WASHINGTON (AP) — As the three men he once held hostage looked on, a former commander of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was sentenced on Friday to 27 years in a federal prison for their mistreatment during five years of captivity.
Alexander Beltran Herrera received his sentence 2 1/2 years after his extradition to the United States. Last March, the 38-year-old Herrera pleaded guilty to three counts of hostage-taking and aiding and abetting.
At a sentencing before U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on Friday, former U.S. contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves detailed being led on forced marches through the Colombian jungle and being chained together, sometimes around the neck. They were held in cages, left outside to face the elements and received no medical attention as their physical conditions deteriorated.
In all, the FARC, Colombia's main rebel movement, held the three hostages for 1,967 days, repeatedly saying that if Colombian troops discovered their whereabouts and tried to free them, the hostages would be shot.
Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes were conducting counter-drug aerial surveillance in southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003, when they were forced to crash land their plane on a mountainside and they were taken captive.
The FARC murdered two others who had been aboard the plane — American contractor Thomas Janis and Colombian army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz — at the crash site. Colombian military forces rescued the three Americans in 2008.
"I don't have hatred here; I want him to have all of the things the FARC denied us," Stansell said of Herrera.
But at the same time, "I have no respect for this guy; we were like rats in a cage," Stansell said as he stood and looked across the courtroom at Herrera, who sat impassively. "Now he won't even look me in the eye."
The three Americans told Lamberth that Herrera, their guard during much of their time as hostages, had many opportunities to free them but failed to do so.
Herrera apologized to the three men and said, "I feel shamed about what you all had to go through." Herrera left the FARC in 2009. One of his lawyers, Carmen Hernandez, told the court that Herrera provided extensive information that helped the Colombian government practically dismantle two FARC military groups and communication towers.
All three Americans asked the judge to sentence Herrera to more than 27 years behind bars, which is what federal prosecutors requested.
But Stansell said that 27 years behind bars is "a slap on the wrist."
According to court papers, Herrera joined the FARC in 1994, rose to company commander and was in charge of 50 guerrillas before deserting in 2009.
Seventeen others charged in the case are still at large.
For the past half century, the FARC has sought to overthrow the Colombian government. It has been on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997.
FARC has characterized U.S. citizens as "military targets."