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Free Radicals: Two Teenagers' Year As Colombian Hostages

When a pair of American college students were kidnapped by communist revolutionaries, the young rebels accidentally found their cause.

When Jay tucked into bed that humid night in 1988, he was a red-blooded American man in his early twenties, just malcontent enough to evoke James Dean, and about as beguiling. His classic athletic frame, blond hair slightly in need of a trim, and easy smile belied the disaffected snark of a coming-of-age-tale hero. He describes himself at the time as “rebellious” and “against society,” but the truth is that he didn’t have any idea how the world worked. By the time he woke up, though, he would find out.
Jay and his best pal, Stephan (not their real names), were adventuring in South America, temporarily escaping their college confines to pursue geography research. The pair had secured humble digs for the night, offered by a young local they believed was acting out of hospitality. Despite the accommodations, the exhausted travelers should have slept like kings.
But something disturbed Jay’s slumber. “In the middle of the night, a flashlight went in my eye,” he recalls. As he gained focus, an alternative version of his life came into view, one in which his rugged individualism marked him not as a hero but as a victim. By the time he was fully awake, he says, there were about 20 men gathered in the small room with “a porcupine of muzzles of various firearms pointed toward me.”
The rebel was about to find his cause. Under the custody of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC), where he lived for a year, Jay was drawn into the bloody struggle between corporate imperialism and social justice on one hand, and between drug-running kidnappers and an international coalition of government forces on the other. Remaining clear-headed about right and wrong from the epicenter of an ideological and civil war, it turns out, was a whole new kind of rebellion.
The FARC is a Marxist-Leninist military guerrilla group in Colombia, founded in the 1960s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The FARC established itself initially as the protector of the rural poor in opposition to the corrupt Colombian government. While government crackdowns have decimated FARC's numbers in recent years—the U.S. State Department estimates only 8,000 members (though their estimates are known to be low)—the group was about twice as large during its heyday. When Stephan and Jay showed up in the late
’80s, FARC was growing quickly.
At that time, as the struggle between the Colombian government and its rural citizens grew increasingly hostile, the FARC responded by moving into new territories, recruiting more members, and breaking into the drug trade—and were branded terrorists by the United States, Canada, European countries, and the Colombian government.
Around this time, Jay and Stephan developed this “kind of half-baked research idea,” as Jay calls it. They were interested in soil fertility, and they wanted to take a boat trip down the Putumayo River, interviewing farmers about irrigation and fertilization systems along the waterway. The Putumayo borders Peru and Ecuador, and the soil deposits along its banks are notoriously poor. It’s also, Jay can say now with authority, “one of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere.” Malaria, dengue, and piranha are all common.
But Jay means something else.
The friends were naive, but they weren’t stupid. They asked the Colombian authorities to review their route through the Amazon. “We went to the military and showed them maps of where we wanted to go, and said, ‘Is this ok for us to go here?’”
The officer on duty said, “Sure.”
Yet something was lost in translation. What the two had wanted to know was whether it was safe for two gringos to canoe down the Putumayo alone, Jay explains with the benefit of hindsight. “And they had heard, ‘Is it legal for us to go here?’” The hapless duo climbed into their canoe and headed downriver. Cue banjo soundtrack.
It was fall on the equator, and it was gorgeous. Lush. Jay and Stephan were enchanted. They traipsed down the length of the Putumayo, picking up locals and dropping them wherever they needed to go. The two Americans were learning about global economic poverty and how to react when confronted with intense need. Their lessons were in the food, in the language barrier, and, as they were seeing, in the soil itself.
The travelers met Hernan in their own moment of need. The charming, dark-haired kid happened to be fishing nearby when Jay and Stephan realized their wallets had been stolen. They quickly decided to sell their canoe for some cash, and Hernan, just as quickly, agreed to buy it. He took them back to his uncle’s house to borrow money for the exchange. It got late, and the two were invited to spend the night.
They didn’t have much choice. They were in a rough part of the country, with few roads, where the coca industry had recently taken root. For locals in need of income—and most were—coca growing and processing was a prime gig. The other local employment option was with the military, guarding the border against the incipient drug traffickers from Bolivia and Peru, where most of the product still came from, en route to the United States.
Jay and Stephan could see that the coca industry was bound to catch on big here. The mineral deposits along this stretch of the Putumayo were good for very little, and coca was one of the few crops valuable enough to justify the cost involved in transporting it to points of sale. Twenty years later, much of the acreage would be deforested to make more room for the crops. “Now, if you look at a satellite image, you can see very little of the forest left in the places we were at,” Jay says.
In the 1980s, the Colombian government was just beginning to crack down on the drug trade, under the watchful eye of the United States. The FARC, in its self-appointed role as defender of the people, took a more active role in trafficking coca as a means of economic survival. The poverty-stricken rural areas of Colombia, including the location where Hernan’s uncle lived, made up their turf. “That whole part of the country,” Jay explains, “was de facto under control of the FARC. But it wasn’t like you would see them around.”
At least, Jay and Stephan didn’t see them around as they climbed into their sleeping bags.
* * *
Jay blinked into the glare of the flashlight and counted more guns than he had ever seen.
Stephan, however, wanted to keep sleeping. Fade jaunty banjo soundtrack into dark, foreboding chords. The kid didn’t realize what was happening. “He just didn’t want to get up,” Jay says. “I was like, ‘No, seriously. Get up.’” Two decades later, the memory still makes Jay laugh.
Later the two would speculate about who those 20 intruders might have been— whether it was Hernan’s uncle, farmhands, or Hernan himself, they couldn’t be sure—but it didn’t matter at the time. The armed men demanded the two lay flat on the floor, but in a panic, Jay and Stephan instead stood up and raised their arms above their heads, shouting, “Don’t shoot!”
One of the guerrillas put down his gun, lay on the floor, and looked up at them expectantly. “So we got on the floor,” Jay says. “What else you gonna do?” He laughs again. “You do what the guy with the gun tells you to do.”
I should mention that Jay has one of the sharpest comedic minds of anyone I’ve ever met (and I did time in the trenches of comedy writing). He spent his teen years in punk rock clubs, a time when he and his pals were just beginning to grasp that upper-middle-class mainstream culture was not for them. “I was,” he admits with a chuckle, “a fuckup.”
But teen angst had not prepared Jay and Stephan for what they’d just stumbled into. The gunmen tied their hands behind their backs and marched them down to the river. Then things got confusing. The two were blindfolded and shoved into the hull of a small speedboat. Their captors drove around, stopping sometimes, turning around. Were they lost or was this part of the plan? When the boat came to a halt, Jay and Stephan were hoisted out. Their blindfolds were removed. They were told to walk along the water, away from their captors, without turning around. They did what the guy with the gun was telling them to do.
It looked like the end. They muttered nonchalant but heartfelt goodbyes, aping a Western movie. “See ya later, buddy,” Jay recalls saying. They were certain they were going to be killed. Then a voice barked a new order: “Ok. Turn around. You can come back.” Once more, the two did as they were told. They were blindfolded again and put back in the boat.
“The thing about being kidnapped,” Jay says, “is that you have to get used to the idea that you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know the rules, you don’t know what the situation is. You can pay attention and try to figure stuff out, but the very hard thing is feeling ok with not knowing what the plan is, even though part of the plan might be you get killed really soon.”
The small boat was docked on a beach, and Jay and Stephan were marched through a field into a wood. Unguarded for a moment, Stephan slipped a pocketknife out of his pants and cut the ropes around his wrists. That was as far as he got, but he was then considered an escape risk. He was tied to a tree overnight in a hugging position, whereas Jay was merely leashed to his tree. A guard watched them all night. In the morning, the local commander showed up and apologized for having tied them to trees. He also welcomed them, officially. Then they were tied back up. For four months.
“Every time we needed to take a dump, we would have to go like this”—Jay crouches to demonstrate, placing his hands close together as if tied up, and claps—“‘Guardia! Necessito defecar!’ And they would say, ‘Hang on a second.’ Then they would whistle, and go get a second guard to guard the other guy, and then they would take us on our leash to a little hole where we would defecar.”
“It was good to get untied,” he says, looking relieved even now. “Not everybody needs to be involved in that.”
After a while, they got practical. An escape would have been dramatic, sure—a fitting ending to the movie version of this story. But how would two young Americans survive in the rainforest, alone? When a higher-up came by and asked them if they planned to escape, they said no. He had them untied. From then on, “it was a lot easier,” Jay says. “You have more dignity when you’re not leashed to a tree.”
They still don’t know why they were taken. Maybe Hernan thought they were with the CIA, or someone had tipped off the FARC, falsely. Or “it may very well have been that there were two gringos in a place that they shouldn’t have been, and they considered asking for a ransom,” Jays says. But none of their family members, nor anyone at their school, ever received a ransom demand. Back home, no one had any idea what had happened to them.
* * *

In the 1980s, the FARC expanded across the country in an effort to double troop strength. In the middle of the decade, moving away from communist orthodoxy, the FARC established a new political faction, which was quickly quashed by violence. Through the end of the ’80s, kidnappings were selective and mostly used to put political pressure on the government. But shortly after Jay and Stephan’s capture, as the Cold War petered out and funding from the Soviet Bloc disappeared, the FARC began relying more heavily on ransom as a source of financial support.


At the root of the ongoing guerrilla war was Colombia’s historic and staunch divide between the haves and the have-nots. This is the divide the farc originally sought to bridge, fighting the Colombian government’s corporate agenda directly. In 1988, the nation was listed first on the gini index, a ranking by inequality in wealth distribution. (Not all nations are evaluated every year.) The gini coefficient can range from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality, in which one person holds all the wealth). In 1988, Colombia’s coefficient was .5311.
Things have changed in the country, and the rest of the world—for the worse. In 2009, the most recent year it was calculated, Colombia’s gini coefficient was .585, but it has dropped to ninth in the worldwide index (the U.S. ranks 40th). According to the CIA World Factbook, the poorest 10 percent of the population share .8 percent of the nation’s income, while the richest 10 percent get 45 percent. According to UNICEF, a third of the youth population is anemic. In 2009, the under-5 mortality rate was 19 percent.
The FARC's mission has shifted from fighting such inequities to perpetuating them. According to human rights organizations, the group currently holds about 700 hostages for ransom. Today kidnapping and extortion are the group’s second-highest source of income after drug trafficking.
But in the late 1980s, Jay and Stephan were unusual cases. The FARC were still fighting on behalf of something tangible—something even Jay could see, from his vantage point as a supposed bargaining chip. Although pressure from the Colombian government was increasing, the group had a great deal of popular support. “They’re in a guerrilla war because of some serious social issues,” Jay says. “That whole situation is unfair to a lot of people in a lot of ways that were as serious or more serious than our situation.”
A lot of the guards assigned to Jay and Stephan were young—13, 14. Kids in Colombia, without access to education and living in poverty, often willingly join up with either the guerrillas or paramilitary groups—a practice that has only increased in the past 20 years. It is often safer than not joining: At least as a soldier you know when bullets will start flying. The young guards were on duty for four hours at a stretch, and kids get bored. Guarding gringos is a shit job. So, like any teen boys, they’d try to start trouble. Teasing, throwing rocks. Jay and Stephan complained this was a violation of human rights, and the kids would stop taunting. At the time, the FARC was still concerned with its international reputation.
The group was also concerned with providing an education toward social change—and having fun. In the evenings, the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas would gather for Cultural Hour, which was devoted, Jay speculates, to political instruction and strategy building. But twice a week they played soccer—Recreational Cultural Hour. Jay and Stephan were invited to join the games.
The gringos built a system of rain gutters around their shack to collect water—later copied by a FARC officer—and amused themselves by fashioning communist-looking stars from shell casings. Those went over well. Everyone ate the same food. It wasn’t always enough, Jay admits, but the Americans weren’t getting any less than anyone else. Sometimes the gringos entertained the troops with old blues tunes, some Talking Heads, whatever they could remember. Nothing too political, though: You don’t talk about politics during Recreational Cultural Hour. Stephan carved a banjo from a solid piece of wood and then cobbled together a guitar.
The FARC hated the banjo, Jay explains. After thinking about it for a second, he adds, “Well, a lot of people hate banjos.”
* * *
Then suddenly: a chance at escape. The camp flooded and everyone fled except the two Americans and their two guards. All the weapons were left behind. A raft had been constructed to transport everyone to dry land, but it could only hold two people at a time. So a guard—one they liked—shuttled Stephan across, then began poling himself back toward Jay. The other guard—a meaner type—stood ready to greet the raft.
At Jay’s feet lay a massive pile of guns. In his hands: Stephan’s banjo. “I know it doesn’t sound like a serious weapon,” Jay says, laughing. “This banjo was really heavy. I had it over my shoulder like a baseball bat, and I was going to brain the guy, pick up a gun, and start blasting.”
It was the moment that movies train us for; Jay’s chance to go Rambo. He looked at Stephan across the floodplain and asked, in English, “Should I do it?” It was not only their chance to escape, it was also their chance at revenge—a chance to perform the anti-communist storyline that lies at the heart of American culture.
“No,” Stephan said simply.
So Jay didn’t do it.
It was a pragmatic choice, he says. Imagine he had smashed these guys’ skulls in and taken off with Stephan through the Amazon. Then what? They were in a FARC-controlled part of the country, which was in the midst of a full-blown civil war. The two had made a compass out of a pawn from a magnetic chess set for just such an occasion. But they had no idea what they’d find heading north. They’d be alone in a dangerous part of the world where the two men they had just killed were good guys. And they would be murderers.
The compass was a totem. “People like to have control over their lives,” Jay explains. “Making a little magnetic compass to keep in your pocket, that’s a good thing to do. But don’t kill anyone.”
They developed another coping mechanism. “We invented the fiction that we were about to get let go. We knew it was bullshit. You can play little tricks on your mind that actually are useful … something that you know is not really true but it helps you get through the day.”
* * *

Designing rain gutters, fashioning communist stars, providing musical entertainment. An abandoned escape plan. By this point, we’re all thinking it: Stockholm syndrome, the empathetic bond that hostages sometimes form with captors, named after the hostages of a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden who later defended the robbers in court.

Inherent to the idea of Stockholm syndrome, however, is the presumption that laws are just and crimes are unjust, and that the line between the two is easily discernible. Yet our day-to-day systems for evaluating morals and ethics hinge on our individual politics, race, and class.
Take one oft-cited example of Stockholm syndrome, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, and her subsequent willing participation in the group’s activities. When we call the SLA domestic terrorists, diagnosing Patty Hearst with Stockholm syndrome makes a lot of sense. But one of their aims was to establish a food giveaway program for the poor. Like the SLA, the FARC believed they were working on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people struggling to survive under a government unwilling to provide for their needs, but absolutely willing to profit from them. Yes: The FARC did (and continues to do) so violently. To break away, Jay and Stephan would have had to use violence, too. Do we really want to call two men who failed to murder a couple people when they had a chance crazy?
Jay’s simple explanation: “Killing people is a bad idea.” It’s a radical notion, one he stands by even when those people are kidnappers or agents of an oppressive regime.
* * *

And then one day: new outfits for the captives! Striped pants and a striped shirt in bright yellow and blue.

The FARC were negotiating a cease-fire with the Catholic Church, and Jay and Stephan had been moved from their remote location deep in the jungle to a ranch not far from civilization. Fighting had intensified. The two captives could see more people around. There had been daily radio communication, and lots of talk about the “black boys”—FARC code for the white boys. Something was up.
One of their captors told them, “Get ready. Tomorrow we’re going to let you go.”
The fiction had become reality. “Wow,” said one young guard they’d lived with for a year. “You’re going to go to New York! And dance!”
“Maybe,” Jay replied, although in a tone that said, Your idea of the United States is not at all like mine.
The young guard added wistfully, “And I’m gonna stay here.”
Jay was touched. There is a persistent tension travelers feel in impoverished countries. Constant reminders of your own class status cement your position as a sightseer through poverty. Such reminders are rarely offered gently, and even more rarely offered by people who have kidnapped you in the course of their revolutionary war to overthrow capitalism.
“The irony of it is that it was easier for us,” Jay says. He and Stephan had comfortable families, college courses, health insurance, bank accounts waiting back home. “Here we are, at the mercy of a group of leftist revolutionaries, and we still had an advantage.”
Those are the facts of global economic poverty, and Jay and Stephan, after a year in captivity, felt them to be true in their now-lean bodies. By deciding not to kill their captors and escape into the wild—even by, day to day, making the best of their captivity—Jay and Stephan had accepted their situation. For one year. But that year was over.
So the hostages donned their eye-catching outfits. They were led to a clearing in a small grove of trees, where the FARC set up a card table. On it they laid a gingham cloth, some hors d’oeuvres, and booze. The bishop showed up with more snacks. He and the guerrillas complimented each other on the food, swapped recipes. A FARC officer called in to FARC headquarters on the radio and made small talk. Then the bishop took the gringos back to his house.
They were free. But no less confused. The next day a man arrived at the bishop’s house. A member of an organization that tracked FARC kidnappings, he had been one of the people agitating for their release. They thanked him in a haze, and he put them on a plane to Bogota, where they caught another plane back to their families in Chicago.
The negotiations involved in a kidnapping are nothing compared to what happens after release. The families had been through hell. Jay and Stephan had just disappeared. After several months, some college buddies had organized a ceremony in their honor, which many perceived as a memorial service. For all intents and purposes, Jay and Stephan had just come back from the dead. Their return was emotional. Of course. How do you tell bereaved loved ones that you’re still alive? It was also a logistical nightmare: How do you explain to the registration office why you need a new student ID?
Today, Jay is a biology professor, Stephan a carpenter. Neither is angry about what they went through. You might even know one of them and have no idea how they spent a year of their youthful lives. Which is not to say that it didn’t change them.
There’s a story Jay tells about the day he got home. He and his mom were talking in the kitchen, and she had just finished shopping. As she turned to put food away, Jay spied, and quickly pocketed, a plastic bag. She never noticed. He’d been living in a poor country, where plastic bags aren’t given away freely, as they are in rich nations. In places of extreme poverty, what Americans consider garbage gets snapped up and reused immediately. He’d also been living in the rainforest, where everything is covered in mildew. For a year he had wanted—needed—a plastic bag.
Then something occurred to him: “I could have as many plastic bags as I want,” he says. “I don’t even have to steal them from my mom.”

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