This true story of the dramatic rescue of three captive Americans raises disturbing questions about the US war on drugs in Colombia.
North American journalists Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes allied with the insider they needed – the Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero – to produce the gripping book Hostage Nation. This brave, deeply reported work makes a compelling argument for ending the drug wars that the United States continues to prosecute in Colombia, Mexico, and – for that matter – Afghanistan.
The authors tack that argument onto the end of this compelling story about the interplay of economics and politics in Colombia, that country’s relationship with the United States, and the rescue of three US contractors held in captivity in Colombia for more than five years. Their depiction of the daring, persistence, and open-mindedness necessary to prevail over ineptitude at the top levels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian government, and the Bush administration proves that political posturing, no matter the stripe, can prove fatal.
What makes “Hostage Nation” especially persuasive is input from Botero, a Bogota man who, like FARC leader Simon Trinidad, grew up on the right side of the tracks. However, where Trinidad became a neo-Marxist revolutionary, Botero became a reporter. His background enabled him to be the first to interview FARC captives Ingrid Betancourt (a failed Colombian presidential candidate), and Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes (contractors whose Cessna plane crashed in the jungle of southern Colombia Feb. 13, 2003.) The story of those three Americans is the thread that ties “Hostage Nation” together.
Stansell and Gonsalves were technicians, Howes and Thomas Janis copilots on a California Microwave Systems crop duster sent to southern Colombia to fumigate coca plants. An engine failed and the plane crashed as FARC guerrillas riddled it with bullets. Janis and a Colombian sergeant were killed, while Stansell, Gonsalves, and Howes were taken into captivity. Rules of engagement forbidding US forces from entering foreign soil on a rescue mission meant that it was up to the Colombian army to do the job, which eventually it did – no thanks to the US. The US military instead did what it could to move the story off the front page, focusing instead on the “success” of Plan Colombia, the name for the US effort to kill cocaine.
“As with other military contracts, the outsourcing of the war on drugs in Colombia was designed to protect the U.S. government from liability should anything go awry. And to complicate an already-confusing picture, larger corporations would frequently subcontract to smaller companies in order to distance themselves from accountability. The military’s SOUTHCOM Reconnaissance Systems (SRS) program that employed Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves in 2003 was no different. Lockheed Martin was selected by the DoD as the prime contractor, which then subcontracted to Northrop Grumman, which then subcontracted to California Microwave Systems.”
That arrangement, which conjures a Russian nesting doll, left accountability vague and the three Americans dangling. If not for Botero’s doggedness and an ingeniously clever plan immaculately executed by the Colombian military – an insider account that makes you want to cheer – Howes, Stansell, and Gonsalves might still be in the Colombian jungle.
The story can be hard to follow as the book interweaves the byzantine history of modern Colombian politics with the rescue effort. But it accretes effectively, leavened by accounts of good guys like Botero and a former FBI hostage negotiator named Gary Noesner. Both helped free the captives and never succumbed to the macho posturing that defined the relationship between Colombia and the US during that captivity.
“In the end, it is the many U.S. defense contractors who are the only clear winners in the unrelenting war on drugs,” the authors write in the epilogue. While their narrative has a happy ending – the captives, after all, were freed – Bruce, Hayes, and Botero also suggest that as long as the military-industrial complex rules, drug wars will be waged.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.