Anne Elizabeth Moore


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.

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