But the families of other rebel captives warn not to expect such an exchange any time soon.
Lucrecia Torres knows all too well that it may be months, or even years, before the three Americans whose plane went down in rebel territory are freed. Her own son has been held by the same rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for almost six years.
Torres’ son, Wargner Tapias, was captured by the rebels in May 1997 while serving as a lieutenant in the Colombian Army.
“Be patient,” read the last letter Torres received from her son, 10 days before last Christmas. Torres says she learned to wait a long time ago.
Tapias is one of Colombia’s “exchangeables,” the name given to a group of 45 soldiers and police officers and two dozen kidnapped politicians the FARC wants to exchange for their imprisoned comrades.
The group now includes the three Americans, who give the rebels new leverage, analysts say. U.S. defense officials say the captured Americans are contractors for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in South America and the Caribbean.
“For them, these gringos just fell out of the heavens,” said political analyst Leon Valencia.
The three Americans were taken after their U.S. government plane went down in rebel territory on Feb. 13. A fourth American and a Colombian were shot and killed near the crash site.
The FARC posted a statement on its Web site Monday saying “the three gringo prisoners of war in the custody of our organization will be liberated along with other Colombian prisoners of war once an exchange materializes in a large demilitarized zone.”
The previous president, Andres Pastrana, gave the FARC a Switzerland-sized safe haven during three years of peace talks. The talks fell apart and the government sent troops back into the area, and many felt that the government lost ground in the deal because the rebels used the area to consolidate their power.
President Alvaro Uribe has refused to consider granting the rebels another demilitarized zone.
The capture comes as the United States is stepping up its involvement in Colombia’s war against the rebels. The United States has given Colombia about $2 billion, mostly in military aid, since 2001. The 2003 budget recently passed by Congress adds another $500 million.
Bush authorized a new deployment of up to 150 troops to help in the search for the three Americans, U.S. Southern Command spokesman Art Merkel said Monday. He said the new troops would be “assisting the Colombians who are doing the search and rescue” and would not participate in combat missions.
The FARC considers Washington’s involvement in Colombia’s decades-old conflict an act of war, and said Monday that President Bush’s decision to send more troops was an “invasion.”
In Washington, U.S. officials again called for the release of the three. “The FARC is responsible for the American crew members’ safety, health and well-being,” State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz said Monday.
The analyst Valencia, a well-known author and himself a former rebel of the National Liberation Army, said the rebels will most likely kill the American prisoners if a rescue attempt is mounted.
“At that point, it’s combat, and they will fight to the death,” he said.
As long as the possibility for a prisoner exchange exists and there is no imminent danger of a rescue attempt, the FARC will likely keep the American captives healthy, Valencia said.
“Rationality, and their interest in keeping them alive, will overpower their anti-gringo sentiments,” Valencia said.
Earlier this year, Uribe softened his stance on a possible prisoner exchange, even naming an exploratory commission to start talking to the FARC. But that was before a string of rebel bomb attacks killed dozens of people.
“After the bombs, the government again hardened its stance on the humanitarian exchange,” said Marleny Orjuela, an activist for the families of the captured servicemen.
The latest standoff marks the first time in more than 20 years that U.S. government employees have been killed or captured in the conflict, which pits the FARC and a smaller rebel army against the government and a handful of outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups.