AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–New Tribes Mission has concluded, based on multiple guerrilla testimonies, that three American missionaries kidnapped eight years ago in Panama were shot by their captors three years later as the guerrillas were facing pressure from Colombian troops.
The mission remains hopeful, meanwhile, about the well-being of a missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, kidnapped in the Philippines May 27.
While the remains of NTM missionaries Dave Mankins, Rick Tenenoff and Mark Rich may never be found, NTM has exhausted all leads in the case, Compass Direct news service reported Sept. 21. Both the mission and the hostages’ families are satisfied that the men are dead, NTM spokesman Scott Ross said.
“It’s God’s time for closure,” NTM vice chairman Dan Germann said in a statement posted on the mission’s website.
Germann recounted, “I sat in a Colombian prison in early September with a guerrilla who once guarded Rick, Mark and Dave. His words, ‘They are dead,’ were final and emphatic, confirming what we had heard from several other insurgents.
“The years of tears and anxiety for our dear brothers have ended,” Germann said.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas snatched the missionaries on Jan. 31, 1993, in the eastern Panama village of Pucuro, near that country’s border with Colombia. The three were planting a church among the Kuna Indians. Mankins, then 43, Tenenoff, then 36, and Rich, then 23, and their families were in Pucuro when armed guerrillas burst into their homes. The rebels held the men at gunpoint while the wives packed a few belongings, including their Bibles.
The missionaries’ wives last saw their husbands, hands bound behind their backs, marching into the Panamanian jungle. The men were later taken across the border into Colombia; their wives returned to the United States.
In the eight years since the kidnapping, NTM’s crisis committee pursued leads, questioned suspects, launched a huge media campaign and pressured the Colombian and U.S. governments to find out what happened to the missionaries. The Colombian military mounted at least one expedition to search for their bodies, following leads that ultimately proved to be dead ends.
While NTM never found conclusive evidence about what happened to the three, jailed guerrillas interviewed since 1997 by Colombian, U.S. and mission officials gave similar testimony about the missionaries’ fate, Ross said. “The story became more clear. I think each individual person on the team, and the wives, resolved it in their own hearts at different times,” he said. The three, NTM has concluded, were killed in 1996 in a military assault on the rebels near Acandí, a mountain village in northwest Colombia just 15 miles from Pucuro.
The Colombian government and FBI will continue to pursue the case. “We know the FBI is going to continue the investigation and hope for prosecution on the case,” Ross said. “Any leads that happen to indicate [bodily] remains, we feel confident that the FBI will follow through.” Ross said that while the mission and the men’s families feel relief at the case’s closure, “It’s a sad thing. It’s another terrorist act of many that have happened in Colombia, as well as around the world. It’s a terrible loss for the families and for the mission, but I think everybody is encouraged that we’re going forward now.”
NTM noted on its website, “The biblical foundation laid by Dave, Mark and Rick is bearing fruit. In the village of Pucuro there are believers who love the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Because of the ministry of those three men and their families, and missionaries in other locations, today more than 30 Kuna churches are rejoicing in their freedom in Christ.”
The three missionaries were normally together, guarded by 12 guerrillas, NTM recounted on its website, “and spent a great deal of their time reading the Bible. All three were healthy and were able to stay fit. They were able to shave and bathe. They played card games, and invented games to play around the camp with a Frisbee they had obtained. The three men had a very close relationship.”
Meanwhile, information received by NTM indicates that kidnapped NTM missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham are well and may be held by another group, the MILF, which is regarded as a hopeful sign since this group has signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government.
Sources are telling NTM leaders in the Philippines that the Burnhams are healthy and doing well. Meanwhile, the Philippine military is continuing its pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf group, which kidnapped the Burnhams and several others on May 27.
Martin, 41, and Gracia, 42, from Kansas, were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf from a resort off the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The Burnhams have been members of NTM since 1985.
A memorial service for Mankins, Tenenoff and Rich will be at 10 a.m. Oct. 6 at Northland Church, 530 Dog Track Road, Longwood, Fla.
Alford is a writer with Compass Direct. Art Toalston contributed to this article.