(in New York) - The wives of three American missionaries believed to be held hostage in Colombia took their long-standing plea for their husbands' release to the doorstep of that country's guerrilla insurgency last week.
The three women-Tania Rich, Patti Tenenoff, and Nancy Mankins-arrived in Bogota April 15. While admitting they have no contact with the guerrilla group they believe may have control of their husbands, they hoped to use Latin American media to make the case for their husbands' release.
The trip is part of a yet untried, high-profile strategy to win back New Tribes missionaries Mark Rich, Rick Tenenoff, and Dave Mankins. And so the wives took along high-profile-and experienced-company.
Former American hostage Terry Anderson and Terry Waite, the British envoy for the Anglican Church who was captured in Lebanon in 1987, accompanied the women after agreeing to lend their names to the cause. The two formed a commission, along with Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after Mr. Anderson and Mr. Waite were contacted by the hostage families.
"Nothing has happened here for quite a long time," Mr. Anderson said with evident frustration at a press conference in New York the day before his departure. "It's stuck," he added, in reference to the negotiations for the hostages' release. No direct contact with the missionaries or their captors, who abducted them in January 1993, has taken place since 1994. New Tribes spokesmen have said they do not know who actually abducted the men from their station in Panama, but they believe they were taken to an area of Colombia controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group known as FARC. New Tribes' Dan Germann told a House committee last month, "We are convinced the FARC has the influence and resources to gain the safe release of these men."
Since that abduction, the guerrilla insurgency has moved ever closer to Bogota, the capital. In March, FARC forces set up a roadblock at a rural intersection 45 miles north of Bogota and kidnapped nine Colombians and five Westerners. Among them were four Americans, civilians on a birdwatching expedition. The Colombians were later released, and one American escaped, but three Americans-including a 63-year-old former nun-and an Italian businessman are still being held. Ransom is the primary motive for such kidnappings. A local FARC commander said the group was "investigating" the net worth of its hostages.
"Holding up a road for eight hours just an hour from Bogota is a scary thing," said Victoria Burnett, a freelance journalist in the capital. "The guerrillas are publicizing that they can do absolutely whatever ... they like."
She said the recent kidnapping had received far more attention in the Bogota press than other episodes, which have become near-routine in a country awash in drug-related scandal and violence.
Mr. Anderson pointed out that New Tribes has stated, as have most mission groups, that it cannot pay ransom for hostages. "They are missionaries; they are not businessmen," he said. "We are pleading with the kidnappers that there is nothing to be gained here."
A former Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, Mr. Anderson was held by Hezbollah guerrillas for nearly seven years beginning in the 1980s. He now teaches journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Mr. Waite, as representative of Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury, went to Lebanon to negotiate the release of Mr. Anderson and other Western hostages and was abducted in 1987. He was held more than four years. Mr. Waite is now an author and lecturer at Cambridge University.
Mr. Anderson said that when he was asked to help, "there just wasn't any way we could not respond, to try to help them as so many people helped us." Mr. Anderson said he, Mr. Waite, and Mr. Garcia Marquez would "offer our names and our guarantees that if the kidnappers of these three men will agree to release them, we will try to offer guarantees that that release will go smoothly and safely and that they will have a chance to explain why they did this."
Mr. Anderson said his team had not been in contact with the kidnappers yet. "We don't know if they are willing to release them, but we hope they are because there is nothing to be gained from holding them," he said.
The stepped-up campaign for the release of the hostages parallels growing concern in Washington about U.S. foreign policy toward Colombia after the abduction of the American birdwatchers. It also follows a recently disclosed report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency that warned Colombian military forces could lose to the guerrilla insurgency in less than five years (see sidebar).
With lawmakers and the Clinton administration increasingly certain about the tie between guerrillas and drug cartels, others are downplaying the link. Some humanitarian organization workers continue to say human-rights violations are more common among Colombian soldiers than the guerrilla fronts. They oppose increased U.S. military aid to Colombia's military, given its past history of abuses.
It's a sensitive point for hostage negotiators because they have tried to rely on groups like Amnesty International, Pax Christi, and the Red Cross as mediators. Observers of the New Tribes case believe one pivotal role Mssrs. Anderson and Waite can play is to win the respect of human-rights groups that have been reluctant to pressure the guerrillas on behalf of the hostages.
Mr. Anderson tried to distinguish his mission from hostage negotiations. "We are not going there to negotiate, we are going there to lend ourselves, to give guarantees in any way we can, for a successful and safe handover. If the kidnappers have anything to say, then we will listen." He also tried to distance the effort from the political situation. "We have nothing to do with the politics in Colombia, in favor or against any faction or group. We are on a purely humanitarian effort," he told reporters in New York.
"We have nothing to do with government, we have nothing to do with politics, we just want our husbands home," said Nancy Mankins.
Evidence of the absence of coordinated diplomatic efforts came last month when Marco Leon Calarca, FARC's spokesman in Mexico City, was arrested. He was apprehended in Bolivia leaving the airport in La Paz. Many assumed he would be extradited and could be used to gain the release of hostages. But he was released unexpectedly by Bolivian authorities and reportedly made his way back to Mexico City.
"We've chosen a strategy now of taking a high public profile" in an effort to make contact with the kidnappers, said Mr. Waite. "On certain occasions that can work. I know that from my own experience." He said that strategy "worked in the case of Beirut," even though he acknowledged that he ran into "political complexities," which led to his own captivity. Kidnappers, he said, "contrary to what a lot of people think, are not totally without heart. Some are, but some are not."
Upon arrival in Bogota, the two ex-hostages and the three hostages' wives quickly ran into the political complexities they sought to avoid. Ruben Dario Ramirez, the anti-kidnapping czar for the Colombian government, dismissed the mission as well as its assumption that the three missionaries are still alive. "These are inventions of New Tribes to feed hope," he said. "This is a disappearance case pure and simple. What they're doing is perpetuating the suffering of these families."
It was the first time a high-level official went on record with doubts that the men are still alive, even though those reports have been circulating among journalists in Bogota, and are reportedly accepted even among diplomats at the U.S. embassy there.
Asked about that possibility at the press conference in New York, Mrs. Tenenoff said, "Guerrilla representatives have said to high-level Latin American representatives that our men are alive and well. All three of us believe in our hearts that our husbands are alive."
Mrs. Tenenoff said she believes "FARC has more information than anybody else."
Even though the mission to Bogota steered clear of U.S. government sanction, New Tribes has asked for renewed involvement from Washington. Testifying before the House International Relations Committee Mar. 31, Dan Germann of New Tribes called on the White House to "petition countries with any means of contact or influence with FARC" to ask for return of the missionaries. The Florida-based agency also asked that the Colombian government and the United Nations be pressed to take action on their behalf.
Those petitions are expected to be incorporated into a resolution to be voted on in Congress that is expected to be introduced by members of the International Relations Committee later this month.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the panel who is in favor of increasing military aid to Colombia, said the humanitarian and the political efforts are ultimately related. "There is a substantial amount of territory the government has no control over. The more you reduce the space that FARC controls, the more likely you are to have more control over FARC's activities. I think it will have an impact on their ability to take and keep other hostages in the future."