Bogota, 1980. There’s a party at the embassy of the Dominican Republic. It’s the anniversary of the island country’s independence. Everyone is there, the U.S. ambassador, some 16 other ambassadors, ambassadors’ spouses, the papal nuncio, some seventy guests in all.
In the one-square-block public park in front of the embassy a soccer game is going on. At a given moment the soccer game stops. The players go to a vehicle, grab weapons and storm the embassy. The former soccer players are members of a relatively small and, until that moment, relatively unknown guerrilla group, the M-19.
I wasn’t in Bogota the day the M-19 came crashing onto the world’s front pages. I was in the Hotel Sevilla in Havana, where Graham Greene wrote “Our Man in Havana.” It was pouring rain and I was playing cards with two dear friends on a big double bed when the news came over Radio Havana.
A week later I flew to Bogota with $50 in my pocket.
I didn’t have time in Miami to change into my long pants, so I arrived in Bogota, at 8,800 feet, at midnight with shorts on. The soldiers at the airport laughed at the stupid gringo who thought he was visiting the tropics.
That morning I hit the pavement. With the help of the UPI station chief, a man by the name of Reynolds, I got a job helping AP cover the embassy story. My assignment: to camp out in my pup tent outside the embassy, in an encampment of journalists from around the world, from 9 pm to 9 am every night and call the AP station chief on a walkie-talkie if something happened. Something did.
My first night in the tent I was awoken in the middle of the night. Someone had escaped the embassy and fled the building on foot – he appeared to be wounded. Later in the day we learned the identity of the escapee – it was the Uruguayan ambassador. He had jumped from a second-floor window, had broken his leg in the jump, and had run away, broken leg and all.
The escaped ambassador was much heralded in the U.S. media, but the Latin American press got the real story. In a move that seems unbelievable in today’s climate, the M-19 allowed journalists to call into the embassy and talk with hostages. So far as I know, no one in the U.S. media ever bothered to do this. But Latin American reporters did, and they got the real story on the heroics of the Uruguayan ambassador.
The hostages had made a pact: no-one would try to escape, because of the danger and discomfort in heightened security that an escape attempt would likely provoke. The good ambassador from Montevideo violated the pact. And it gets worse. Interviews with the remaining hostages revealed that el Uruguayo had refused to wash dishes and help with housecleaning. Some hero.
A week later AP started to run low on cash, and they let me go. But I stayed on in my tent, so I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, and I worked the crowd of reporters for another job.
The Colombian army had thrown up a cordon of 2-3 blocks in every direction around the embassy. One had to have a safe conduct pass to get inside the cordon, and I had one, courtesy of AP. It was an odd thing to camp out in the middle of one of the world’s great mugging capitols, a city of five million souls, and be perfectly safe, surrounded by armed guards, at no expense to myself. It was equally odd to camp out right beside a major thoroughfare, silenced by the cordon. A few days after being let go by AP, I landed a job with what was then one of the three national television networks. I traded my pup tent for a suite in the Bogota Hilton.
The Colombian government’s reaction to the siege was, on the whole, relatively restrained, unlike its extremely violent reaction to the subsequent taking of the national Palace of Justice, and also in contrast to its current mano dura policy toward the insurgent FARC.
But the government’s reaction was not entirely benevolent. In an act that can only be described as sheer lunacy, the Colombian army attacked the embassy some 20 minutes after it was seized by the M-19.
On my first day with the network, I was shown a video of the army attack, purchased by the network from the local amateur who filmed it. It panned left, panned right, and focused in on the man leading the attack, barking orders. I want a sharpshooter over there; I want two over there. He was issuing orders in English. Twenty minutes after the siege began.
“Wow,” I said to the network reporter. “You guys must have made a big splash with that back in the states.”
“No,” he said, “New York didn’t think it was newsworthy.”
I learned a lot about American journalism that day.
The siege dragged on. My duties expanded to the procurement of cocaine and rented women, not for all the reporters, but definitely for some.
I was paid a king’s ransom, $55 a day, cash, and $35 a day for food. In my previous Bogota incarnations I was accustomed to $1 comida corrientes. I tried desperately to spend the $35. I ate lobster till I was sick of it, but I couldn’t get rid of all that money.
I had a car and driver at my beck and call 24/7. One evening he took me and my girlfriend to the home of one of Colombia’s emerald barons – Colombia is the world’s largest emerald producer. I asked the man what happened to miners caught stealing from his mines. “They don’t steal anymore,” he said. As they say, life is cheap in Bogota.
At one point the Jamaican ambassador was released for health reasons. They may be banana republicans, but because Jamaicans speak a brand of English, however queer, the good ambassador’s release was deemed newsworthy stateside.
But no reporter was in town. New York called. Could I do a 50-second radio spot? Yes, I said. I had seen the real reporters do it. I had 20 minutes. I furiously wrote the script and recorded it. The phone rang. Please hold for Mr. Soandso. “Who the hell do you think you are,” the unfamiliar voice demanded. “Do you think just anyone can get onto *** Radio News?” “Hey,” I said, “You guys called me and asked me whether I could do this.” Another lesson in American journalism.
Heading toward its third month, rumors ebbed and flowed that the siege was nearing an end. But then one evening the rumors seemed decidedly stronger and more specific than before. I went to the Hilton bar-restaurant, where the reporter du jour was boozing it up and had his arm around at least one painted lady. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “It’s gonna break, it’s gonna break. How many times have I heard that?” I tried to convince him it was real this time, but to no avail.
Before dawn I got a call. In a matter of minutes the army was going to completely seal the cordon, no one in or out. Not waiting for the elevator, I ran down the stairs to the reporter’s room and pounded on the door as hard as I could. No answer. I left for the embassy. Mario, my driver, and I flew through the empty and rain-soaked predawn streets of Bogota. I was the last person let through the cordon.
As dawn broke over the Andean city of five million, several Red Cross minibuses pulled up in front of the embassy and passengers filed in. The minibuses pulled out, presumably headed for the airport. The reporters in my former pup tent home made for the exits, to give pursuit to the Red Cross caravan, but the army had other ideas – no one was going anywhere. The natives – there were no other North Americans there – got restless and started pushing up against the shoulder-to-shoulder army cordon that had been thrown up around their encampment. “This is our job!” they shouted at the young, nervous, rifle-clutching soldiers. “This is how we make our living. You have to let us go!” Somehow I have difficulty imagining Dan Rather shouting this at a 19-year-old gun-toting Colombian soldier.
After a few moments the Latino journalists simply pushed their way through the blockade, come what may. I found myself running beside a young guy who on the fly asked me, “Do you know how to use a camera?” “Yes,” I said. There simply wasn’t time to tell him I’d never used anything more sophisticated than a $7 Kodak Instamatic.
We hopped on his motorcycle and started making for the airport. We ran parallel to the airport boulevard for a bit and then made a run at the airport road. The army had sealed the only real route to the airport, blockades at every entry point. We ran the blockade – I had no say in the matter.
Turning 90 degrees onto the airport road we saw the caravan up ahead. With army jeeps in hot pursuit we approached and then pulled alongside the last minibus. Soldiers in a jeep behind us were frantically signaling to us to desist.
While commanding the 900 cc bike with one hand, my chauffeur signaled to an apparent hostage in a back seat of the bus to lower his window. The hostage looked over at one of his captors for his blessing. Permission was granted, and the hostage lowered the window.
“Where are you flying to?” my newfound driver yelled.
“Is everyone going?”
The hostage paused to think and then started rattling off the countries whose ambassadors were taking a free flight to Havana. By this time the hostage count was down to about 14. And throughout this windblown conversation I was shooting pictures.
I think. While riding a motorcycle at 35-45 mph, I was trying to balance a lens half the length of my means of locomotion.
When we got to the airport, alive and in one piece, my whoring, raw-nosed American employers were there. They wanted to stick around and watch a bunch of distant, vaguely discernible figures board a nondescript plane, but somehow I managed to convince them that I had information only one other reporter had and that we should rush back to the Hilton and file it right away.
The two-month siege reminded me of the oft-cited description of war: moments of fantastic intensity separated by long bouts of fathomless boredom. But after two-months of hard word and tedious boredom, the siege story fell victim to a historical quirk. As with all things, in history time is everything. The M-19 story broke the day Carter tried to rescue the hostages in Tehran, and was relegated to the back pages.
LAWRENCE REICHARD can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org