Man pleads not guilty in tak­ing of hostages

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY JERRY SEPER

An ac­cused mem­ber of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) was ar­raigned Mon­day in fed­eral court in Washington fol­low­ing his week­end ex­tra­di­tion to the U.S. on charges of hostage-tak­ing and ter­ror­ism.

Alexan­der Bel­tran Her­rera, 35, also known as Ro­drigo Piri­nolo, is ac­cused of be­ing in­volved in the 2003 seizure of three Amer­i­can hostages, who were res­cued five years later by Colom­bian com­man­dos.

Mr. Bel­tran Her­rera pleaded not guilty to charges of con­spir­acy to com­mit hostage tak­ing; hostage tak­ing; us­ing and car­ry­ing a firearm dur­ing a crime of vi­o­lence; con­spir­acy to pro­vide ma­te­rial sup­port to ter­ror­ists; and con­spir­acy to pro­vide ma­te­rial sup­port to a des­ig­nated for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

He was ar­raigned be­fore U.S. Dis­trict Chief Judge Royce C. Lam­berth. Prose­cu­tors de­scribed Mr. Bel­tran Her­rera as a “fairly high rank­ing” FARC mem­ber.

Lisa Monaco, as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for na­tional se­cu­rity, said in a writ­ten state­ment Mr. Bel­tran Her­rera’s ex­tra­di­tion “un­der­scores our re­solve to hold ac­count­able all those re­spon­si­ble for this crime and we will not rest un­til ev­ery one of them is brought to jus­tice.”

The FARC, which has bat­tled the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment since the mid-1960s, has char­ac­ter­ized Amer­i­can cit­i­zens as “mil­i­tary tar­gets.” The State Depart­ment des­ig­nated the group as a for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1997.

The in­dict­ment al­leges that Mr. Bel­tran Her­rera was a mem­ber of the 27th Front in the FARC’S South­ern Block, where he was in­volved in the hostage tak­ing of three U.S. cit­i­zens — Marc D. Gonsalves, Thomas R. Howes and Keith Stansell.

The three, along with Thomas Ja­nis, also a U.S. cit­i­zen, and Sgt. Luis Al­cides Cruz, a Colom­bian cit­i­zen, were seized in Fe­bru­ary 2003 by the FARC af­ter their sin­gle en­gine air­craft made a crash land­ing near Floren­cia, Colom­bia. FARC mem­bers killed Mr. Ja­nis, the pi­lot, and Sgt. Cruz at the crash site.

Ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment, the three sur­viv­ing men, all de­fense con­trac­tors, were held by the FARC at gun­point and told by its lead­ers they would be used as hostages to in­crease in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on Colom­bia’s gov­ern­ment to agree to the FARC’S de­mands.

Through­out their cap­tiv­ity, the in­dict­ment said, FARC jailors and guards used choke har­nesses, chains, pad­locks and wires to bind the hostages’ necks and wrists to pre­vent their es­cape, and con­structed in the jun­gle a large barbed-wire con­cen­tra­tion camp to hold the Amer­i­cans and dozens of other civil­ian hostages.

The in­dict­ment also ac­cuses Mr. Bel­tran Her­rera of us­ing and car­ry­ing a mil­i­tary-type ma­chine gun dur­ing the hostage tak­ing and of pro­vid­ing ma­te­rial sup­port and re­sources to aid in the hostage tak­ing and to aid the FARC.

The three Amer­i­cans were among 15 in­ter­na­tional hostages res­cued in July 2008 by Colom­bian com­man­dos dis­guised as rebels, who tricked the guer­ril­las into turn­ing over their cap­tives.

Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell and Mr. Howes were con­duct­ing counter-drug aerial sur­veil­lance in south­ern Colom­bia when their Cessna air­craft ex­pe­ri­enced en­gine fail­ure and was forced to make an emer­gency land­ing on a re­mote moun­tain­side where a large con­tin­gent of FARC guer­ril­las was gath­ered.

As Colom­bian res­cue ef­forts in­ten­si­fied in later years, the in­dict­ment said, the FARC mem­bers forced the hostages to move long dis­tances to avoid gov­ern­ment forces, in­clud­ing a gru­el­ing 40-day march while car­ry­ing heavy back­packs through dense jun­gle.

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