Marc Gonsalves, one of the victims of “Simon Trinidad”, said: “My abduction is an act of terrorism by a group who has made an industry out of kidnapping.”
In April 2016, the Colombian narco-terrorist group FARC sent a message to the Obama Administration: The FARC, which was finalizing a “peace” accord with the Colombian government, would not disarm unless the U.S. released convicted FARC kidnapper “Simon Trinidad” from a U.S. prison. It seemed, at the time, a ludicrous demand by the terrorists. But recent events suggest the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization might indeed subvert the U.S. justice system and secure Trinidad’s release — with the aid of outgoing President Obama and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos. Adding insult to injury for U.S. victims of the FARC, the lobbying for his release is being funded with U.S. taxpayer money.
“Simon Trinidad” is the alias for Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera, a FARC front commander serving a 60-year sentence for his role in the kidnapping of U.S. contractors in 2003. Thomas Janis, a decorated U.S. Army officer and Vietnam veteran, was piloting an aerial drug surveillance mission with three other U.S. contractors and Colombian Army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz when they crash-landed in the Colombian jungle. FARC terrorists found the wreckage, murdered Thomas Janis and Sgt. Cruz, and kidnapped Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Howes. They were held captive for five years before being rescued in a Colombian military operation.
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The FARC has been requesting Trinidad for years. But the first indication that the release of Trinidad was being processed in the U.S. came on Thursday, December 8, when Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham drafted a letter to Obama, stating they had information that the government of Colombia had requested Trinidad’s release. The Senators argued that such a move would send the wrong message to the FARC, undermine the U.S. judicial system, and put $450 million in U.S. funding for the implementation of the peace accord in jeopardy. The latter assertion gained some strength this week as Senator Rubio announced that he will not only remain on the Committee on Foreign Relations, he will also serve on the Appropriations Committee – which controls the purse strings.
Senator Rubio’s office confirmed that he has not received any response from the White House. But on Saturday, December 10, Colombian media outlets reported that President Santos denied having made any such request. Strangely, that same day I received a response from the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney to a Freedom of Information Act request I had made eight months before, in April, in which I asked for all documents related to any petition for executive clemency for Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera, a.k.a. “Simon Trinidad.” The response from the Pardon Attorney’s Office: No such documents exist. It seemed a timely confirmation of Mr. Santos’ denial, albeit an appallingly late response to my query. (Click here to see the response from OPA response-lia-fowler)
But on December 27, 2016, the subject resurfaced, when Oscar Silva, Trinidad’s attorney, stated in a radio interview with Radio Santafe that a U.S. presidential pardon for his client was in the works. Then, on January 1, 2017, Ariel Avila, a senior staff member at the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES) in Colombia and a government contractor, stated in a column in the State-funded weekly Semana and in a subsequent radio interview with Caracol that the Colombian Government had indeed requested the release of Simon Trinidad and that it was very possible that the U.S. would grant it. Avila stated that Trinidad would be released because his conviction in the U.S. was unfair: “… he was convicted for a kidnapping, and it wasn’t so.” According to Avila, it was “a capture.”
Marc Gonsalves, one of the victims of the crime, would disagree. In a written communication to me this week, Gonsalves stated: “My abduction is an act of terrorism by a group who has made an industry out of kidnapping.” Having spent five years in chains and barbed wire cages under constant threat of execution – he would know. Gonsalves, Stansell, and Howes were kidnapped. Thomas Janis and Sgt. Cruz were murdered. There’s no euphemism for that.
Just as Frank Pescatore, a U.S. geologist and father of four, was kidnapped and murdered by a FARC Front led by Trinidad in December 1996. According to an investigation by Colombia’s Attorney General, which included testimony from at least five co-conspirators, Pescatore was murdered by the FARC after trying to escape. Per witness accounts, the terrorists – under Trinidad’s command – had a doctor remove Mr. Pescatore’s organs, fill his body with limestone and formaldehyde and used make up in order to make it appear as if he was still alive for the “proof of life” photos needed to secure a ransom payment. His body was eventually found abandoned in a farm in February 1997. Trinidad has not answered for this kidnapping and murder. With the possibility of a pardon and repatriation, it seems he never will.
Still, it is not surprising that Avila would try to characterize what the civilized world knows to be a kidnapping as something more benign. After all, PARES was created in 2013 by former terrorist Leon Valencia, who was amnestied in 1994. Valencia was a high-ranking member of the terrorist group known as the ELN, which financed itself primarily through kidnapping and extortion. Co-conspirators have testified to the fact that Valencia was directly in charge of planning kidnappings and ensuring that the ELN fronts under his control met their financial quotas. He has not served a day in jail.
Valencia and his NGOs, including PARES, have been among the main propagandists for the “peace accord” between the Colombian government and the FARC – a deal which provides impunity and political eligibility for FARC terrorists. It’s been a financially rewarding endeavor. PARES has received millions of pesos in Colombian government contracts as well as financial sponsorship from the Governments of Norway and Germany, as well as other entities.
What should come as a shock to U.S. victims of both the FARC and the ELN, and to all Americans, is that PARES is also funded with US taxpayer money, through the United States Agency for International Development, USAID. According to USAID’s website, the funding provided to PARES is provided to “coordinate electoral oversight, generate media coverage, produce research and promote transparency of the electoral process in Colombia.” The foundation’s website, however, makes no mention of any work related to electoral processes.
It makes sense that a spokesperson for PARES, created by a terrorist who helped fuel Colombia’s kidnapping industry, should be lobbying for the release of a fellow terrorist and kidnapper. But it’s unthinkable that those who promote this false narrative should be funded by the U.S. government. Since Avila’s statement, the Santos government has again denied seeking Trinidad’s release. So, ultimately, it will be Obama who decides whether to validate Avila’s rhetoric. The next two weeks will tell whether Obama stands with the victims of terror or those who perpetrate it.
*Lia Fowler is an American journalist and former FBI Special Agent