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The toll of the drug war in Colombia

As the war raged in Iraq this spring, other Americans were also killed — in the jungles of Colombia. By NBC’s Lisa Myers.
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As the war raged in Iraq this spring, other Americans were also killed — in the jungles of Colombia. These Americans were also sent by the Pentagon on a dangerous mission, but they were not soldiers. Now, in an NBC News investigation, their families speak out for the first time about what went wrong and why it seems that no one will take responsibility.

AN AMERICAN PLANE loaded with spy equipment crash-landed in February in the Colombian jungle. The revolutionary group called FARC executed the American pilot and a Colombian and took three other Americans hostage.

One of those kidnapped was Marc Gonsalves, a father of three. His mother is Jo Rosano.

“I feel it in my heart, but my head can’t absorb it, that my baby is in this hell,” said Rosano.

A month later, another plane took off to find the hostages. But it also crashed in Colombia, killing all three Americans on board.

All the men were private citizens, working for private companies under contract to the Pentagon. It’s part of what some call a secret war against drug traffickers and guerrillas. The U.S. government hires private contractors for military missions to minimize cost and reduce direct involvement of American troops.

But unlike Iraq, Americans killed in Colombia don’t come home to a hero’s welcome.

Louis and Gretta Ponticelli are still trying to get answers on why that second plane went down, killing their son, Ralph.

“I sent out a man who was very responsible, very accomplished, and I got back a box of ashes,” said Louis Ponticelli.

“If they’d said to us, ‘We can’t tell you, its top secret,’ at least we would have accepted that. But to be lied to with four different stories, I’m sorry I can’t accept that,” said Gretta Ponticelli.

They’re even confused about who Ralph was working for. “We’re not sure where the chain of command starts or where it ends,” Louis Ponticelli said.

So NBC news followed the paper trail. Three years ago the Pentagon awarded a contract to conduct surveillance in Colombia to California Microwave, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.

NBC News has learned that shortly after the first plane went down, California Microwave transferred the contract, along with the planes and pilots, to a brand-new company called Ciao.

California Microwave officials, who requested anonymity, tell NBC they sub-contracted the deal to reduce potential liability.

Incorporation records obtained by NBC show “Ciao” is located at a tiny airport in rural California, Md. It may not look like much, but records indicate it became the headquarters of an $8-million-a-year Pentagon program to spy on Colombian rebels.

Why would the government handle a military mission this way?

“They want to do it on the cheap. They want to avoid accountability. They want somebody else’s fingerprints on it if something goes wrong,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The Pentagon, Northrop Grumman-California Microwave and Ciao all declined interviews. In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it is deeply saddened by the accidents, has provided “frequent assistance” to the victims’ families and is cooperating with investigations. The Pentagon also said it is deeply saddened, and that search and rescue operations “will continue round the clock.”

InsertArt(2018969)But the Ponticellis want to know the truth. “To me it’s like lifting the rug and pushing it all under,” said Gretta Ponticelli.

Jo Rosano says if her son were a soldier, the U.S. government would be doing much more. “There may be people looking for them, but they are not doing nearly, nearly enough,” she said. Rosano tied a yellow ribbon in her yard so that her son, a different type of soldier in a different war, is not forgotten.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s Senior Investigative Correspondent.