The US government says a top Latin American rebel leader plotted to keep three Americans hostage to use as political bargaining chips after their US plane crashed in Colombia.
In the trial of Ricardo Palmera, the defense portrayed him on Monday as a tangential sympathizer of the leftist FARC guerrillas who unfairly got caught in the middle after trying to negotiate a deal between guerrilla fighters and the US-backed Colombian government.
"This man had nothing to do with the capture of the three Americans," Palmera attorney Robert Tucker said. "He became the pawn in the power play."
With family members of the hostages sitting nearby, Justice Department attorney John Crabb opened his case by arguing that Palmera, better known by his nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, was guilty of hostage-taking, conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists.
"We'll trade you hostages -- including three Americans -- for all FARC prisoners in jail. That was Simon Trinidad's offer," Crabb said.
"He admitted he was a member of FARC; he admitted FARC takes hostages," he said. "That man, Simon Trinidad, tried to use them as get out of jail cards for FARC."
Tucker countered that little evidence would be presented which would tie Palmera directly to the hostage-taking after the plane carrying the US military contractors had engine trouble in 2003 and crashed.
"There's no evidence he's ever seen them ... [and] there's no evidence he ever made any demand or talked to anybody," Tucker said.
Sworn in hours earlier, a panel of 15 jurors and alternates listened intently. In the courtroom audience sat family members of the three American hostages, who often wept quietly.
"Despicable," muttered Jo Rosano, mother of Marc Gonsalves, as prosecutors laid out their case against Palmera.
A relaxed Palmera, dressed neatly in a dark suit and green tie, flashed a smile to the packed courtroom audience as he entered the courtroom. Once arguments began, he sat quietly, using headphones to listen to a Spanish translator.
The jury will decide the fate of Palmera in the three-year-old kidnapping case where three Americans are believed to be held by guerrillas in the thick jungles of southeastern Colombia. The trial is expected to last five to six weeks.
Palmera, 56, was extradited in late 2004 after his capture in Ecuador. He is charged in the February 2003 crash of a small US airplane over a FARC stronghold.
FARC is demanding that the Colombian government release the group's imprisoned comrades, including Palmera, in exchange for the release of 62 hostages.
The hostages include the three Americans on the plane -- Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves -- who authorities say were defense contractors involved in a counternarcotics mission.