he evening began at an exclusive restaurant, continued
for several boozy hours at two swank bars and ended with a hot dog
on a lively Bogotá street. In other words, it was a pretty standard
Saturday night for Alexander, 28, and his friend, a 26-year-old
insurance executive. They left the hot-dog stand and were driving in
the friend's Jeep Grand Cherokee through an upscale neighborhood in
north Bogota when a sedan with five men inside zipped up from behind
and cut them off. They were merely a block away from one of the
busiest thoroughfares in the city, in front of a major hospital,
around the corner from an international hotel and office complex.
But at that moment on that particular morning -- April 15, 2000 --
they were very much alone.
Before Alexander and his friend could react, three of the men
leaped out of the sedan and forced them at gunpoint into the back
seat of the Jeep. One attacker got in and shoved their heads between
their knees. Another slid behind the wheel and began driving.
Alexander's thoughts raced to his sprawling family, a hardworking
middle-class clan. (The family agreed to cooperate for this article
on the condition that their last name not be used.) He thought about
his own portfolio of small commercial enterprises -- the nightclub,
the upscale used-car dealership, the commercial-property company,
the pig-and-chicken farm. Inevitably, his thoughts turned to his
oldest brother, Hernando, and his father, also named Hernando. His
father was fatally shot during a suspected kidnapping in 1994. In
1981, his brother was nabbed by the M-19 guerrilla group, which is
now defunct, and killed in crossfire between rival factions fighting
over the ransom.
These were not reassuring thoughts, and Alexander understandably
feared the worst. "I thought they were going to kill us," he says.
The men said not to worry, they were only after the car. But as
one hour gave way to another, Alexander began to suspect that this
was more than a robbery. And his suspicion was correct: it would be
eight months, much of it spent in freezing captivity high in the
Andes, before he would set foot again in Bogotá.
They drove through the night along rugged unpaved roads, stopping
only once, to refuel. At 9 a.m., seven hours after the attack, the
car pulled up to a small house in the countryside. The attackers led
Alexander and his friend up a hill into a pasture, where they
waited. The air was damp and thin and very cold. Alexander assumed
that they had been driven over the notorious "Camino del Secuestro,"
or Kidnap Trail, which leads into the mountains of Sumapaz, a rebel
stronghold south of Bogotá. That lengthy night of carousing seemed
of another time, long ago.
About an hour later, five men wearing camouflage uniforms and
carrying automatic rifles came up the hill. One introduced himself
and announced: "We're from the FARC. You've been kidnapped." The
rebel asked for their shoe sizes and took off in the Jeep.
On hearing that, Alexander felt oddly relieved. The FARC, short
for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, is the country's
largest rebel army. In the last several years, the insurgents have
developed kidnapping into a sophisticated, profitable business
enterprise. Alexander knew it was usually better to be taken by the
FARC than by one of the scores of gangs that also included
kidnapping in their criminal portfolios. While the FARC has the
resources and experience to treat hostages comparatively well,
common criminals are known for tying up their victims and stashing
them in a closet or bathroom.
In fact, as he sat in the pasture guarded by two rebels,
Alexander was surprised by his own sense of calm. He was highly
rational in his response to this crisis. He was a businessman
dealing with businessmen. He knew that the FARC -- though eminently
capable of brutalizing their captives, if it serves their purposes
-- were professionals. He was valuable chattel they wouldn't want to
squander. "I live in a country where this happens a lot, so you
learn about a lot of cases," he says. "I knew that one day I would
be freed." The question was when.
idnapping has been a weapon in the Colombian criminal
arsenal for decades. But during the 90's, armed conflict among the
government, left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries
led to a breakdown in social order, allowing kidnapping to evolve
into a far-flung, sophisticated industry. There were a record 3,706
kidnappings reported to the government last year, more than triple
the number five years ago but still well below the actual number of
kidnappings. (Officials acknowledge that many incidents go
unreported because people want to handle their cases quietly.)
Colombia is now far and away the world leader in kidnappings, with
Mexico and Brazil lagging behind.
The government attributes 60 percent of last year's kidnappings
to the country's various leftist rebel armies; the overwhelming
majority were credited to the FARC and the Ejercito de Liberacion
Nacional (E.L.N.), the country's second-largest rebel group. Most of
the rest are the work of criminal gangs. A relative few are pulled
off by right-wing paramilitary groups.
Though the rebels sometimes kidnap for political reasons -- to
force politicians to abandon candidacies, say, or to influence
legislation -- their principal objective is to raise money to
support their insurgencies, sometimes charging millions of dollars
for a captive's freedom. Col. Jesus Antonio Bohórquez, national
director of the Colombian armed forces' antikidnapping squads,
estimates that the FARC and the E.L.N. collected about $250 million
in ransom payments last year but admits that is only a guess.
n a recent Sunday morning, a Farc commander, Simón
Trinidad, arrives promptly for a scheduled meeting in San Vicente
del Caguán, the de facto capital of a FARC-controlled zone in
southern Colombia, 180 miles southeast of Bogotá. Dressed in clean
camouflage army trousers and rubber boots, he lays his Kalashnikov
on the cement floor, loosens his shoulder harness draped with extra
rifle clips and a Baretta pistol and slides behind a wooden desk
beneath the portraits of Lenin, Che Guevara and Simón Bolívar. I
want to talk to him about Alexander's case and about the FARC's
excellence in the art of kidnapping.
"We don't kidnap," Trinidad says. "We retain." The insurgency, he
explains, "retains in order to obtain resources needed for our
struggle." Trinidad opens a recent issue of Resistencia, a FARC
periodical, and pounds his index finger on a page containing the
full text of "Law 002." Issued last spring, the directive demands a
payment -- the tax for peace" -- from individuals and corporations
with assets of more than $1 million. "Those who don't obey the
summons will be detained," the order warns. "Their liberation will
depend on payment."
Though he says he doesn't know how many people have been retained
or how much money the FARC has raised, Trinidad contends that many
people and corporations are voluntarily paying up. "Building a
revolutionary army within the capitalist system costs a lot," he
osts to the capitalist system are far higher than just
the ransom money. Spend half an hour in any major Colombian city,
and you'll see the evidence: speeding convoys of bulletproof
S.U.V.'s and motorcycle chase teams; soldiers patrolling outside
government offices and luxury apartment buildings; homes and
corporate headquarters ringed by steel fences, with high-tech
surveillance equipment and armed guards on prominent display.
Before national holidays, newspapers publish maps showing which
roads carry the highest risk of kidnappings and helpful reminders
about the telltale signs of a guerrilla roadblock. ("If for five
minutes you see no cars approaching from the other direction, it's
possible that you're close to a guerrilla roadblock. Stop your
vehicle and return the way you came, or wait until a car comes along
and find out.")
According to Ministry of National Defense statistics, the number
of security companies has increased to more than 600 from 380 in the
past six years, and the number of watchmen and security guards has
risen to about 140,000 from 93,500. And the population of legal
bodyguards has leaped sevenfold, to nearly 21,800.
The threats have stimulated another response that isn't as easy
to see but has inflicted even deeper costs: a stunning exodus of
citizens seeking safe haven in other countries. Most of the
estimated 1.1 million Colombians who have fled in the past five
years are from the middle and upper classes and have taken with them
enormous financial and professional capital.
Despite Trinidad's insistence that the FARC's policy authorizes
the "retention" of only Colombia's wealthiest, the government
contends that the majority of victims are middle and upper-middle
class, with assets that rarely approach $1 million, Alexander among
them. "I don't know his case," says Trinidad, who was a university
economics professor and bank manager before joining the FARC. "It's
possible it was an error."
Whether his kidnapping was a mistake or not mattered little to
Alexander as he shivered in the high-Andean pasture last April. He
sensed that he wasn't going home anytime soon. He had entered the
famously well-oiled kidnapping machine of the FARC.
he guerrillas returned in the Jeep at about 6 p.m. with
boots for the captives. They then set off on a day-and-a-half-long
march through dense forest and over unforgiving mountains. They
stopped twice along the way: at a simple brick house, where they
were allowed to sleep for a few hours, and at a small country store,
where they were handed over to a new group of FARC guerrillas, who
led them through the night to a rebel encampment. It was hidden in
the forest 50 yards from an infamous farmhouse known as La Casa de
la O -- O" stood for the owner, Omar. There the FARC imprisoned
kidnapping victims and received families who would trek out from
Bogota to negotiate releases and deliver ransoms.
Wet and cold, the friends slept for a few more hours before being
awoken by two guerrillas, who led them up a nearby mountain slope.
At the top stood a short, thin guerrilla with a foul temper who
barked at Alexander and his friend to sit down. He then questioned
them individually about their available assets and their lives.
Alexander told the rebel he had recently worked as a bartender and
owned a small parcel of virtually worthless land in the countryside
-- both lies.
The commander then handed Alexander a cellular phone and told him
to call his family and say that he had been kidnapped by common
criminals -- undoubtedly because he knew that would scare them more.
Alexander quickly got his brother Jhon on the phone.
"Jhon was saying: 'Take it easy. You'll be alright,"'Alexander
says. "He was asking if I was O.K., if my friend was still with me.
The guerrilla was standing right next to me, so all I could say was
yes or no."
Then the rebel commander grabbed the phone and began screaming at
Jhon, calling him "a son of a bitch" and telling him that his
brother's freedom was going to cost a lot of money. He gave an exact
figure -- equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and
said, "If you don't get the money, we'll kill him and put him in the
sewer." Jhon insisted that the family didn't have the money, that
they had gotten the wrong guy. "I'll call you tomorrow," the
guerrilla said and hung up.
s terrifying as the call was for Alexander's family, it
was just business as usual in the kidnapping trade -- foul language,
murder threats and an astronomically high ransom demand.
Though the FARC doesn't speak about its kidnapping procedures --
war secrets," Trinidad says -- Juan Francisco Mesa does. At 34, as
the director of the Fund for the Defense of Personal Liberty, a
government office, he is something of a scholar of kidnapping.
"Their kidnapping enterprise functions like a company," says Mesa,
known more generally as Colombia's antikidnapping czar. "It's
organized like a company. It's executed like a company. You need to
be well organized to kidnap, and for this reason it's easy for the
rebels, because they're already well organized."
Like corporations, the rebels' kidnapping enterprises are
organized along strict divisions of labor. Some members are
responsible for research and surveillance of possible targets, while
others plan the kidnapping, commit the crime, guard the victims or
Government authorities and private-security experts say rebels
have even infiltrated confidential state and private databases. This
enables them to assess the ransom potential of prospective victims
by evaluating banking records, property holdings and other
investments. Some victims have even told of being taken to rebel
camps where a commander sits down across a table from them, flips
open a laptop and, like an investment adviser, begins a detailed
discussion of their financial positions. But Mesa and others --
Trinidad included -- contend that the laptop routine is nothing more
than a negotiating bluff. "We're just having fun with that one,"
Trinidad says with barely concealed glee. Nevertheless, the
guerrillas do count on high-tech communications equipment and all
manner of transportation to conduct their heists.
Of the kidnappings not committed by one of the rebel armies, the
government attributes the majority to criminal groups of varying
levels of sophistication. As most gangs lack the experience or
resources to hold people for more than a few days, they like to
unload them quickly, like a bank selling off a mortgage to a
securities firm. While Trinidad admits that such transactions may
happen, he insists that they shouldn't. "If they aren't our
guerrillas doing it, it's wrong," he says.
fter Jhon received Alexander's first call, the family
gathered to review their options. They had already started receiving
solicitations from strangers and friends of acquaintances, offering
their services as negotiators, trauma counselors and go-betweens
with the guerrillas.
The rise in kidnapping has spurred a service industry of
crisis-management professionals ranging from homegrown
bottom-feeders -- like the people who jumped in to offer their
services to Alexander's family -- to high-flying international
companies. The worst, says Alfonso Manrique, the director of a group
to help the families of kidnapping victims, are the local
freelancers. "They appear like Jesus Christ," he grumbles. "But
they're snake charmers, vultures."
The wealthiest kidnapping targets in Colombia often carry
kidnapping and ransom insurance, in case their best-laid security
plans fail. Colombian law forbids such insurance, on the theory that
deep-pocketed companies and elite kidnapping consultants make the
problem worse. "They have an inflationary effect on ransoms," Mesa,
the antikidnapping czar, contends. Nevertheless, companies and
wealthy individuals frequently secure insurance policies in foreign
countries, making sure the coverage extends to Colombia.
But Alexander had no kidnapping insurance -- he had never thought
of himself as a prime target -- so the family was left with the
contents of their personal bank accounts. They discussed hiring a
consultant to handle the negotiations. But that's what their father
had done for his brother's kidnapping, leaving the rest of the
family out of the process and making them feel useless. Instead,
they appointed Jhon -- who manages a family-owned real-estate
company -- as their negotiator and agreed to share all information.
he same venomous rebel called Jhon once a day for the
rest of the week. The police traced the cell-phone signals to the
Sumapaz area, a reassuring indication that Alexander was in FARC
hands. But they conceded that there was nothing the state's security
forces could do in rebel-dominated Sumapaz. "Try to negotiate," a
task force official suggested weakly.
This turned out to be an interminable and nerve-racking process.
The conversation was basically the same each time: the rebel would
curse at Jhon and threaten to kill Alexander. Jhon would respond as
evenly as possible, saying that his family didn't have much money
but that he was doing his best to come up with a few pesos here and
a few pesos there. Then they would toss numbers back and forth. Jhon
would begin at the last figure he had offered -- he started the
negotiations in the low four figures, in dollar terms -- and slowly
work upward. The rebel would start at his latest astronomically high
demand -- he began in the upper hundreds of thousands of dollars --
and slowly work down.
"We were learning as we went along," Jhon says. "My older
brother's kidnapping hadn't prepared us, since my father had kept
the negotiations secret. Anyway, no one knew about negotiations 20
years ago. Kidnappers today are much more experienced."
Over the next few months, Jhon carried his cell phone everywhere;
he lived for the next call. Sometimes the rebel negotiator would
call once a day, sometimes not for two weeks. Sometimes he would say
he would call in two days and wouldn't call for three or four. The
rebel once lied and said that Alexander was dying of malaria. Jhon
tried to resist this psychological manipulation. "It's a business
deal like any other," he says. "If you don't get that into your head
from the first call, you lose." During one early conversation, the
guerrillas threatened to chop off one of Alexander's fingers. "If
you send me a finger, don't ever call me again," Jhon responded
coldly. "I won't buy damaged goods."
Jhon played the game well. "You gotta show you're making a huge
effort to get small amounts," he says. "I'd say: 'Hey man, I pulled
together another thousand dollars -- I sold an old car. Give me a
few days and I'll look for a guy who can lend me some money."' Away
from the phone, though, he was falling apart. He started to drink
more than usual to unwind at the end of every day. He put on weight.
His real-estate business suffered.
ollowing the first phone call from the mountaintop near
the Casa de la O, Alexander and his friend were moved to another,
frigid camp on the other side of the mountain peak. They remained
there for a month and a half, with no heat and only cold food.
Alexander was told that there were other captives in the camp, but
he never saw them.
The friends, along with two other captives, were then shifted
farther down the mountain to a farmhouse the rebels used to stash
kidnapping victims for the long term. Their treatment improved
drastically. "The guerrillas were extremely respectful," he recalls.
"They gave us blankets, hot food. They took care of us like an
investment. The commander said: 'If you feel sick, if someone lacks
respect, I'm here to help. The only thing you have to have is
In time, Alexander befriended a low-level guerrilla who lent him
a forbidden radio. This enabled him to tune into the several
national weekly programs that broadcast personal messages of support
from family and friends to kidnapping victims. He received
morale-boosting nuggets of family news from his five siblings and
mother and once heard messages on the same day from his girlfriend
and an ex-girlfriend. Another time, he was devastated to hear his
mother's muffled sobs.
In early August, nearly four months after the kidnapping,
Alexander's friend was freed -- his family had negotiated his
release with the help of a consultant. At the same time, and for no
apparent reason, the FARC cut off contact with Jhon. Alexander's
family was desperate: his mother had never recovered the body of her
oldest son and was now wondering if she had seen her youngest for
the last time too.
In September, the Colombian Army began an offensive in Sumapaz in
an effort to wrest back control of the region. Under pressure, the
guerrillas moved Alexander and the other captives -- the group had
grown to 19 by this time -- deeper into the bush. The rebels further
loosened their rules, and the captives were able to talk among
themselves, play Parcheesi and cards and openly listen to the radio.
Within three weeks, all but 6 of the 19 had been released; it
appeared to Alexander that the front commander wanted to rid himself
of the unwieldy group.
One departing hostage carried out a note from Alexander telling
his family that he was trying to work out a deal by himself. He got
word by radio to go ahead, and in early October he put in a request
to meet a rebel commander. Then, of course, he waited.
Finally, in early December, he was taken to a camp an hour's hike
away. "The commander greeted me cordially and said, 'Sorry for
keeping you so long,"' Alexander recalls. "The negotiation happened
very quickly." They sat down and worked out a ransom payment, a
minuscule fraction of the initial demand. "I started out very, very
low," says Alexander, who had done his own calculations to figure
out what he could afford. "I think they got the message that we
weren't willing to pay very much." The deal took about half an hour.
The following day, the rebels called Alexander's brother and
agreed on a location for the ransom delivery. The transaction would
take place Dec. 9. On the appointed day, an employee of a family
business, accompanied by a distant relative of Alexander's, drove to
the designated drop -- a one-room schoolhouse high in the chilly
mountains of Sumapaz. It was a four-hour drive south of Bogota,
along the same pitted roads Alexander traveled with his captors
eight long months before. The employee handed over the cash, then
drove back to Bogota. Alexander's release would follow.
Alexander arrived at the rustic schoolhouse on Dec. 18 only to
hear that his family would have to pay more. The rebels told him
that they had already worked it out with Jhon and that if he wanted
to discuss it further, they could head back across the mountain
range to see the commander.
That afternoon, Alexander was playing soccer on the school's
playground with a uniformed guerrilla and several schoolchildren --
his relations with the guerrillas had relaxed quite a bit -- when
the family employee walked up. Alexander, several guerrillas and the
employee went inside the schoolhouse, drank a cup of coffee and
counted the second payment. "You can't speak with the police, you
can't say anything to the media," one rebel told Alexander in what
sounded like a set speech. "Watch yourself. We know where you live."
With no apparent irony, they invited him to come back and visit
sometime. Then they told Alexander he was free to go.
As Alexander and the employee walked back toward the car, a
15-minute hike away, Alexander kept looking over his shoulder. He
couldn't quite believe that the FARC would let him go. Why not
kidnap him again and demand a third ransom? It wasn't until he was
finally able to make cell-phone contact with his brother two hours
later that he realized he was free. And he relaxed enough to cry.
Kirk Semple is a writer based in Bogotá.