Americans still being seized as hostages, but no longer at center of U.S. attention Loss of shock effect, lack of a cause diminish interest


WASHINGTON -- The last trace of Ray Rising, a Minnesota native, was his motorcycle. On March 31, 1994, it was found abandoned on a lonely road near a Colombian village that the electronics technician was helping with food and financial aid.

Mark Bossard disappeared at a roadblock not far from the rural Colombian mine he was visiting three months ago. The American businessman, originally from Anaconda, Mont., was last seen being escorted away by five men in military clothing.

Donald Hutchings, a psychologist from Spokane, Wash., was on a holiday trek through the Himalayas in India's Kashmir region when he disappeared last year on the Fourth of July.

Rising, Bossard and Hutchings are America's forgotten people. They are the hostages of the 1990s. Their plight is a contrast to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979, when the detention of 52 Americans held this country hostage for 444 days.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. public was so absorbed by kidnappings in Lebanon, Latin America, Italy and the Philippines that hostages became a centerpiece of three presidents' foreign policies.

But the names of Mark Rich, Dave Mankins and Rick Tenenoff -- who now rank as the three longest-held Americans -- are virtually unknown. The missionaries were working with the Kuna ethnic group in Panama on Jan. 31, 1993, when 75 Colombian guerrillas launched a raid and took them -- along with food, radios and equipment -- back to Colombia.

"At the three-year anniversary of their abduction in January we held a remembrance. We contacted all the networks, but we couldn't get one of them to pay attention. It was a non-story," lamented Scott Ross, spokesman for New Tribes Mission, the Protestant evangelical group that sent the three to Panama.

The current hostage sagas are occurring in a different world, experts say. In part, the tactic may simply have lost its shock effect.

"One of the questions you have to ask is whether hostage-taking has become banal. Maybe terrorism itself has become ordinary, a part of the political landscape," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at Kroll Associates, an international security firm.

The January 1994 abductions of two other New Tribes missionaries from a school they ran in the eastern Andes mountains received scant national attention. Seventeen months later, the bodies of Timothy Van Dyke of Towanda, Pa., and Steve Welsh of North Platte, Neb., were discovered after a firefight between rebels and Colombian troops attempting a rescue operation.

Another change is the lack of a significant foreign policy dimension. From 1979 to 1991, the Beirut and Tehran hostages were pawns in international diplomacy.

Today most targets are taken simply for the money.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia's oldest and largest rebel group, demanded $5 million for the three missionaries. Hostage-taking has become a profitable business in Colombia, which has replaced Lebanon as the country with the greatest incidence of kidnappings.

In the 1990s, at least 10 Americans have been seized by assorted Colombian rebels who have been waging war for decades. Five of the six Americans now held worldwide are in Colombia.

At least 179 foreigners have been seized in Colombia over the last five years, and dozens of Colombians are nabbed every month, Jenkins said.

Hutchings is the only American now being held captive for political reasons. In a videotape reminiscent of the Beirut hostage-takings, Hutchings was shown pleading with the U.S. and Indian governments to help. Al Faran, a shadowy Muslim group fighting to separate Kashmir from India, sent word last year that one of the hostages, reported by the local press to be Hutchings, was ailing.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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