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COLUMN ONE

Bristol, Conn.'s guerrilla hostage

Jo Rosano hopes, prays and hangs on rumors about her son held by Colombian rebels for five years. 'Day and night, this is my life.'

January 24, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

BRISTOL, CONN. — The phone rings and Jo Rosano jumps to answer, thinking of the sound of her son's voice: Hi, Mom, it's me, Marc.

But it isn't him. Rosano hangs up to resume scouring the Internet for news, brewing espresso, pacing, praying, crying and waiting -- as she has for the last five years.

"Day and night," she says, "this is my life."

Colombian rebels have held Marc Gonsalves and two other Americans hostage since February 2003, when their plane crashed during a drug surveillance mission for a U.S. military contractor.

For years, it seemed doubtful that Gonsalves, now 35, would be released from his jungle captivity. Then this month, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Marxist rebel group, released two hostages -- out of an estimated 700 -- after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez brokered a deal.

Now Rosano clings to rumors that more could soon be set free.

"The guerrillas are showing goodwill," she says. The release of two hostages "was only the beginning."

In her Connecticut home, Rosano, 59, keeps the television tuned to CNN. She smokes Capri cigarettes and clips news articles about the hostages from local newspapers that pile up on her glass coffee table among doily place mats, a bottle of pink nail polish and a tube of mascara. She dabs foundation beneath her eyes to cover dark circles and jots Bible verses on stationery to give her strength. And she watches a video over and over on her laptop that shows her son alive.

She has memorized the way he stands in the footage, hunched against a backdrop of palm trees, hands behind his back, staring at the ground. His hair is thin, his eyes sad. The jungle around him is a chorus of hissing snakes, screeching birds and ominous howls. Gonsalves does not speak, and the cries of the wild give Rosano chills. She kisses her fingers and presses them against the computer screen to touch his face.

Based on news reports, conversations with a former hostage who escaped, and messages sent to relatives from those still in captivity, Rosano knows this much: Her son sleeps in a hammock or makeshift bed, covered by a mosquito net and a tarpaulin, chained at the neck to other prisoners, amid a haze of horseflies, ants, wasps and spiders. Gonsalves survives on rice, beans and yuca, and suffers from hepatitis. Rigged explosives and camouflaged rebels carrying AK-47s surround the hostages, who are often forced to march for days through brush and wade through raging rivers.

Since her son's capture, Rosano has traveled to Colombia three times seeking his release, and she has visited Washington a dozen times to beg lawmakers to help. In September, she met with Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, at the United Nations in New York.

She seizes every crumb of information about her son's life, holding them as hints that he is alive and coming home soon -- even if it is not true, even if her heart breaks from dashed hope time and again.

One afternoon last week, the phone inside Rosano's home rings again. All morning, Colombian journalists have been calling to ask if she heard the latest rumor that one more hostage may be released. Rosano recognizes the phone number on her caller ID: It is a filmmaker and friend, Victoria Bruce, who co-directed and co-produced a documentary, "Held Hostage in Colombia," which featured Gonsalves.

"Hey," Rosano answers. Bruce tells her she has heard the rumors and hopes they may be true. The possibility of her son coming home overwhelms Rosano.

"Oh my God, Vicky," she says, falling to the couch. She cradles a pillow and rocks back and forth. "Oh my God."

She hangs up as her husband, Mike Rosano, 66, walks into the living room and sees her sobbing and trembling.

"Is he coming home?" he asks blankly. He has been through this before.

"There is an American being released," she tells him.

"But we don't know if it's Marc," he replies.

"I think it's Marc," she says. "I hope it's Marc."

She did not want her son to take the job.

In 2002, Gonsalves, a former Air Force intelligence officer, told his mother he had been hired for a six-figure salary by a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp. The large military contractor was paid by the Pentagon to find cocaine labs in Colombia's jungles at a time when the U.S. government had been aggressively waging a war on drugs.

Gonsalves would leave his wife, daughter and two stepdaughters at home in Florida for weeks at a time traveling to Colombia to survey fields of coca. He planned to keep up the routine for three years, Rosano recalled, because he wanted to save money to buy a house. The job would involve flying in a small plane over mountainous terrain and tropical forests, and the thought of that frightened Rosano.

On Feb. 13, 2003, four months after he started work, Gonsalves boarded a single-engine Cessna loaded with photography equipment. Four others accompanied him, including three Americans: Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Thomas Janis.

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