When you read a book hot off a news event, what you get is a magazine article forced into book length. The first sentence in the first chapter reads, “The predawn hours in Bogotá are about as peaceful as the day ever gets there.” Wouldn´t that apply to just about every city in the world? So much for quality literature.
I’m not one to read these quick-to-publish books that seem to come out for every mini-celebrity and worldly event, but I was puzzled by how approximately 700 people, as claimed by news sources, can be held captive in Colombia for so long by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). I know Colombia is a large country with large expanses of jungle, but it seems to me that Barney Fife and a couple of hound dogs could do a better job of locating and rescuing hostages. My view has been that incompetence and corruption keeps hostages in captivity, and I was hoping to get more insight from authors; that is, the three Americans who were held captive for over five years by the FARC. Unfortunately, the book gave me little information that I did not all ready know from reading articles about the FARC. I´m going to give you my perspective of the book, but if you’re easily offended by anything that crosses political correctness from either the Left or the Right, you may not want to keep reading.
Here´s the basic scenario. Four Americans and one Colombian flying in a small airplane over the Colombia jungle are forced to make an emergency landing because of engine failure. The airbase where they wanted to land was just over the mountain, but the pilot calculated that he could not clear the mountain to land. They spotted an open field in the middle of the jungle, an area known to be occupied by the FARC. Given their situation they had about ten minutes to prepare for a landing. They were well aware that they would be landing in enemy territory. After a rough landing, all five crew members survived. They evacuated the plane, removing guns, documents, and the injured pilot, but within minutes the FARC began shooting and fifty to sixty of them approached the plane. Now what I don´t understand is why four men with guns, simply gave up (the fifth guy, the pilot, was reportedly in a “daze”). They all had minor injuries, but nothing that prevented them from hiking in the jungle for three weeks after they were captured. The three Americans must have known based on the history of the FARC that the Colombian soldier who accompanied them would probably be killed on sight. They should also have known that because they gave their exact coordinates before landing, a rescue plane would be only minutes away. So they only needed to hold the FARC off for a short period of time, not beat them. Instead they surrendered without a fight. It’s their lives and their call, but I don’t understand why they gave up in such a situation, particularly the Colombian soldier who knew better. He asked the Americans to tell the FARC that he was an American, but he looked Colombian and didn´t speak much English, so that plan was doomed to fail. If I knew my coworker was going to be killed by surrendering, I would stand by his side and fight, particularly if I knew help was on the way. Immediately after their capture, the FARC killed the Colombian soldier and the injured American pilot. The way I see it, the five crew members were well paid professionals who should have been better prepared for this kind of emergency. For example, they should have known that an open field in the jungle would probably be watched by the FARC. The crew must have known there were FARC below who obviously paid attention to planes overhead since they were frequently attacked from the air. If you know you are being watched, you should prepare for the worst. Before the emergency landing, while the pilot did his job the other crew members notified the base of their coordinates and secured loose items on the plane. They should have also been preparing for the possibility of landing within the vicinity of the FARC. They should have discussed what to do upon landing; that is, immediately hide in the jungle, set up a defense, give up. If you were a Colombian soldier on that plane and knew the FARC’s reputation for killing soldiers rather than taking them prisoners, you would probably review your options before you hit the ground. I can´t imagine anyone on a sinking boat in the ocean with a life jacket who wouldn´t consider the possibility of sharks. These guys were in shark infested waters, but they didn´t think about sharks. Instead the guy giving the coordinates is taking the time to spell everyone´s name, some priority. The fact is 2 of 5 crew members were executed. I didn´t like the decision to sacrifice 40% of the crew. If the pilot upon landing was not mobile, they should have known that he would have been killed. Not once did the authors express any regret that two of their comrades might not have died if they had decided to fight instead of surrender. Maybe losing 40% of the crew with the other 3 imprisoned for five plus years was the best case scenario, but I doubt it. Keep in mind the crew members were trained to deal with emergencies, and one had all ready been in a plane crash. They train for such situations, and I believe bad decisions were made. The authors offer no feedback about what they thought of the surrender. It appears that one man made the call to surrender, and that this man was often at odds with one of the other Americans. No mention was made whether the arms they had were sufficient for their operation. Maybe the lack of discussion regarding the surrender decision was left out for the sake of unity.
The three American hostages were often imprisoned for months in camps that had up to fifty other prisoners. I don´t understand how such camps could go unnoticed for so long. A few times the hostages were transported through towns in trucks. In a country where it is so easy to bribe people for information, I don´t understand how the logistics and locations could not be discovered. I initially thought the hostages were always on the move, making it harder for them to be located, but they were mostly stationary in camps, many of which were vacated years ago and were being reused.
I believe the hostages held back on a lot of the details they experienced in the book. If you are going to write a book, tell us everything. Very little is mentioned about the women prisoners and guards in terms of their activities and what they thought and felt. A couple of times the women guards reportedly stripped to their underwear and help bathe one of the men. At least once a commander offered the men any of the female guards for sex, but never once did the hostages mention their own sexual behavior or frustrations. They never gave much of a description of how any of the women looked. Anything that could tie the hostages to thinking about sex was completely left out. This is not normal. FARC women are treated as pack animals, servants, and sex partners. The hostages had opportunities to talk to these women, but no details are provided on what the women said or why they accepted the harsh life style. There was not much detail regarding the social actions that took place between the FARC either. The book, not surprisingly, lacked any real depth.
I found it strange that when one of the few female captives made it known she was pregnant (when it became obvious), the three American hostages wanted the outside world to know that they did not do it. If the woman was pregnant before the hostages arrived to her camp, why would they be concerned about such an announcement? Seems to me they would have more important things to think about, like escape. But they never plotted or planed an escape, and they never talked about the opportunities of escape based on what the guards did or did not do.
Two of the three hostages were married and one was engaged. Indications were that their relationships broke down during captivity by the lack of communication. These women could have provided messages to a Colombian radio station that delivered free announcements to the relatives of hostages. The hostages said they understood that their women would want to go on with their lives, yet at the same time felt it was not right that the women abandoned them. The only woman who stuck with one of the Americans was a Colombian who had twins with the hostage who was engaged to an American woman. Even though he told the Colombian woman he was not going to be in a relationship with her prior to his plane crash, she was the only woman who left regular messages with the radio station offering her love and support for him. He does return to her when he was freed, but never fully explains why he didn´t want to stay with her to begin with. These radio messages from love ones were a key emotional encouragement that gave strength and hope to the prisoners. For a wife to suddenly drop off and no longer provide such support was very cold. It would be great if someone wrote a comprehensive book and got the perspective of all the players and the psychology at play. Because this book is a personal narrative, the only viewpoint offered to the reader is from the hostages. The theme, plot, and players are all there for an excellent story, but the hostages did not come close to writing a good story, even though they were assisted by a free lance writer.
The hostages met Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian presidential candidate of a very small political party, who was the most famous captive the FARC had when the hostages moved to a new encampment. Although she was married, Betancourt hooked up with one of the other imprisoned politicians, but again very little information is provided. Two of the American hostages described her as arrogant, rude, accusatory, and selfish. The third American hostage spent some “intimate” but non-sexual moments with her, but before that relationship could develop, Ingrid was moved to another camp and when they met again many months later to share a camp, she was involved with another man. Ingrid asked the American hostage to return the personal letters she gave him when they were “intimate.” When he refused she got a prison guard to search all the Americans for the letters but they were not found. What happened to the letters is never stated.
An editorial in the largest Colombian newspaper criticized the book for exposing the personal relationships and activities of captives to the public. Ingrid said in an interview shortly after being released that “what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle.” I can see why she would want that. She definitely got around, though I can´t fault her for wanting a close companion in such dire circumstances. It seems natural for people to pair up in such a situation, but she is portrayed as deceptive and morally weak. She is a politician; hardly a career for a well bestowed character. I will say one good thing about her, which is not elaborated upon in the book, she did make at least two attempts to escape and temporarily freed herself, while the American hostages made no attempts during more than five years of captivity. The FARC guards holding the Americans were mostly ignorant and unorganized teenagers as the Americans described, yet over a five year period there were no escape opportunities. Nor were there any discussions of such. How can this be? An old Colombian man was able to escape, but the only talk of escape by the American hostages was what to do if there was a rescue attempt, because orders were to kill all hostages if such an attempt was made and they wanted to get a running start before that happened. However, the American hostages could be holding back information because they are prevented from saying certain things or they don’t want to expose weakness in the FARC that others could use to their advantage.
For all intents and purposes, this book is a prison story. What prison story does not have plotting for escape? I wasn´t there and did not face what the hostages did, but obviously I believe there can be valid criticism even when you are not in the other guy´s shoes. It´s easy to review a better course of action with my head on the pillow, and that´s what I´ve done, but that doesn´t mean that trained professionals shouldn´t be expected to do better in an emergency.
Often the hostages would debate or challenge the indoctrinated guards regarding their leftist beliefs, and it would always end with the guards walking away, not able to answer the questions put to them. The guards were very young, ignorant, and unschooled. They often did not like their commander or their assigned tasks, but they followed instructions under the fear of being shot. They did not have the capacity to understand their lives in a larger context.
The book had a touching ending. The hostages suffered a lot. Even in the suburbs of the tropics there are too many insects and pests. Living in the jungle would be hell. They often got infections and were rarely in a state of comfort. The jungle looks beautiful from above, but I have been in the jungle and it can be a very dark and dreary even in the day. They often had little to eat and garbage food when they did.
This book costs $99,000 pesos in Colombia. At the Miami airport the same book costs the equivalent of $56,000 pesos. Most of the difference is Colombian taxes. You certainly don’t want to encourage something as destructive as reading, by not taxing books. Not only are books more expensive there are few libraries in Colombia. The libraries are usually small, only open until 5p.m. and strangely enough most do not allow you to borrow the book, you have to read it in the library.