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Ex-FARC Commander Sentenced to 27 Years

(CN) - A former commander of the FARC terrorist organization was sentenced to 27 years in prison for holding three Americans hostage for 5 ½ years after their plane crashed in the Colombian jungle in 2003.

Alexander Beltran Herrera's sentencing by Senior U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth came nearly three years after the Colombian's extradition to the United States, and seven months after he pleaded guilty to three counts of hostage taking and aiding and abetting.

Prior to Herrera's sentencing, all three of his former hostages - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- addressed the court. Afterwards, when Herrera had his own opportunity to speak, he told them, "I feel shamed about you all had to go through."

Federal prosecutors said Herrera joined Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, otherwise known as FARC, in 1994m and rose to the rank of company commander, leading 50 guerilla fighters, until he deserted in 2009.

FARC has been trying to overthrow the Colombian government for the past 50 years, and it has been on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997.

Prosecutors said FARC has "consistently used hostage taking as a technique in extorting demands from the Republic of Colombia, and hostage taking has been endorsed and commanded by FARC senior leadership."

Further, they said the organization has characterized American citizens as "military targets" and has engaged in violent acts against Americans in Colombia, including murders and hostage taking.

Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell were reportedly conducting counter-narcotic surveillance over the jungle in southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003, when their plane had to make an emergency landing. The three men were held hostage for 1,967 days; two others who were on the plane, Thomas Janis, an American citizen, and Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, a Colombian, were murdered near the crash site.

"With the sentence handed down today, Alexander Beltran Herrera is being held accountable for his role in those offenses," Assistant U.S. Attorney General John P. Carlin said.

"This case underscores our resolve to pursue and bring to justice those who target our citizens with violence anywhere in the world. I want to thank all of the prosecutors, agents, and analysts who made this result possible," he said.

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