Three American citizens are being held by leftist guerrillas somewhere in the jungles of Colombia. But this isn't a news flash. The men were kidnapped nearly five years ago as they worked as missionaries in a remote village of southern Panama. Frustrated but still hopeful, their families arrived at Margarita Island, Venezuela, last week for the Ibero-American heads of state summit, with the goal of winning some attention for their case.
"I keep thinking those guerrillas have to have families, have to care about somebody. It's so hard to understand why they keep dragging this out," says Tania Rich, the wife of one of the men.
Mark Rich, Dave Mankins, and Rick Tenenoff and their families had been working for the New Tribes Mission in the remote village of Pucuro, just a few hours north through the jungle from the Colombia-Panama border. The missionaries knew that guerrillas and drug traffickers often crossed the border in the jungle, but they never had any reason to believe they would be caught up in Colombia's violent problems. If, as is believed, they are still alive, the men are the longest currently held American hostages in the world today.
It was early evening on Jan. 31, 1993, when guerrillas raided the village and marched the men into the night as their wives looked on. In the first year, the mission was talking with the guerrillas, but in January 1994 contact broke off. The following four years yielded very little information. But recently, the families have received encouraging news that the men may still be alive and held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"A high-level FARC official admitted recently to a high-level Costa Rican official that they have our men, and they're OK," says Mrs. Rich. But she and the other family members are wary of becoming too hopeful. "I'd like to have more than the word of this person - and more than that, have them come back," she says.
Rich was granted the first part of her wish: Panama's foreign minister corroborated last Sunday that the men are still alive. The families met with five foreign ministers and Colombian President Ernesto Samper to request that the Ibero-American leaders pressure the FARC to release them. The rebel group has been known to make contact with neighboring governments. Last week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned the FARC and demanded that it release the men.
"I'm guardedly optimistic. But it's like running a marathon. You don't want to get too up or too down," says Chad Mankins, the son of one of the captives.
Kidnapping is big business in Colombia, especially for the many left-wing guerrilla groups who use it for fund-raising. Rebel groups are blamed for about 70 percent of the country's kidnappings, which average more than a thousand each year, the highest in the world. The Colombian Army and police seem powerless to stop the abduction trade, and in fact the New Tribes Mission is more concerned about what could happen if the Army did find the men. A botched attempt in 1995 by the Army to rescue two other kidnapped missionaries left both men dead.
The families say that family events and holidays are the most difficult times. "My girls are growing while he's gone. Jessica has learned to walk, and now she's going to school. My husband has not been with us for any of her birthdays - she wasn't even 1 yet when her dad was taken," Rich says.
"Both my kids have gotten married since their dad was gone," says Nancy Mankins. "Of course looking back, it was the right thing to do, but at the time we thought, 'What if he comes home tomorrow? Should we wait one more week, six more months?' Life goes on without them, but we don't."