrative council develop a contingency plan for evacuation if the compound were to come under attack by guerrillas.

The New Tribes supply base for Venezuelan jungle missions is in Puerto Ayacucho, an hour and a half northwest of Tama Tama by air. The exotically junky river port lies on the east bank of the Orinoco opposite the small Colombian town of Casuerito. Five pilots with NTM's Tribal Air Communications wing (TAC)-including Danny Shaylor's eldest son-are stationed there, along with the administrative and requisition team. For them the guerrilla threat is more than rumor.

Twice in recent years, Colombian guerrillas hit the small P.A. airport where the TAC planes are based. Although the guerrillas stole a plane each time, the NTM planes were spared. In one case, the hijacked commercial plane landed across the river long enough to let the passengers out, then took off again. Authorities recovered the plane, but the pilot-a friend of the New Tribes pilots-is still missing.

In the other case, the plane disappeared, but the hijacked pilot and his wounded mechanic were able to return after being dumped in Colombia.

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