AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–A captured Colombian guerrilla leader believed to have knowledge of three missionaries kidnapped in 1993 says he knows nothing about the crime, Colombian authorities and FBI officials have told New Tribes Mission, according to a report in Compass Direct news service.
Colombian police arrested Jose Milcíades Urrego Medina, known as “Commander Rigoberto,” in Bogota on Nov. 30 for aggravated homicide, extortionate kidnapping and aggravated terrorism.
New Tribes Missions doesn’t believe the guerrilla’s story but expected the response, mission spokesman Scott Ross told Compass Direct, a news service focusing on persecution issues. Urrego Medina was second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) 57th Front when it kidnapped New Tribes missionaries Mark Rich, Dave Mankins and Rick Tenenoff more than eight years ago from the missionaries’ base near Panama’s border. The men have not been seen since.
New Tribes is sending two men to Bogota, where the guerrilla leader is in jail. Mission officials have asked Colombian authorities and the FBI for a chance to question Urrego Medina. As of Feb. 20, the mission had not been granted permission, Compass Direct reported.
“We’re completely confident Rigoberto was involved with the kidnapping of our three,” Ross said. “I think he knows everything there is to know about it. His refusal to cooperate isn’t a total surprise to us.”
Guerrillas demanded a multi-million-dollar ransom for the missionaries’ release. Talks broke off with the 57th Front a year after the January 1993 kidnapping. FARC’s highest leaders have said that those who kidnapped the men belonged to a renegade group not acting with FARC’s blessing and that FARC has no knowledge of what happened to them.
New Tribes Mission isn’t giving up, however. “We’re going to continue working to encourage [Urrego Medina] to at least tell us the fate of our three missionaries,” Ross said.
Ross acknowledged that’s no easy feat. Urrego Medina has been accused of crimes ranging from weapons trafficking to narco-trafficking. It’s unlikely he will want to implicate himself in the missionaries’ kidnapping, even though the missions group only wants to resolve the fate of the men.
“He doesn’t have anything to fear from talking to our guys,” Ross said. “We’d just like to sit down and talk to him about one particular case, not as people who want to prosecute.”
New Tribes officials plan to appeal to Urrego Medina to tell what he knows on “humanitarian grounds” of giving the hostages’ families peace in knowing what became of their loved ones. That’s a tall order, Ross said. “It would take an exceptional man” to respond to the humanitarian plea. “These [guerrillas] are hardened criminals, thugs, crooks and murderers.”
New Tribes has pressed Colombian officials and the FBI since December to let them talk to Urrego Medina. It is not known why permission has been delayed. It may be due to the violence that Colombia has endured for 40 years.
“Kidnappings and murders are going on every day,” Ross said. “New kidnappings and murders get media attention, at least initially.” That makes it hard for old cases to get attention, he said.
“Colombian authorities are working on no real calendar,” Ross said. “They’re working on a large case [with Urrego Medina]. Only one issue and aspect of it is our men.”
Meanwhile in Colombia, armed men have captured a prominent Colombian pastor who operates a string of Christian radio stations around the country.
Bogota’s El Tiempo daily newspaper reported that Jorge Enrique Gomez Montealegre, pastor of Bethesda Missionary Center in Bogota, was kidnapped Feb. 14 from his country estate in Apulo some 25 miles southwest of the capital. Gomez operates the evangelical Authentic Radio, which has stations in Bogota, Cali, Medellin, Cartagena and other Colombian cities.
Several bands of common criminals and brigades of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are active in the area where Gomez was kidnapped, the newspaper reported. Evangelical leaders told Compass Direct they believe criminals snatched Gomez with the intent of selling him to the FARC, who would then demand a ransom.
The crime occurred at 11 a.m. when a dozen men arrived at Gomez’ estate and forced Gomez into one of their cars. “Unknown armed men arrived asking for him,” his wife Mélida de Gomez told El Tiempo. “He said, ‘I am he,’ and they left with him.”
Gomez is well known in Colombia because of his radio ministry. He has held open-air campaigns and filled soccer stadiums for peace and prayer rallies.
One missionary who has known Gomez for years said that he has a burden to reach guerrillas with the gospel. “He prayed and fasted a lot for the peace of Colombia and that the guerrillas find Jesus Christ in their lives,” she said.
Gomez’ daughter told El Tiempo that she believes her father was kidnapped because God wanted it that way. “He calls things as he sees them,” she said. “Whomever has him will have to listen to him because he’ll be giving a sermon, even when he’s asleep.”
Alford is a writer with Compass Direct news service. Used by permission. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MARK RICH, DAVE MANKINS and RICK TENENOFF.