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Marc Gonsalves says he drew a floor plan of his Florida home in a notebook. And each night, before falling asleep, he looks at it and whispers good night to each of his three children. “I try to sleep as much as possible so I don’t have to be awake through this thing,” he says. Gonsalves made these statements on a videotape more than three years ago. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. The defense contractor is one of three Americans who were captured in February 2003 by the Marxist-leaning separatist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. This video account of what happened after a single-engine Cessna plane carrying Gonsalves and his colleagues crashed in the mountains of southern Colombia is central to the Justice Department’s attempt to convict an alleged top FARC leader who was turned over to U.S. authorities in December 2004. The case against Simon Trinidad is scheduled to go to trial next month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The highest-ranking member of FARC ever extradited to the United States, the 56-year-old is charged with conspiracy to commit hostage-taking and providing material aid to terrorists in connection with the capture of Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, contractors for California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp. Prosecutors have no evidence that Trinidad was among the FARC rebels on the hilltop the day of the crash or that he has ever met the three American hostages. Trinidad is not seen in the video, but prosecutors claim he has viewed it. They also say that Trinidad confirmed to the FBI that he was one of three FARC officials charged with negotiating a prisoner exchange with the Colombian government. But the case has done little to assuage concerns of the men’s families, some of whom say they fear that prosecuting Trinidad in the U.S. court system will only hurt efforts to free their loved ones. “I just hope it doesn’t endanger their lives,” says Gonsalves’ mother, Jo Rosano of Bristol, Conn., who has visited Colombia and lobbied Congress to seek her son’s release. And the prosecution of Trinidad is already taking the government into uncharted territory. Previous hostage-taking cases have all occurred after the hostages were freed and were available to testify. Without the men’s corroboration, prosecutors must rely heavily on Colombian military and intelligence officials, who are expected to take the witness stand. International investigations are notoriously difficult, and though the Colombians have turned over detailed intelligence on FARC’s operations, some Colombian witnesses have received death threats for their cooperation with U.S. authorities, the government says in court papers. What’s more, Trinidad’s defense team hopes to turn the case into a test of the U.S. involvement in Colombia’s four-decades-long war with FARC. Since 2000, Colombia has received more than $4 billion in U.S. funds to fight the country’s drug lords, who supply most of the cocaine sold in the United States. And in the five years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress has increased the number of civilian contractors and military personnel surveying and spraying pesticides on coca fields in order to combat drug operations in Colombia and expanded their tasks to include direct logistical support to the Colombian military. Trinidad’s legal team — Robert Tucker, William Spencer, and Lara Quint from the Federal Public Defender’s Office — argue in court papers that the United States’ relationship with Colombia makes the three men “surrogates for direct military intervention on behalf of the government of Colombia in its war against the FARC insurgency.” If the men are considered soldiers in a bona fide war, the government would be barred from prosecuting Trinidad under the rule of law, they argue. The prosecutors — John Beasley Jr., Kenneth Kohl, Timothy Reardon, and John Crabb Jr. from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington — dispute this characterization and view the capture as a terrorist act. And they’ve asked Chief Judge Thomas Hogan to bar the defense from using the argument at trial. A spokesperson for the State Department declined to comment. Calls to the Colombian Embassy were not returned. TEACHER TURNED REBEL Born in 1950 to an elite Colombia family that traces its roots to the Spanish colonizers, Trinidad, whose given name is Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda, stood out in the largely peasant-dominated FARC. His grandfather was a Liberal Party politician, and his father a senator and well-known lawyer. Trinidad was raised on his family’s ranch in the northern city of Valledupar and attended the National University in Bogota, where he earned a doctorate in economics. In his early years, Trinidad taught college-level economics and became a manager in a private bank. He married, had two children, and lived an upper-class lifestyle. But Trinidad had trouble ignoring the rural poverty surrounding him, so he began exploring how Marxist economic models might better aid the poor, his lawyers wrote. This interest pulled him away from his family’s Liberal Party tradition in favor of a new political party, Union Patriotica, a Marxist-leaning group formed under FARC leadership in the 1980s. Initially, the party made headway in Colombia’s political system and offered hope of transforming the country’s deep inequities. But the party was deeply feared by paramilitary forces and drug lords, who soon began assassinating key leaders. These attacks destroyed the nascent political movement and convinced Trinidad that social change would only “be brought about from outside the entrenched corrupt political regimen of the country,” his lawyers wrote in court filings. Trinidad felt he had no other choice but to renounce his bourgeois background and head to the jungles to fight. But before he did, he arranged for his wife and children to leave the country. Soon, Trinidad became a useful intermediary and a skilled negotiator for FARC, and he quickly rose through its ranks. An April 2000 video the government plans to use at trial shows him “seated on the front podium alongside the very highest ranking members of the FARC leadership,” the government wrote. The fateful flight set out from Bogota on Feb. 13, 2003, carrying a Colombian army official and four American defense contractors on a U.S.-funded surveillance operation over the guerrilla-run coca fields in southern Colombia. The crew was headed for a refueling stop, but about 220 miles southwest of the capital, the plane’s engine began to falter. According to the government’s account, as the pilot searched for a crash site, FARC commanders slugged rounds of gunfire at the belly of the aircraft and the underside of its wings. “We’re going to bring it down,” FARC commander La Puteria was heard saying on a Colombian government radio intercept. On the video, however, the men make no mention of FARC gunfire while in the air. The only shots from the rebels came after they landed, they said, and were directed upward and not at them or their aircraft. Whatever the case, the plane landed on a clearing in the mountains. Days later, rescue teams found the bodies of the Colombian and one American. The other three Americans were whisked away by FARC rebels, who took them on a 24-day journey by foot, mule, and truck to a prisoner camp deep in the jungle, the men said on the video. Trinidad’s first connection to the American hostages didn’t occur until April 27, 2003, when FARC issued a communiqu� on its Web site naming Trinidad as one of three spokespersons designated to negotiate a transfer of its hostages, including the three Americans, in exchange for the Colombian government’s release of FARC prisoners. In late 2003, FARC commanders sent Trinidad to Ecuador to acquire a fake passport so he could travel to talks with Colombian officials. Suspicious of Trinidad’s activities, Ecuadorian officials arrested him on Jan. 2, 2004, and sent him back to Colombia, where he was held in prison. Soon, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe began discussions with FARC officials about exchanging Trinidad and other prisoners for the Americans and other hostages. But the talks never got far, so Uribe handed Trinidad over to U.S. officials in December 2004. FBI agent Alejandro Barbeito first visited Trinidad on March 31, 2003, in a Colombian jail about a few hours’ drive from Bogota, Barbeito stated at a court hearing in January. Though the jail had perhaps 50 cells, Trinidad was the only prisoner on-site. His cell was small, only 10 feet by 10 feet, but to get there, Barbeito had to walk through a security checkpoint, where he was forced to leave everything behind, including his watch, money, and belt. That meeting proved crucial to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, which was in the middle of putting together a criminal case against Trinidad. It was also controversial. Before the interview, Barbeito was supposed to meet Trinidad’s Colombian lawyer, Oscar Emilio Silva-Duque, but the lawyer called in sick. At first, Trinidad didn’t want to meet with Barbeito, but the agent pressed Colombian officials to let him introduce himself. Trinidad called his lawyer, who gave him the green light, and Trinidad agreed to speak with him, according to Barbeito’s testimony. Barbeito says that Trinidad confirmed his involvement with FARC. Two days later, Barbeito went back to the jail, this time with Silva-Duque. But he did not see Trinidad again until the two met on the plane that brought Trinidad to the United States on Dec. 31, 2004. IN AMERICA’s HANDS Trinidad’s U.S. defense counsel raised questions about the FBI’s meetings, arguing that their client had not been given proper Miranda warnings, and they filed a motion to bar any information from the FBI interview from being used at trial. Chief Judge Hogan held a hearing on this question in January, at which Barbeito testified that he had presented Trinidad with a Spanish translation of the international substitute for the Miranda warning. “In fact, at one point he commented, �Hey, I watch American TV shows and I’ve seen what these rights are about,’ ” Barbeito said, according to a transcript of the motions hearing. Barbeito said that Trinidad, however, did not sign the form because “ he did not want to officialize any meetings with the U.S. government.” Silva-Duque, who came to the United States to testify, accused the FBI agent of misleading him and said he only let his client speak with Barbeito because he believed the agent was on a “humanitarian mission” and sought Trinidad’s help to get the hostages “some glasses.” When the agent began talking about other matters, Silva-Duque said, “then we thought that we had been tricked by the FBI agents.” Hogan didn’t buy the Colombian lawyer’s testimony because of an essential conflict of interest: Silva-Duque’s brother had been kidnapped by FARC in 2002, after which he became Trinidad’s attorney. “Consequently, he has a substantial vested personal interest — if not an obvious bias — in securing a favorable result for the defendant,” Hogan wrote in his March opinion, in which he allowed the material into evidence. The ruling was a setback for Trinidad, who has been held incommunicado with only occasional access to his U.S. attorneys. He has a daughter and a son in the United States, but he hasn’t been in touch with them since before Sept. 11, 2001, he told the FBI, because he was afraid his involvement with FARC would jeopardize their immigration status. Meanwhile, Trinidad has busied himself by reading dozens of books, particularly classic literature and biographies, according to court documents. Yet as the case goes forward, some South American experts say the prosecution of Trinidad could only complicate any negotiations over the hostages’ release. FARC has demanded the Colombian government cede territory and release FARC prisoners, including Trinidad, before it frees any of its hostages. Bruce Bagley, a Colombia specialist at the University of Miami, says thus far, FARC has little incentive to return the hostages as long as the organization remains solvent. “I do not see the humanitarian exchange prospering,” he says. “FARC have very little to gain and a constant source of cannon fodder to recruit.” For the hostages’ families, the government’s aggressive prosecution of Trinidad — it added him to a separate drug conspiracy case in 2004 — isn’t what matters to them. “We just want our sons released,” says Lynne Stansell, Keith Stansell’s mother, who lives in Florida. “We are just not into the prosecution of these people. I mean, I’m hopeful they are successful, but I don’t see it will get them released now.”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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