The most senior member ever captured from Latin America's largest rebel army goes on trial in a US courtroom today for the kidnapping of three Americans -- a case that some fear could scuttle moves for the Americans' liberation.
The fate of Ricardo Palmera, better known by his nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, is to be decided by a federal jury in Washington. Extradited in late 2004 after his capture in neighboring Ecuador, he was indicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist group and hostage-taking.
The case could have profound repercussions in Colombia, where tentative steps are being made toward talks between Palmera's guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the government on a prisoner swap.
The FARC is demanding the release of all its imprisoned comrades, including Palmera, in exchange for the release of 62 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the same three US defense contractors Palmera is charged with kidnapping.
"I am hoping this [trial] may put pressure on the FARC," said Jo Rosano, mother of Marc Gonsalves, one of the kidnapped Americans.
"On the other hand, I worry they may retaliate against the Americans," she said.
Rosano intends to fly from her home in Connecticut to attend at least part of the trial.
The main charge against Palmera relates to the February 2003 downing of a small US airplane that authorities say was on an intelligence-collecting mission over a FARC stronghold in southern Colombia.
Palmera is charged with conspiring to kidnap three US contractors who were on the plane: Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Gonsalves.
He also is charged in the killings of US pilot Thomas Janis and Sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz, a Colombian soldier, who were found near the crash site apparently shot to death.
There is little to suggest that Palmera, a frequent face of the FARC in peace talks, participated in or planned the kidnapping. Rather the prosecution argues he belonged to a group that stated it would target US officials and has subsequently used the hostages as leverage for talks to free imprisoned rebels, including Palmera.
The only proof the Americans are alive came on July 2003, when the FARC released a video of the men.
Despite the silence, Rosano is confident.
"I know in my heart that he's alive," she said.
Some observers believe the FARC already may have decided to concentrate on a straight swap of the three Americans in exchange for Palmera and another FARC member, Nayibe Rojas, known as Sonia, who soon faces trial in Washington on drug trafficking charges.
"Basically, Simon Trinidad and the three US contractors are out of this swap ... now the exchange will have to be directly between the FARC and the US government," said Gustavo Duncan, a researcher with the Bogota-based think tank Security and Democracy Foundation.
The Palmera prosecution is the latest sign the US government is stepping up its pressure on the FARC, listed by the State Department as "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997.
The US has given more than US$4 billion to Colombia since 2000 to fight the world's largest cocaine industry and the more than four-decade insurgency.
In March, the US government announced drug indictments against 50 leaders of the FARC and a combined US$77.5 million in reward money.