Columbian extradited for 1999 murders

A former rebel group commander in Colombia blamed for killing a Big Island woman and two of her colleagues was extridited to the U.S. today. Nelson Vargas Rueda, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was indicted by a federal grand jury last April. Lahe`ena`e Gay, 39, of Pahoa, Hawai`i was in Colombia on a goodwill mission four years ago when she and two collagues were kidnapped and killed by FARC members.

According to the State Department, Gay was in Colombia working to help set up a school system for an Indian tribe when she was kidnapped on February 25, 1999. Also taken were Terence Freitas, 24, of Los Angeles, and Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, of New York. They were murdered a week later, their bodies found across the border in Venezuela.

“These three workers went to Colombia to do good but instead met with great evil,” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said when he announced the indictment.

Their mission — under the auspices of the Pahoa-based Pacific Cultural Conservancy — was to improve the environmental and educational conditions for the U’wa, a 5,000-member indigenous tribe settled in the vast eastern plains bordering Venezuela.

Gay was founder and director of the Pacific Cultural Conservancy, and worked to raise awareness of endangered indigenous peoples worldwide. In 1997, she addressed a UN General Assembly body and called upon governments to seriously address the crisis of disappearing tribes and peoples. Her group’s trip to Colombia was part of a global tour to visit indigenous groups on the verge of extinction.

Washinawatok, originally from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, was also well-known among Hawaiian organizations.

According to an Associated Press report, the FARC admitted its members committed the murders, but claimed that Vargas was acting independently and would be punished.

Vargas is the first guerrilla extradited by Colombia to face the U.S. judicial system.

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