Tanja Anamary Nijmeijer, a Dutch national who moved to Colombia and joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002, and 17 other members of the FARC designated foreign terrorist organization were indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., yesterday on seven counts of terrorism and weapons charges arising out of their participation in the hostage-taking of three American citizens in the Republic of Colombia.
The three former hostages—Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Howes—were held in the Colombian jungle by members of the FARC for more than five years until their rescue by Colombian military forces on July 2, 2008.
The indictment charges Nijmeijer, 32, and 17 others with one count of conspiracy to commit hostage taking, three substantive counts of hostage taking, one count of using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, and two counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Sixteen are being charged for the first time; two others, charged earlier, face new counts in today’s indictment. If convicted of these charges, each individual would face a maximum term of up to 60 years of incarceration, the maximum sentence permitted under Colombian law for Colombian nationals extradited to the United States for prosecution. The weapons charge carries a statutory mandatory minimum penalty of 30 years’ incarceration. Four of the 18 individuals are also charged in count two of the indictment with an eighth count, the premeditated murder of a U.S. national outside the United States, done during the perpetration of, and attempt to perpetrate, a kidnapping, which also carries a maximum sentence of up to 60 years’ incarceration in this case.
Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, Thomas Janis, and a Colombian national, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, were conducting counter-drug aerial surveillance in southern Colombia on February 13, 2003, 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 were gathered. All five occupants of the plane survived the crash, but were immediately taken captive by the FARC guerrillas. The pilot of the plane, Thomas Janis, and the Colombian national, Sgt. Cruz, were both immediately executed by the FARC, and their bodies were left near the crash site. The other three, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell, and Mr. Howes, were held under barbaric conditions in the jungle for more than five years.
The indictment alleges that choke harnesses, chains, padlocks, and wires were used to bind the necks and wrists of the American hostages to prevent their escape, and a large barbed-wire concentration camp was constructed to hold dozens of civilian hostages in the jungle for more than a year, including the three Americans.
As Colombian rescue efforts intensified in later years, the indictment alleges that the hostages were forced to move long distances, from camp to camp, including a grueling 40-day march while carrying heavy backpacks through dense jungle to outrun Colombian military forces. The indictment also alleges that an agreement was made to kill the hostages, if necessary, to prevent their escape or rescue.
The indictment sheds new light on the international aspect of the FARC’s hostage-taking enterprise, and this crime in particular. For example, it alleges that the hostages were taken to a meeting in 2003 with several senior members of the FARC’s Estado Mayor Central, who told the Americans that their continued detention as U.S. citizens would assist the FARC’s goals by increasing international pressure on the government of Colombia to capitulate to the FARC’s demands. The FARC published communiques articulating their political demands on the Internet, in Spanish and English, to be read in the United States and, in 2003, released a proof of life video articulating their demands to Colombian and American media outlets.
The indictment also alleges that the hostages were transported, at times, outside Colombia and into the Republic of Venezuela, in order to prevent the Colombian police and military from rescuing the hostages.
Four of the individuals in yesterday’s indictment, Carlos Alberto Garcia, also known as “Oscar Montero” and “El Paisa,” Juan Carlos Reina Chica, also known as “Farid,” Jaime Cortes Mejia, also known as “Davison,” and Carlos Arturo Cespedes Tovar, also known as “Uriel,”are charged with murder of a U.S. national outside the United States, for their involvement in the kidnapping when Thomas Janis was shot in the back of the head with an assault rifle by FARC guerrillas. The indictment also alleges that “El Paisa” gave the order to shoot at the disabled plane as it was attempting to land.
Tanja Nijmeijer gained notoriety in recent years in Colombia, after her personal journal was recovered in a Colombian military raid in 2007, and excerpts of a video interview of her were released to the international press in 2010. On the recently-released video, Nijmeijer describes how she first learned about Colombia’s guerrilla war when she was still a student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She describes how she helped the FARC as an operative in Bogota before eventually joining the group as an armed insurgent in November, 2002.
Yesterday’s charging document represents the fifth indictment issued in the District of Columbia against various FARC members involved in the kidnappings.
Two individuals in the indictment—Carlos Alberto Garcia, aka El Paisa, and Jose Ignacio Gonzalez Perdomo, aka Alfredo Arenas—were charged previously in an indictment returned in the District of Columbia in 2003, shortly after the three Americans were taken hostage. The recent indictment re-files each of those charges and adds a new homicide count against El Paisa. The indictment also adds a new weapons charge and an additional material support charge against both men.
The U.S. government, through the Rewards for Justice Program of the Department of State, is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the apprehension or conviction of any FARC commanders involved in the hostage taking of Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves, and the murder of Thomas Janis.
Upon the apprehension of those indicted, they will face immediate extradition to the U.S., assuming cooperation of Colombian officials.
Douglas McNabb and other members of the firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, Interpol Litigation, International Extradition and OFAC Litigation.
The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at email@example.com or at one of the offices listed above.