IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

U.S. hostages’ book critical of Betancourt

A memoir by three Americans held captive by Colombia's leftist rebels for more than five years is anything but flattering to Ingrid Betancourt, the most famous hostage who shared their jungle prisons.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A memoir by three Americans held captive by Colombia's leftist rebels for 5 1/2 years is anything but flattering to Ingrid Betancourt, the most famous hostage who shared their jungle prisons.

The chronicle of the U.S. military contractors' 1,967 days as rebel captives is a striking survival tale, describing their pain and perseverance, mind-numbing boredom in jungle cages, forced marches in chains, close calls under fire and ultimately, a miraculous rescue.

But the most provocative revelation of "Out of Captivity" deals with Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician kidnapped a year before they were marched into the gulag they say she dominated.

Allegations against Betancourt
One of the Northrop Grumman employees alleges she was haughty and self-absorbed, stole food and hoarded books, and even put their lives in danger by telling rebel guards they were CIA agents.

“I watched her try to take over the camp with an arrogance that was out of control,” Keith Stansell told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “Some of the guards treated us better than she did.”

Stansell, a 44-year-old ex-Marine, was freed along with Betancourt, fellow contractors Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, and 11 Colombians, when military agents posing as humanitarian workers in helicopters scooped them out of a jungle clearing in July.

Betancourt did not respond to efforts by the AP to obtain her reaction to the criticism. She did not respond to an e-mail, and phone and e-mail messages left with associates were not returned. Her sister Astrid Betancourt, reached by e-mail, refused to comment.

Former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, a fellow Colombian who shared the jungle gulag, denied that Betancourt ever told the rebels the Americans were CIA agents. He told the AP he would not comment further on the allegations without reading the book, which was being published in the United States on Thursday by HarperCollins.

The three Americans take turns narrating their experiences in the 457-page chronicle. The other two agree with Stansell on most everything, but don't always see eye-to-eye with him on Betancourt. In the book and in phone interviews with the AP, the two said they hold no grudges, even though conflicts were frequent among hostages during their captivity.

“These were literally concentration camps,” Gonsalves told the AP. “There was barely room to breathe.”

It is unusual for a former hostage to publicly criticize someone with whom they shared such an intense, traumatic experience, said Dr. Keron Fletcher, a British psychiatrist who debriefed hostages held by extremists in Lebanon two decades ago.

“For this man to go for the jugular is quite unusual,” he said of Stansell. People who live through such trauma “tend to keep quiet about problems that they had with each other and do their best to support each other.”

Competition and jealousy
The hostages competed for sleeping space, meager food rations and the lone Spanish-English dictionary. And when Gonsalves developed a close and tender friendship with Betancourt, it triggered intense jealousies among other male prisoners, according to the book.

"She's a tough woman," said Gonsalves, 36, who told the AP they remain in touch by phone and e-mail. "She used to give those guerrillas a hard time."

Betancourt was frequently chained all day long following a failed escape attempt with Perez. "I never saw her complain or cry about it," Gonsalves said.

A former Air Force intelligence analyst, Gonsalves was in charge of photographing drug crops and labs run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia when their surveillance plane crash-landed in rebel territory in February 2003.

Pilot Tommy Janis and a Colombian army sergeant, Luis Alcedes Cruz, were shot dead by the rebels. None of the three survivors know why. A recovery team later found the bodies beside the plane.

Stansell, 44, of Bradenton, Florida, was mission chief and Howes, 55, was co-pilot. Both were veterans of Andean counter-drug missions.

A long ordeal
Injured from the crash and plagued by jungle parasites, the three were frequently forced into long marches as the rebels fled punishing bombings and strafings by Colombia's U.S.-backed military.

The FARC guards had orders to kill them in the attempt of a military rescue, and Howes told the AP that they came to accept that death could come at any time.

More painful, Howes said, were his memories of putting his son Tommy on the bus to kindergarten at home in Merritt Island, Florida, just days before the crash.

"It was like a spike in my chest," he said. "I had to force myself to stop thinking about it." That was in the early months of captivity. Afterward, he said, "our brains got calloused and we became mental prisoners."

They kept busy between marathon marches — in one camp, they did daily workouts with a log they carved into barbells and Gonsalves, of Bristol, Conn., whittled a chess set on which they played daylong matches.

And while Gonsalves' and Howes' marriages would not survive their ordeal, Stansell now lives with a Colombian flight attendant he met just before his capture. She gave birth to his twin boys while he festered in captivity but remained devoted, professing her love to him frequently in radio messages broadcast to the jungle.

All three told the AP that they fully endorse the policy of both the United States and of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of not negotiating with hostage-takers, despite the cost to them personally.

"I would love to see the U.S. continue to support Colombia until they get all the top FARC commanders," said Gonsalves. "Keep hammering them until the FARC comes to the peace table."