WASHINGTON — A guerrilla leader charged in the kidnapping of three Americans still held in Colombia goes on trial in federal court here today, in what federal authorities consider one of the most significant U.S. counter-terrorism prosecutions in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Officials said the trial of Ricardo Palmera was important because it aimed to hold an alleged terrorist leader, as well as his organization, responsible for taking Americans hostage overseas.
The case also is notable because of its venue. As extremists increasingly target Americans for kidnapping in Iraq and elsewhere abroad, the Justice Department is eager to show that it can prosecute their captors through the U.S. court system, rather than in increasingly unpopular military tribunals, several department officials said in interviews.
Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, was a leader of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, when three civilian American counter-narcotics contractors were taken hostage in February 2003.
Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were captured after their drug-surveillance plane crash-landed in FARC-held territory; they remain in captivity, held by other FARC leaders in the jungles of Colombia.
A Harvard-educated banker turned rebel chieftain, Palmera was captured in Ecuador in January 2004 and handed over to the United States. If convicted, he could face 30 years in prison -- the maximum allowed under the extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States.
An effort last fall to prosecute Palmera on hostage-taking and terrorism charges ended with a hung jury, raising the stakes this time around, Justice Department officials said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of department guidelines barring the discussion of criminal cases on the eve of trial.
"Everything is focused on Iraq and Islamic terrorists. But there are other organizations out there that are actively targeting Americans and American interests, and there is a system in place for dealing with them other than Guantanamo," one Justice Department official involved in the case said, referring to the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Though some FARC members have been extradited to the United States on drug charges, Palmera, 56, is the first to face charges of providing material support to terrorists and hostage taking, according to a second Justice Department official.
The Palmera case is unusual because of the involvement of his organization. The indictment seeks forfeiture of all FARC assets, foreign and domestic, citing provisions in the Patriot Act.
FARC has been accused of kidnapping and killing many thousands of Colombians in a decades-long struggle with government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups. U.S. authorities say it also has targeted U.S. individuals and corporations in a campaign of extortion, kidnapping and murder. The U.S. government first designated FARC as a terrorist organization in 1997.
One of Palmera's lawyers, federal public defender William Gregory Spencer, said Tuesday that he could not comment on the case because of pretrial publicity rules, but noted that his client has pleaded not guilty.
Palmera also faces FARC-related narcotics trafficking charges in a trial set to get underway in Washington later this year.
Palmera reportedly was not involved in the actual kidnapping of the three Americans. But federal prosecutors charge that he soon became involved in FARC's efforts to "barter" the men -- and other hostages -- in exchange for the release of captured FARC members and for its own chunk of land in a demilitarized zone in Colombia.
When the three Florida-based contractors were captured, FARC members allegedly killed a fourth American contractor, Thomas Janis, and a Colombian army sergeant on the spot. Prosecutors said that they did not prosecute Palmera on murder charges because he was not there, but that he was party to the kidnappings due to his role as a negotiator.
For years, Colombian authorities refused to negotiate with FARC regarding the hostages. In recent days, President Alvaro Uribe freed jailed FARC leader Rodrigo Granda in an effort to broker peace talks with the guerrilla group and to negotiate the release of the three Americans and others held by rebels. Justice Department officials said that would not affect their prosecution of Palmera.
Palmera's case reflects something of a change in U.S. policy. For years, the U.S. government characterized FARC primarily as a major drug trafficking organization that helped ship hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States to finance its rebel activities.
But in recent years, the Bush administration and Congress have increasingly stressed its alleged terrorist activities, citing its attempts to overthrow the Colombian government and other uses of force and violence.
According to a Justice Department document in the Palmera case, FARC decreed in March 1998 that all U.S. officials were legitimate military targets. In Palmera's first trial, he seemed to agree.
"Just like we're a military objective of them, they are a military objective of us," Palmera said, according to a transcript. "That's how it is in war."
The Justice Department also has targeted sources of financial support for Colombian extremist groups. Earlier this year, federal officials unveiled a plea agreement with the American company Chiquita Brands International Inc., in which Chiquita agreed to a $25-million fine for paying money to FARC and to an ultra-right wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.