"These Gringos Fell to Us from the Sky!"
On the morning of February 13, 2003, a group of sixteen guerrillas- part of an elite mobile unit of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)-were making their way across the foothills of Colombia's Eastern Cordillera. In the brilliant morning light, they could not see an airplane, but they were sure that one had circled above because of the familiar sound of a turboprop engine. Reynel, the commander of the group, told his unit that the plane was either a crop duster or a spy plane, because only fumigation and reconnaissance planes flew into the remote territories between the foot of the Andean mountain range and the low-lying Amazonian jungle. Fumigation planes were more common, and over the years, the guerrillas had shot down several. The crop dusters were manned by one pilot (usually an American or a foreigner from Central America under contract to a U.S. corporation) and equipped with tanks full of highly concentrated glyphosate-a toxic herbicide produced by the U.S. chemical company Monsanto. The targets were coca plants, which would wither and die if the chemical was applied correctly, but if pilots overshot the coca fields or the glyphosate drifted in the wind, it could wipe out rain forest or crops of yuca, soy, and corn. Occasionally, larger planes would fly over at altitudes out of reach of the guerrillas' automatic rifles. These crews were American, and the payloads were U.S.-supplied reconnaissance equipment designed to gather intelligence on FARC movements and identify drug labs and coca fields for the spray missions. The guerrillas knew that if the gringo "spies," with their high-tech instruments, were able to see or hear them under the jungle canopy, the Colombian army would not be far behind-and would be coming in to kill them. So it was with great satisfaction that an eighteen-year-old guerrilla named Jaison overheard his superior, a female guerrilla called "La Pilosa," receiving permission from her commander to shoot down the enemy plane:
LA PILOSA: There is a bug flying by here, very low.... Hey, if it's a fumigator, could we burn it?
EL PAISA: [Yes, if] it's low, burn that tail.
The Cessna crew had been in the air for an hour on their flight from Bogotá. Their next stop was the Larandia military base in southern Colombia, where they would refuel. With only thirty miles to go, "out of the blue the engine just spooled down...pshhhheeew," says copilot Thomas Howes.
"What's happening?" yelled Keith Stansell, a technician in the back of the plane.
"That's an engine failure, sir," pilot Tommy Janis shot back.
Stansell grabbed the radio to call the base:
"Magic Worker, Magic Worker, Mutt 01 is declaring Mayday. We have lost engine."
In the cockpit, Janis quickly calculated that the plane could not make it over the crest of the mountain range to land at the Larandia base. The terrain below was covered by densely forested hills. Howes knew the plane could glide on descent, but he didn't see any suitable place for a landing and didn't think they would survive the crash. Janis tried to restart the engine, but there was no response. "I cursed myself for trusting a single-engine plane for this type of work," Howes says. He'd logged thousands of hours of flight time in this aircraft and had had some very close calls. But never had he been so sure he would die. He pulled hard on his shoulder straps and reached over to secure Janis as the pilot scoured the ground, searching desperately for a place to land the plane. A second technician, Marc Gonsalves, hurried to secure the gear, making sure that all of it was tightly fastened so that they wouldn't be hit by flying equipment in the crash. Then he prayed to Jesus to forgive him for his sins and protect his wife and his three children.
STANSELL: Magic Worker, Magic Worker, Phoenix Ops, Phoenix Ops. Mutt 01, we are north 015617, west 0752958. Does not look like we are going to be able to find a suitable terrain. How copy?
GROUND CONTROL: That's right. I copy, sir. Activate your beacon?
STANSELL: Roger that.... Continue to update, sir. We are looking for a place on the ridge to set down.
Suddenly, looking out of the left side of the plane, Janis saw a clearing about the size of a soccer field in the middle of the forest and aimed for the spot. "We're going to hit very hard," Howes yelled to the crew in the back.
GROUND CONTROL: Mutt 01, this is Magic Worker, say, uh, say souls on board.
STANSELL: There are five souls on board, sir. Tom Howes, Tom Janis, pilots; Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, operators. Four of us and one host-nation rider.
GROUND CONTROL: Copy.
STANSELL: We love you, buddy. Man, we're just lookin' for a spot here.
GROUND CONTROL: Mutt 01, Magic Worker, what you say again lat and long?
GONSALVES: 0151 north, 07530 west.
It was eerily quiet in the plane as Janis maneuvered the gliding aircraft in a wide arc. For a moment, Howes thought they had too much speed-that they would overshoot the site-and he pushed away thoughts of how his death would affect his five-year-old son. On the ground, the guerrillas, unaware of the engine failure and that the plane was about to crash-land, raised their weapons. The plane's metallic body reflected the sun, converting it into a sparkling target. In a matter of seconds, bullets crashed against the belly of the aircraft. The Colombian army picked up the guerrillas' radio transmissions as the insurgents shot at the plane:
EL PAISA: It sounds good over there. Can you hear?
GUERILLA NUMBER TWO: Yes.
EL PAISA: I hope the SOB gets knocked down.
GUERILLA NUMBER TWO: I hope they waste them.
Stansell was glad that he'd called home to Georgia that morning. He'd wanted to make sure that his two kids and his schoolteacher fiancée were awake and getting ready for school. Before he hung up, he told them that he loved them. Then he picked up the radio:
STANSELL: Down. We are going down now.
GONSALVES: 0152 north, 07530 west.
STANSELL: We are going in.
GROUND CONTROL: Mutt 01, Magic Worker... Mutt 01, Magic Worker. Say status.... Mutt 01, Magic Worker. Say status.
As the Cessna drew a mile-wide curve on its crash-landing approach, Derek Harvey, the mission's administrative coordinator at the American embassy in Bogotá, received Stansell's Mayday call and communicated by radio with him as the plane descended. On board, the Cessna's transponder relayed the same coordinates to Key West, Florida, where a Department of Defense (DOD) counternarcotics task force traced the path of the plane on a computer screen as it arced across the forest backdrop and came to an abrupt stop. After that, says Harvey, "we tried to call them on cell phones; we continued on their emergency radios. And we never heard from them."
From two hundred yards away, the guerrillas saw the plane crash- land, its fuselage splitting in two and its wings exploding. Inside the plane, the crew heard metal tearing away and felt an immense impact as the landing gear ripped off and the belly of the plane scraped the ground. "We were sliding and everything in my vision was bouncing," Gonsalves wrote in the book Out of Captivity
. "I saw a slit of light pour through the front of the aircraft as the cabin was torn open like a can of tuna." The guerrillas watched as the plane continued rolling downhill, covered in a cloud of dirt and smoke, until everything suddenly stopped and all was silent. La Pilosa radioed her commander, El Paisa:
LA PILOSA: We knocked it down!
EL PAISA: Huh, uh-huh, son of a bitch, man, that fucking son of a bitch.
Believing they'd shot down the plane, the guerrillas were exuberant. "When we saw the plane fall to the ground and explode, we couldn't believe it. Many of us were unable to speak, as if we were frozen by the surprise," says Jaison. "Then we began to celebrate like crazy, raising our weapons and shouting victory cries." The celebration was interrupted by the commander, who shot his rifle into the air, scolding his subordinates. "He said that we were acting like kids with a piñata, and he ordered us to start running down to the remains of the airplane to see if there were any survivors. None of us thought that anyone would be alive after such a large impact, so we hurled ourselves, stumbling down the hill, thinking that we would have to pull some bodies from the remains of the plane." When the guerrillas came upon the wreckage, they saw one crew member emerge, then another, and then one more. To Jaison, it was like watching ghosts materialize from a cloud of dust.
At the Larandia military base-just seventeen minutes by air from where the plane crashed-Sfc. Juan Pérez and Sfc. Bo Wynn of the U.S. Special Forces team received orders from their commander at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá to get to the helicopter fields. They hurriedly packed their SAR (search and rescue) gear-canteens, first-aid supplies, arms and ammunition, compasses, flares, radios, and GPS units-and rushed to the airfield. Special Forces commander Lt. Col. Duke Christie was aware that the Special Forces training team was not permitted to take on a rescue mission in enemy territory. "But since we had an SF capability so close by," Christie told journalist Robert Kaplan, "I wanted to give my superiors the option of changing the ROEs [rules of engagement] for this extraordinary circumstance." Pérez and Wynn had been training Colombian troops in antinarcotics missions and had actually been instructing the Colombians in precisely the type of SAR operation that now needed to commence.
Minutes went by, with no movement of the Special Forces team or call to action by the U.S. military commander, Col. P. K. Keen. The delay incensed a Colombian-American veteran of the U.S. Army who worked closely with the four aboard the Cessna. "I called the MILGROUP [military advisory group] commander and said, 'Get 'em!' Keen could have said, 'Here goes my career, but get them!' There were planes and people standing beside the aircraft from the State Department; U.S. Special Forces guys were standing by, ready to give their lives."
In the pile of debris at the crash site, Marc Gonsalves had no idea if he was hurt. He couldn't feel any pain, only the intoxicating force of adrenaline pulsing through his body. Frantically, he scrambled through the wreckage, searching the plane for their survival gear, their guns, and their mission orders-which he did not want to fall into the hands of the enemy. But everything was covered with dirt, and it was difficult to see. Stansell was already out of the plane when he heard the sound of rapid gunfire. He looked over his shoulder and saw the guerrillas coming toward them. The Colombian sergeant who was aboard the plane with the Americans wanted to run. "He kept yelling, '¡Guerrillas! ¡Guerrillas!
' " Stansell says. "I told him in English that he could do what he had to do, that my only concern at that point was getting the pilots out of the plane."
As the guerrillas advanced, Stansell, terrified the plane would catch fire, shook Tommy Janis and yelled at him to get out of the plane. The pilot was barely coherent. "I told him that everyone was okay. I said, 'But the guerrillas are here, and they're going to take us.' " Janis's head was cut badly, and he could barely move. Next to him, Howes's body slumped forward in the cockpit, his face imbedded in the broken windshield. Stansell thought the copilot was dead, and he yelled for Gonsalves to help him pull both pilots from the plane. When they pulled Howes out, they were relieved to discover that he was alive and could walk, but his injuries looked grave. Blood poured from a gash above his eye and from another across his chin. Stansell was sure Howes would die. Stansell had already disposed of their guns, and as between fifty and sixty armed guerrillas approached them, pointing semiautomatic weapons, Stansell raised his hands to surrender, shouting, "No armas, no armas.
La Pilosa yelled for the guerrillas to surround the Americans. "What do you think, Reynel?" the delighted woman said to her superior. "These gringos fell to us from the sky!" Knowing the Americans would have called in their position as their plane went down, the guerrillas forced the men away from the crash site, pushing them up a steep hill as they stumbled on the pitted ground. Behind them, other guerrillas searched the plane and collected every piece of material that wasn't completely destroyed. Then they planted land mines around the site to impede the Colombian rescue troops, who would soon be on their way.
Howes, Gonsalves, and Stansell were forced down a hill, into a ravine, and up a slope, ahead of Tommy Janis and Colombian sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz. "We came to a small structure, a little building, and we were given some lemonade water to drink," Gonsalves says. One of the guerrillas told them not to worry, that they wouldn't be hurt. None of the three men actually believed it was true. Gonsalves was terrified. He expected that at any minute he would be tortured and killed. Stansell, too, thought they would die. "If you're going to kill us," he pleaded to one of the guerrillas, who he assumed was in charge, "please give us a respectable death."
The men sat for several minutes as the guerrillas assessed their condition and tended to Howes's head with a cloth bandage. Then from the distance came the unmistakable tat-tat-tat
of helicopter rotors. The three men were shoved into a trench next to the hut. Stansell thought the helicopters probably carried members of the Colombian army-possibly accompanied by U.S. forces-responding to his Mayday call. Now he realized that having the Colombian army there would be the worst-possible thing. He was sure there was no way for a successful rescue. A dozen guerrillas surrounded them-all with guns ready. If the Colombian military got too close, it would be a massacre. For what seemed like a very long time, the guerrillas pinned the hostages to the ground.
Howes remembers climbing out of the trench when the helicopters finally left. He looked back toward the crash site and saw Tommy Janis and Sergeant Cruz being marched toward them down an uneven slope. Several guerrillas held guns to their backs as they walked, and a few more led the way. He thought that Janis seemed to be walking okay and hoped that he hadn't been injured too badly in the crash. He still couldn't believe that Janis had been able to land the plane and that they'd all lived through it. As Howes, Stansell, and Gonsalves were forced away from the hut, Howes expected that Janis and Cruz would arrive there a few minutes later and be given the same treatment: the guerrillas would give them lemonade to drink and assess their physical condition.
At the airfield in Larandia, Pérez, and Wynn were still waiting for orders from the U.S. Embassy to board the available Black Hawk helicopters. Several hours went by, but the order never came. Then the two Green Berets were told to "stand down." Colonel Keen, who was calling the shots from his office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, would later explain his decision in a 2008 interview: "We weren't putting any U.S. military folks on the ground. It all unfolded very quickly. We were trying to determine where they went down, whether the area was secure or not. We discussed it in the embassy, that there were some Special Forces guys at Larandia. I don't recall when we decided to delay or hold them. We wanted the Colombian military to secure the area. We wanted to determine what situation we had on the ground there. We weren't running a military operation. We were interested in getting there quickly but didn't want to put more people at unnecessary risk."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hostage Nation by Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero. Copyright © 2010 by Victoria Bruce. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.