WASHINGTON – With U.S. attention focused on Iraq, little is known about three American military contractors taken hostage by Colombian rebels seven months ago, and believed by some to be among the first U.S. casualties of the war on terror in South America.
“I had warned of this, quite frankly, when the administration started to shift from counter-drug to counter-insurgency,” said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who is one of the few lawmakers talking publicly about the kidnapping. “I don’t take great pride in saying I told you so, but I did warn that this could happen.”
Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, all contractors for Northrop Grumman Corp., were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (search) in February when their plane crashed on an intelligence-gathering mission for the U.S. military.
They were three of five people on the plane. Another American and their Colombian pilot were executed by FARC after the plane went down. The three men are being held deep in the jungle, and to date, Colombian and U.S. forces have been unable to pinpoint their location, much less launch a rescue.
The three men are the first American military contractors to be kidnapped by FARC, which is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations and has been at war with the Colombian government for 39 years.
"I personally expected there was going to be more interest and there would be requests for more accountability and more action," said one military official. "I’m a little surprised."
U.S. forces are not in the jungle looking for the contractors because of an agreement that sets limits on how many U.S military and civilian personnel are allowed on the ground at any given time.
However, according to Raul Duany, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command (search) headquarters in Miami, special operations teams are assisting the Colombian searchers with intelligence and communications.
"Political considerations" must be taken into account, Duany said, but the military considers the contractors their own, and said the Colombians are doing their best to find them.
“It’s a very sensitive situation,” he said. “We need to stay at a very neutral position. At this time there is no talk of an overly aggressive action.”
But critics say if the men were U.S. military troops and not civilian contractors, not only would the administration be more aggressive in getting them out, but the glare of the media and Congress would demand it.
"If that were a group of military soldiers, you would bet the military would be doing everything possible to get these guys," said Walter Purdy, an analyst for the Terrorism Resource Center (search). "Now all of a sudden it becomes a 'political issue.'"
According to freelance writer Jorge Enrique Botero (search), the only outsider given access to the hostages so far, the men didn’t even know their country was at war in Iraq. Botero traveled for days through the jungle to get to the story, which was published by The Associated Press in late September.
Meanwhile, there has been little talk publicly about the matter on Capitol Hill.
"[They] are somebody’s father, or fiancé, the idea they’ve been held for several months ... unfortunately, if these were three GIs, I think the American people would be more upset," Taylor said.
Phillip McLean, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he is sure the U.S. government is treating the situation no differently than if the hostages were American soldiers, especially since many of the contractors working in places like Colombia are former military.
He added that given the rough terrain of the jungle, the Colombians are in the best position to find them.
"I’ve never heard anyone say that if we just put in a unit of our own forces we would find them right away," McLean said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has tied South American guerrilla groups like the FARC to the broader war on terrorism, and was able to extend U.S assistance to Colombia beyond counter-drug operations.
"There is a clear nexus between the war on drugs and the war on terror," explained Duany, who said the counter-drug operations, combined with training, intelligence and other U.S. supports, has not only put a dent in the cocaine production there, but is beginning to reverse the country’s violent reputation.
"It’s already paying off," he said. "The feeling of optimism is definitely out there."
But critics ask whether it is really worth sucking the United States into a civil war, and putting Americans at risk who up until now were largely left alone by groups like FARC.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a terrorism expert for the Cato Institute (search), said the Bush administration was wrong to tie the South American guerrilla groups to the war against terror.
"A lot of groups [in South America] engage in terrorist tactics, but they do not direct those tactics against the United States," he said. "Was this a wise move to raise our profile in Colombia to the point where we’re party to their war?"
McLean said Congress has expressed concern about broader U.S. involvement, and has limited troops and civilian personnel there. As a result, contractors now involved in such post-Sept. 11 projects may be considered by guerilla groups more than just drug warriors, but the "enemy" in their civil war with the Colombian government.
"I’m sure the U.S. government does not want to be on the frontlines of this war," said McLean, who added the drug war is gaining success in the region, but could get mired in something else.
For now, the fate of the hostages remains uncertain. According to Botero, FARC said they would kill them instantly if a rescue were attempted. Instead they want to negotiate for the release of imprisoned rebels. Both American and Colombian officials say they will not negotiate on those terms.
"I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes," said Carpenter. "I don’t want to be sarcastic, but I guess the FARC sees them as enemy combatants and could hold them indefinitely."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.