WASHINGTON - Hely Mejia Mendoza, known better by his alias "Martin Sombra," was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., on Friday on seven counts of terrorism and weapons charges arising out of his participation in the hostage-taking of three American citizens, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, in the Republic of Colombia, Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Patrick Rowan and District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor announced today. The three former hostages had been held in the Colombian jungle by the members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for over five years, until they were rescued last month by Colombian military forces.
The Indictment charges Sombra, 55, with one count of Conspiracy to Commit Hostage Taking, three counts of Hostage Taking, one count of Using and Carrying a Firearm During a Crime of Violence, and two counts of Providing Material Support to Terrorists and a Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. If convicted of these charges, Sombra would face a maximum term of up to 60 years of incarceration, which is the maximum sentence permitted under Colombian law for Colombian nationals extradited to the United States for prosecution.
Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes 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. Two of the five occupants of the plane were captured and immediately executed by FARC guerrillas. The other three, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell, and Mr. Howes, were held under barbaric conditions in the jungle for over five years.
The Indictment alleges that Martin Sombra served as "jailer" of the American hostages for most of their first two years of captivity. He designed and supervised the construction of a large barbed-wire concentration camp in which he held the Americans and dozens of other hostages in the jungle. The Indictment charges that Sombra used chains and wires to bind the necks and wrists of the American hostages to prevent their escape, and forced the hostages on a grueling 40 day "death march" with heavy backpacks through dense jungle to outrun Colombian military forces. Sombra ordered his confederates to kill the Americans and the other hostages rather than allow them to be rescued by the Colombian police or military. The Indictment also alleges that Sombra was involved in filming a proof of life video of the three Americans on July 25, 2003, in which the FARC announced that the Americans would be held hostage until the FARC’s various political demands were met.
Sombra was one of the 43 men who originally founded the FARC in 1964, and allegedly served on the "Estado Mayor Central," or central general staff, of the terror group at a time when the organization’s ranks grew to over 16,000 armed guerrillas. Sombra was arrested by the Colombian National Police in the outskirts of the capital city of Bogota on February 28, 2008. He is the most senior member of the FARC ever captured during the 44-year-old conflict in Colombia.
The U.S. Department of Justice also announced today the unsealing of an Indictment previously returned against six other FARC senior commanders involved in the hostage taking of Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes. Two of the six defendants named in the unsealed Indictment are now believed to be deceased, including FARC Secretariat member Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known as "Raul Reyes," and the FARC’s former "Supreme Leader" Manuel Marulanda Velez. The other four defendants named in the newly unsealed Indictment remain at large. They include the commanders of the FARC’s Teofilo Forero Mobile Column and others FARC members directly involved in the abduction of the three American hostages on February 13, 2003: (1) Carlos Alberto Garcia, aka "Hermides Buitrago," aka "El Paisa," aka "Oscar Montero;" (2) Yurley Capera Quezada, aka "La Pilosa;" and (3) Pedro Gonzalez Perdomo, aka "Alfredo Arenas," aka "Commandante Alfredo."
The newly unsealed Indictment also names the FARC’s overall "military" commander, Jorge Briceno Suarez, aka "Mono Jojoy" for his role in the hostage taking of the three Americans. A proof of life video of the three Americans released by the FARC in 2003 shows defendant Mono Jojoy telling the Americans that they are "prisoners . . . in the power of the FARC," and that the governments of the United States and Colombia have "abandoned and forgotten you."
The United States government, through the Rewards for Justice Program of the Department of State, is offering a reward of up to five million dollars 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, including the four fugitives named in the Indictment unsealed today.
The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program has been employed worldwide to fight terrorism. Since the program’s inception in 1984, the United States has paid more than $77 million to more than 50 persons who provided credible information that led to the apprehension of individuals or prevented acts of international terrorism.
Both indictments announced today were the result of an investigation led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Miami Field Office and are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Kohl of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, with the support of the Counterterrorism Section of the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless found guilty.