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A Captive at Mercy of Colombian Rebels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subcommander’s voice was hard and low, with no room for argument.

“You must wait with us here as detainees,” he said.

With those words, my assistant and I, along with our local guide, became captives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for 24 hours. The FARC took our wallets, notebooks and camera and kept us under armed guard in a small wooden hut by the side of a broad, slow river in southern Colombia.

We waited. We worried. And we got the smallest hint of what life must be like for the hundreds of kidnapping victims held by the FARC in hide-outs throughout Colombia.

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We felt a nearly irrational urge to flee. We anguished for our families. And we suffered a terrible uncertainty. My assistant, Mauricio Hoyos, a Colombian, asked one rebel how long until we were free. “Days, months, maybe years,” he said.

We also got an idea of the FARC, a hermetically sealed guerrilla army that exists mostly in isolation from other leftist rebel movements. The leader, Manuel Marulanda, rarely grants interviews.

The young rebels who guarded us were well armed, well disciplined but not particularly well versed in the Marxist-Leninist philosophy that supposedly underpins the 38-year-old revolution.

But they clearly believed that Colombia’s society, with more than 30 million poor, is deeply unjust. It was a conviction written on their young faces and rough hands, carried with a certainty, like a craftsman sure of his work.

“One begins to understand that there are differences, and one thinks one should do something about them,” said “Jhony,” leader of the small band of men who guarded us, as he struggled to explain what made him join the FARC.

We had come to the FARC camp in search of answers. Just downriver, guerrillas from the 49th Front had shot down a State Department-owned Huey helicopter returning from a spraying mission. The pilots, foreign-born contractors of Virginia-based DynCorp, were saved, but five Colombian police officers were killed in the battle that followed the rescue.

The U.S. has given Colombia nearly $2 billion in the last few years, mostly in the form of drug fumigation planes, helicopters and troop training to combat drugs. Colombia produces 90% of the cocaine consumed in the U.S.

The result has been that the U.S. has inched ever closer to direct confrontation with the FARC, which relies on drug crops for revenue. The FARC denies any involvement in drug trafficking, instead saying that it places a “tax” on farmers of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived.

We had sent a fax and e-mail to FARC headquarters, requesting an interview about the helicopter shoot-down. We received no response but contracted with a local boat owner who said he frequently took locals to a FARC site upriver from where the incident took place. The FARC, which acts as the local authority in areas it controls, handles complaints and dispenses justice from the spot.

Arrival Surprises, Angers Subcommander

When we arrived, it was clear that we had entered a fairly large FARC encampment, with several hundred rebels at work in the jungle, hacking down undergrowth with machetes. There was a small house, surrounded by chickens, and several smaller buildings that appeared to be shelters.

The subcommander was surprised and angered to see us. After a brief consultation, he came back to give us the news that we were “detainees.” He told us that we were being held for security reasons, because we were in a conflict zone and because our press credentials had to be checked out.

But as he called a band of men to take us to a more secure site, he sent us away with these words: “We are at war here with everyone. The army. The police. And the gringos,” he said, looking at me.

Along with our guide, we were escorted to the abandoned hut that sat in a clearing surrounded by orange and star fruit trees. Dozens of birds warbled in the woods. Butterflies fluttered everywhere.

There, the six guards took up positions and commenced to wait. They did not speak to us, except to answer yes or no. Each wore a camouflage uniform and had an Israeli-made Galil rifle, a 9-millimeter Beretta and a vest with grenades and a long knife. Jhony, the leader of the squad, had a walkie-talkie and a sheet of paper with codes; all sorts of FARC radio traffic could be heard.

They never mistreated or threatened us, though we were forbidden to talk at night and had to ask their permission to move around the clearing. They were always respectful, polite and quick to offer help in the form of aspirin, water or a spare blanket.

As the night grew dark, one of the rebels, a young man who appeared about 15, brought out a portable CD player and two small speakers. There, under the dim light of a quarter moon, they blasted guerrilla songs with bloody lyrics.

“We killed two captains today. We’ll kill four more military officers soon. Why doesn’t the media ever say these things? The government prohibits them,” went one lyric.

Another was called “The Absent One.” “Why aren’t you home with your family? Why aren’t you enjoying a toast with your friends?” the singer asked.

After we were served dinner--a simple meal of rice and fried meat--the guards escorted us into a room in the shack where a black plastic cloth had been draped, to provide extra shelter. None of us wanted to enter because of the heat.

“Ask permission from the guard before you do anything,” Jhony said. “Otherwise, I’m not responsible for what happens.”

We spent the night stretched out on the wooden floor, fighting off the mosquitoes and strange yellow flies that covered us with bites. We slept on and off. The guards would periodically shine a flashlight into our room to check on us.

Worries Grow as the Day Progresses

We were up the next day by about 5 a.m. The day crept along slowly as I grew increasingly worried about whether the detention would make the news. That might bring in local authorities, the FBI and who knew who else, making release more difficult.

The hardest part was the uncertainty. We were not sure until near the end if they meant to hold us for ransom and, if not, how long it would take before we were released. Many of the FARC’s victims have spent years in captivity. The group makes millions from ransom every year.

The sun beat down, and the jungle buzzed with insects. As I sat immobile looking out over the river, I realized with a sudden flash that I had no idea when I would next lie in a bed, or hold my wife, or see my young son walk.

I became furious. I wondered whether I should have done things differently, though I had previously shown up unannounced at FARC sites without problems.

I thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and slain in Pakistan.

Mostly, I thought of whether my family would get a call from a stranger telling them that I had been kidnapped. I would have no way to comfort them. I had no way to comfort myself.

Finally, around 3 p.m., a small motorboat pulled up, and out stepped the commander of the 49th Front, Hector Ramirez, along with his assistant and his white toy poodle, Nino.

He talked with his men, then approached us with a smile. He explained that they had verified our status as journalists and that they would try to release us by that afternoon, the following day at the latest.

As he walked away, he turned and smiled. “Please excuse the small inconvenience,” he said.

It was like the hand squeezing my heart had suddenly relaxed. We had been promised freedom. And we knew there was an end.

The rest of the day we spent conversing with Jhony and others in his squad.

One of their biggest points of pride was that FARC soldiers are all volunteers, receiving only food, shelter and clothing for their service. Jhony seemed almost disgusted that Colombia’s military and right-wing paramilitary groups receive pay.

“If you get paid, it’s like selling your life away,” he said.

Finally, at 4:10 p.m., Ramirez arrived to take us downriver. Jhony stepped up and handed us our gear and wallets, counting out the money to show that each peso was being returned. Then he shook our hands.

“I’m setting you free now,” he said. “Have a good trip.”

We roared away down the flat brown river.

Four hours later, Colombian President Andres Pastrana canceled peace negotiations with the rebels, sending the country once again into all-out civil war.


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