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3 Captured in 1999 Killing of 3 Americans

Six members of leftist rebel group in Colombia were indicted by U.S. Victims were kidnapped while helping the Uwa tribe protest oil drilling.

November 29, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian authorities Thursday captured three leftist guerrillas wanted in the 1999 kidnapping and killing of three American activists.

Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Laheenae Gay disappeared in February 1999 while helping the Uwa tribe in northeastern Colombia protest drilling by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. They were found shot to death a week later in Venezuela.

U.S. and Colombian authorities blamed the killings on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest leftist rebel group in Colombia, which later admitted that its members were responsible. In May, the U.S. indicted in absentia six FARC members, including German Briceno, the brother of the group's second-in-command.

Thursday's arrests of three of the six represent the most recent sign of an increasingly aggressive cooperation between Colombian and U.S. authorities in using the justice system to fight Colombia's leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups.

In recent weeks, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has unveiled indictments against the leaders of the paramilitary groups and guerrillas on charges including terrorism and drug trafficking.

"I don't dismiss that the U.S. might ask for them in extradition," said Col. Mario Gutierrez of Colombia's judicial police.

Colombian authorities identified those captured Thursday as Orlando Triana, 25, Agustin Lopez, 42, and Aroldo Buitrago, 32. It was unclear whether the men would be extradited to the U.S. or how long that could take. Another of the six indicted, Nelson Vargas Rueda, is being held by Colombian authorities pending extradition to the United States.

The men arrested Thursday were captured in small towns near the region where the Americans were working when they disappeared, about 200 miles northeast of Bogota, the capital. One of the suspects was working as a butcher and one as a street vendor. The third sold vegetables.

Colombian authorities said the operation was the result of an investigation that has continued since the disappearance.

"We've captured ... three of those implicated in this kidnapping and homicide," Gutierrez said. "The prosecutors will determine their level of participation and what their roles were."

Freitas, of Oakland, was working with Washinawatok and Gay in a violent and unstable region to help Uwa tribe members organize protests against Occidental, which was drilling an exploratory well on lands claimed by the tribe. Occidental abandoned the exploration this year, saying the project was not economically feasible.

The indictment issued in May says that FARC commanders kept in constant touch with the kidnappers. The kidnappers were told by the commanders that "those who don't pay get their heads chopped off."

Colombia's guerrillas use kidnappings and the drug trade to help finance their rebellion.

The reason for the killings remains shrouded in mystery. At first, Colombian authorities maintained that they had intercepted FARC communications indicating that one of the three Americans had been bitten by a poisonous animal and was rendered immobile. FARC commanders then reportedly ordered that all three be shot.

Later, they announced that they possessed another radio communication indicating that Briceno had ordered the shootings while drunk.

FARC guerrillas say they have carried out their own trial against those responsible. The men were ordered to dig trenches as punishment.

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