U.S. Offers Leniency to Captured Colombia Rebel Leader for Safe Release of 3 Pentagon Contractors

The Justice Department is offering leniency for a Colombian rebel leader if guerillas release three Americans from a jungle prison camp unharmed.

Prosecutors made the offer Tuesday in the courtroom where Ricardo Palmera, a leftist paramilitary commander, was convicted of hostage-taking conspiracy. Though the government's terrorism case against Palmera ended with a hung jury and a mistrial, he faces decades in prison on the conspiracy charge.

Palmera, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Simon Trinidad, is a senior member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The force of about 12,000 fighters has battled the Colombian government for four decades and has held three Americans hostage since their plane crashed in 2003.

"Our priority has always been the release of the hostages," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth C. Kohl said. "If they were released, say, next week, we would take that into consideration."

Judge Royce C. Lamberth will have the final say on sentencing but prosecutors and probation officers make recommendations that judges consider. Kohl would not say how much credit they would give Palmera if the hostages were released but said time was running short.

"The FARC has two months" until Palmera likely is sentenced, Kohl said. "Release them unharmed so they can be with their families."

The three Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — were civilian Pentagon contractors flying a surveillance mission over the Colombian jungle when their plane crashed in a rebel stronghold. They were taken hostage and were most recently seen in late April.

The FARC has rejected previous calls to release the Americans. Even if the hostages are freed, it is unclear how much leniency Palmera could receive. He faces the equivalent of a life sentence in this case and, even if prosecutors called for a substantial reduction, he awaits trial on drug charges that could keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life.

The U.S. considers the FARC a terrorist organization and a drug cartel. Though prosecutors were unable to persuade jurors that Palmera supported terrorists, Kohl said the case was a "complete and total victory for the U.S." Hostage-taking is a terrorist act, so Palmera is a convicted terrorist, Kohl said.

Palmera has admitted serving as a FARC negotiator but said he never saw the Americans or kept them captive himself. He justified hostage-taking as a legitimate military tactic and compared the struggle in Colombia to the U.S. Civil War.

This is the second time prosecutors have brought charges against Palmera, the highest-ranking FARC member ever captured. The first case ended in a mistrial last year after jurors failed to reach a verdict on any charges.