Right now three missionaries are the longest held American hostages in any part of the world. Mark Rich, Dave Mankins, and Rick Tenenoff, serving in Panama with Florida-based New Tribes Mission, passed their fifth year of captivity on January 31. The three men were abducted together in 1993 by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. They were taken from Panama into a northeastern region of Colombia controlled by FARC. Word of their whereabouts and condition has ranged from scant to nonexistent since their first year of captivity.
In 1979, Americans became consumed with the plight of hostages in the Middle East. Anyone could tell you that 52 Americans were captive in Iran. They were held for nearly 15 months and released in 1981. Then a wave of hostage-taking during the war in Lebanon brought regular media reports about Terry Anderson, Tom Sutherland, Benjamin Weir, and Joseph Cicippio. Mr. Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, was held by Islamic Jihad seven years, still the record for longest captivity.
With the New Tribes missionaries closing in on that record, the absence of media coverage is noteworthy. Despite a flurry of press releases from New Tribes and several television appearances by the three hostages' wives-all coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the hostage-taking-a sustained public campaign for their release has not materialized.
The anniversary appearances were unusual, because New Tribes Mission and its chief consultant on the case, former Los Angeles Police Department hostage negotiator Bob Klamser, generally have steered away from publicity as well as from high-profile assistance.
Members of Congress, even some who concentrate on human rights and foreign affairs, know little about the case.
The response of Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals is typical of those received from other Christian organizations WORLD contacted about the case. "No one has ever asked us to get involved. If someone were to make the need known, we would do something," said Mr. Cizik.
Official word from the State Department has been perfunctory. When WORLD contacted the State Department about the New Tribes case more than 18 months ago, consular affairs spokesman Nyda Budig said the department had been asked by New Tribes not to take any action on behalf of the hostages. At the same time, WORLD was asked by Mr. Klamser not to publish a story relating to negotiations for the hostages. WORLD agreed, conceding to Mr. Klamser's argument that negotiations for the hostages' release could be harmed by publicity.
As the clock ticks for the hostages, however, it is reasonable to ask what more may be done for them and why the U.S. government is not more aggressively pressing for their release. If lack of news protects delicate negotiations, it also hinders accountability.
Mr. Klamser told WORLD the crisis committee he heads for New Tribes is continuing a behind-the-scenes approach as a way to protect negotiations. He declined to describe any of those negotiations. "Part of the work is trying to find just who can help," said Mr. Klamser. "It goes on all the time, every single day. Every possible avenue continues to be pursued."
Others with expertise in hostage-taking and knowledge of Colombia say that the time for quiet efforts, if there was one, is over.
"Assurances that we are 'doing everything' are not enough," former hostage Terry Anderson told WORLD. He said he intended to make his own inquiries into the case after receiving a letter two weeks ago from one of the hostage wives. "She is very unhappy that nothing is happening," he said, "and that is really unfair." He declined to release the letter or divulge who sent it until he knew more about the hostages.
Andy Messing, director of the National Defense Council Foundation, said, "If I were New Tribes, I would be demonstrating in front of the Capitol and White House. I think it is a disgrace we are ignoring this."
Mr. Messing is a Green Beret who worked with the National Security Council in the Middle East during the Lebanon hostage crisis and has in recent years focused on the drug war in Colombia. He testified before the House International Relations Committee last year and submitted a report on FARC and its connection to Colombia's drug trade. The report, circulated among House members as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, also outlined options for releasing hostages. Those options included the deployment of FBI anti-hostage units and Delta Force, the military's elite anti-terrorist unit, to carry out, in effect, a rescue mission.
"We had those options in place in Lebanon in the 1980s, and there is no reason why we could not do it again," he said.
Mr. Messing believes an option to use force is feasible given good relations with the Colombian National Police, who he and other drug experts say are "clean" in a country swamped by corruption. New Tribes has stayed away from use-of-force options, particularly since two other abducted missionaries, Tim Van Dyke and Steve Welsh, were killed in a FARC skirmish with government soldiers in 1995.
Mr. Anderson, now at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, said more can be done to find pressure points for FARC. "Who sponsors them? Is the Colombian government doing what it can? They have bought out their own people; why aren't they doing something on our behalf? Why have not Americans been negotiated out in one of those deals?"
Mr. Messing believes more of those options have not been explored "because there's been no clamor for it."
Mr. Messing said the kind of private negotiations that have replaced public outcry for the New Tribes men has the potential for a back-door payment of cash or goods, which would violate the New Tribes' stated no-ransom policy. "Too often," said Mr. Messing, "that approach means taking a chunk of money and turning it over to a FARC element, hoping to negotiate a release."
In the case of Wycliffe missionary Ray Rising, that kind of arrangement ultimately led to his release, in 1996, after 2G years in the hands of FARC. Wycliffe provided medicine and other supplies to the guerrillas. Two sources told WORLD that about $60,000, believed to have been raised independent of Wycliffe, was also handed over to the guerrillas holding Mr. Rising. Chad Stendall Jr., a family friend who helped in the negotiation for Mr. Rising's release, called that sum "reimbursement for room and board expenses."
Mr. Anderson told WORLD, "In general, I think our case showed pretty clearly that it is not a good idea to buy out hostages. That is very difficult for the hostages. Not buying them out, however, is not the same as not doing anything."
All terrorists are not created equal, and experts on FARC say the group is not like its Middle Eastern counterparts. Those groups, ideologically motivated, responded to political shifts, including the fall of communism and changing balances of power after the Persian Gulf War. FARC, on the other hand, has devolved from an agrarian revolt against corruption into terrorism by "dark-side capitalists" more similar to the Russian mafia than Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. Ideological purity has been replaced by gold cards and the trappings of drug trafficking. Protecting drug cartels and coca-growing regions brings in an estimated $1 billion annually to Colombia's two main guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army). Kidnapping for money is just one aspect of the dark-side litany that includes drugs, prostitution, and extortion.
FARC, which may control as much as half of the country, has more than 60 cell groups, or fronts, spread throughout the country. By some accounts, these fronts function autonomously. By others, they are well-connected via laptop computers and radio. FARC maintains a detailed Web site and has an official spokesman based in Mexico City. By most accounts, it has an insatiable appetite for world press attention. Last year a FARC faction invited journalists to cover its mid-jungle release of 70 government soldiers.
While Mr. Rising was a captive, he was moved periodically and at one point taken through fields thick with the coca plant. "They asked me if I knew what it was. I just said, 'God knows,'" he said.
When Ray Rising steps before a congregation to tell of his kidnapping, he begins by putting on the glasses he was wearing at the time he switched off his motorcycle near Wycliffe's mission compound at Lomalinda and heard one of three gunmen order, "Desmonte!" That began almost 27 months of captivity for the 56-year-old missionary.
Over the next hour he describes the nighttime abduction; his movements with a guerrilla contingent that constantly rotated commanders; and his life in jungle hideouts under constant threat from Colombian military gunships, anacondas, and rain.
It is an account both fantastic and sublime. Many of his captors were in their teens; a 32-year-old commander was referred to as "grandpa." Mr. Rising was mysteriously given his own New Testament along with his own yellow rain jacket one day. (He thinks they were delivered via friends in the village where he and his wife Doris lived.) When one guerrilla left a radio unattended, Mr. Rising "chanced" upon a broadcast given by his wife on his behalf. It was the one time the broadcast could be heard in that part of Colombia. That encounter spurred his imagination: He unwound a wire potscrubber ("There are 80 feet of wire in one of those, in case you are wondering," the radio technician says) to make an antenna. He threw the wire over a tree and began picking up regular broadcasts, including Christian programming.
Mr. Rising's account is marvelous because he lived to tell it. It is cautionary because of its similarity to the New Tribes case. Mr. Rising's captors were believed to be part of FARC. In each case $5 million was initially reported as a ransom demand. Both New Tribes and Wycliffe maintain no-ransom policies. New Tribes formed a crisis management committee to focus on the kidnapping, as did Wycliffe and its sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Both used the same negotiator, Bob Klamser. Mr. Klamser heads Crisis Consulting International and consults with the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association as well as mission agencies-including InterVarsity and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, in addition to Wycliffe and New Tribes.
But there are differences. Mr. Rising was taken from an area close to the Wycliffe/SIL compound at Lomalinda where he was well known in the community; for years he provided shoes to local schoolchildren and transportation on his motorcycle while working as a technician for Wycliffe/SIL's translation team. During his captivity a guerrilla confessed to Mr. Rising that he had been in Mr. Rising's home, which was regularly opened to the community. Local acquaintances remained viable conduits for negotiating his release.
By contrast, the New Tribes men were abducted near their station in Púcuro, Panama, and believed to have been carried into territory controlled by FARC in the Uraba Gulf region of Colombia. Word of their location has been unreliable, and no apparent network is in place to funnel information from the guerrillas holding them. They are thought to be hundreds of miles from where Mr. Rising was held and to have no contact with the FARC faction that held him. "It's a difficult situation for them," says Mr. Rising of the New Tribes men. "I was well known in the area. I had friends to intercede for me. Even the local politicians."
Soon after he was taken, a local Catholic priest met with a FARC commander and pled for more than three hours for Mr. Rising's release, "at a risk to his own life," according to Mr. Rising.
For Mr. Rising, even a great story with a happy ending cannot hide the thorny issues that plague hostage negotiations. In the past year he has given more than 50 talks to church and school groups about his ordeal, in large part, he says, as a thank-you to Christians who prayed for him. He wraps up each one quickly, belying the complicated months of negotiations by family, friends, and Wycliffe on his behalf, which he has been asked by Wycliffe and New Tribes not to discuss.
Mr. Rising joined hostage wives Tania Rich, Nancy Mankins, and Patti Tenenoff in several scheduled radio and television appearances to discuss their husbands' disappearance. The wives held a press conference on Margarita Island in Venezuela to publicize their plight before 21 Latin and European leaders gathered for the Seventh Ibero-American Summit in November.
The result of those contacts so far is ambiguous. A FARC leader told a Costa Rican envoy that the three men were alive and in good condition early last year, but later a FARC spokesman denied the group was holding the men. New Tribes spokesman Scott Ross told WORLD last week that there had been "other indications" recently that the men are alive but that New Tribes has received no direct word from either FARC or the hostages.
Collectively, the three hostage families have seven children. At the time of the kidnapping, they ranged in age from 9 months to 23 years. Five years later, one grandmother has died, two children have married, and two children have a dad they don't really remember. Mr. Rising knows the painful side well, and that it doesn't necessarily end with a happy ending. He sees a counselor twice a week, in part to help him through recurring nightmares of his captivity. He's been told he could not have endured-psychologically or physically-one more year of captivity.
In a departure from the five-year quietus on the New Tribes case, State Department spokesman James Rubin on Feb. 6 issued a statement about the missionaries. It was the first time during their captivity that the government agency issued a public release specifically about the captives, Mr. Rubin said. He said the government has "engaged the Colombian government at all levels to insist that they do all they can to determine the welfare and whereabouts of our American citizens." His statement also called on FARC to "return these men to their loved ones." Nyda Budig, the consular affairs spokesman, told WORLD the statement was a response to the wishes of hostage family members. "They themselves have become more pro-active," she said. The change in public relations, however, leaves those concerned about the hostages still looking for verifiable action to prove that where hostage negotiation is concerned, "perfunctory" is a thing of the past.