At 7:30 on the morning of September 23, 1994, just outside Cali, Colombia, Tom Hargrove was driving fast down a familiar stretch of the Pan American Highway 10 minutes from home, a little late for work.
A large man, Hargrove, at 50, had experienced some middle-age rounding at the edges. But he was no softball. He had completed three tours in Vietnam, and few of his countrymen had made them under such improbable circumstances. Born in the hardscrabble country northwest of Abilene, Texas, Hargrove found his mission early in life — to help others turn raw acreage into productive farmland. In 1969, one of the war's meanest years, Hargrove arrived as a young army lieutenant with his own dream job-traveling by sampan deep into the heavily disputed territory of the Mekong River delta to deliver rice seeds to farmers of all political persuasions. In 1972, with the war clearly a lost cause, he went back on a similar humanitarian mission, this time as a civilian. By 1988, long after the fall of Saigon, he had returned once again to peddle high-yield rice to the conquerors he had first been sent to oppose. Hargrove is, in some ways, the classic American of earlier 20th-century myth — a tough do-gooder, a Jimmy Stewart type.
In 1992 he moved to Colombia with his family of three to work for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, founded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to spread the "green revolution" to hungry peoples everywhere.
Hargrove didn't have a serious care in the world, but two quirks were about to change his life forever. One was his easygoing temperament. When he came to a crossing which gave him a choice between the direct route to his office — through the noisy, congested traffic of suburban Cali-and a fork that looped back around through scenic countryside, Hargrove took the scenic route without a thought. The other quirk involved the acronym for his organization. Transposed into Spanish, the lettering became CIAT.
Police and military roadblocks are common in Colombia. At first glance, the one Tom Hargrove approached minutes later appeared normal. Standing around at the barricade were about a dozen young men in typical Latin American military uniforms, with high rubber boots and camouflage fatigues. Then the differences hit him. The headgear-bandannas, Che Guevara berets, bush hats. The rifles-a mix of M16s, Galils, AK-47s. The handguns-a haphazard collection of .45s and .38s. In fact, the young men belonged to one of the last of Latin America's once thriving militant leftist groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Or FARC. Hargrove's ID glared at them, particularly the first three letters: CIAT. Most of the rebels held their weapons carelessly, dangerously. Hargrove's heart sank. But they had no intention of killing their new catch. The American had become a commodity in a very special and prosperous business.
Eighteen days passed without a word from the kidnappers. Then came the first ransom demand: $6 million. By that time Hargrove was long gone, hidden away in the cold and forbidding Andes. His captors moved him constantly, from one primitive mountain camp to another. So isolated was he that for the next 11 months he would not see a wheel, a road, a window with glass, a fork. He would lose 50 pounds. His hair would turn orange from malnutrition.
In the go-go global life of the 90s, in which billionaires have become common and multinational companies have G.N.P.'s heftier than those of most countries, the kidnap business is booming. (As recently as late March, 13 tourists, four Americans among them, were abducted on a bird-watching trip near Bogota.) Over the past 20 years, multinationals have quietly paid out at least a billion dollars in ransom for kidnapped executives. As for the vulnerable super-rich and famous, so much secrecy shrouds the business that you can't even get an estimate — except that perhaps one in three kidnappings goes unreported, and that the payoffs are almost always understated. In some countries ransoms of $5 million are not uncommon. Kidnappers recently got $30 million for the return of a Mexican banker.
The cost of protection — armored Mercedeses, "nuke-spooker" radiation alarms which can be hidden inside briefcases, multimillion-dollar kidnap-and-ransom insurance, $4,000-a-day professional kidnap-negotiation services — totals far more than the ransoms. A fully equipped, bulletproofed Lincoln Town Car sells for well into six figures. It can take fire from any modern combat rifle, comes with flip-down gun portholes, and has a device that discharges an oil slick to foil followers in a chase. Some high rollers even implant homing devices in their bodies, although the pros say the devices aren't worth the effort and leave a telltale bruise.
With the end of the Cold War, the world may be an empirically safer place to live. But Americans alone now spend more on personal security than the budgets of the F.B.I. and all U.S. police agencies combined. The security industry employs nearly two million men and women — more than served in the U.S. Army at the height of the Cold War. These numbers come from Brian Jenkins, a former Vietnam Green Beret and Rand Corporation analyst who gained a measure of celebrity as Nightline's resident talking head on terrorism. Jenkins now consults for Kroll-O'Gara Company, a large New York corporate-security company that has branched out into kidnap negotiations.
International kidnapping has become an emblem for the 90s. Gone with the Cold War are the romanticized days when ransoms mixed with leftist philosophy and often provided the "war tax" for Marxist political movements. Now, like everything in this overheated age, it's just about money.
In this setting, Tom Hargrove seemed like a bit of an anachronism — a man swept into the fading world of leftist revolutionaries. Today professional kidnap squads are more likely to be exiles from that world — men who learned their trade under red banners but now work only for profit. The typical hit is exquisitely and professionally planned, often pulled off in broad daylight on public streets, with such overwhelming speed and force that lifelong bodyguards quickly drop their weapons — or drop dead.
Hargrove's kidnapping also sheds light on one of the world's murkiest legitimate businesses — the so-called K&R industry, which provides kidnap and ransom insurance and hardball negotiators for high-priced kidnap cases. K&R is a world in which Cold War exiles — a roguish business of small companies and locked doors and names such as Control Risks — will send ex-spooks, special forces, or Scotland Yard men anywhere on earth, on a moment's notice, to bail you out when the kidnappers are demanding millions.
A year ago, a friend of mine who sells kidnap insurance in London suggested that I might be welcomed into the heart of the bizarre K&R business. I began weeks, then months, of negotiations with K&R operatives, one of whom repeatedly answered his phone (as I sat in his code-locked office), "Yes, Yuri, $2 million," followed minutes later by "No, Yuri, $2 million."
The grand tour eventually took me from Washington to London, Paris, Panama City, Miami, and, finally, the epidemic's ground zero, Colombia, where Hargrove had been taken and where thousands of kidnappings occur each year. I wandered through a shadowy gallery of former spies and F.B.I. agents, old British Special Air Service operatives, and Scotland Yard men who spoke in a special slang half salvaged from the bureaucratic worlds they had all hated, half gleaned from the streets. Each kidnap negotiation was a deployment, each ransom a settlement. Between deployments and settlements, the K&R men lived in a world of door kickers and "bent" cops, and used euphemisms such as 'de facto death penalty" and "vaccination." They pitted themselves against an array of professional bad guys with cop-novel nicknames. Grabbers. Movers. Keepers. Talkers. Drop men.
My prime target was London's Control Risks Group Ltd., the oldest and most regal of the K&R firms, with a client list that includes 91 Fortune 100 companies, 9 of the top 10 Forbes multi-nationals, and a top-secret list of rich and famous people. Situated just blocks from New Scotland Yard and a short walk from Parliament, Control Risks quietly makes its home in an old red-brick building so innocuous that it could house insurance-company clerks or an M15 secret unit. But when a phone rings at 83 Victoria Street, the response is guaranteed: you will, within 15 minutes, get a call back from a seasoned negotiator; you will have him at your side, anywhere in the world, within 24 hours. He will spend the next two years of his life with you, if that's what it takes — and sometimes it does.
I doubled back to Miami, where the most respected American K&R operative, Mike Ackerman, runs his company from an island in Biscayne Bay. Ackerman has all the brassy American bravado of a C.I.A. street man, which he once was. "I hire guys," he growls, "who use the back door and can flash a wad of cash." He has dropped $275,000 out of a helicopter hovering over armed guerrillas in the Guatemalan jungle, and surreptitiously microfilmed a $6 million ransom payment while Argentinean kidnappers held a gun to the head of his billionaire client's son. Forbes has described Ackerman as the man American companies call "when the hostile takeover turns lethal."
Most U.S.-style security operations hide in the glass-and-concrete-jungle anonymity of corporate America. It was there, in one of the pop-up buildings along the Washington Beltway, that I met Sean MeWeeney. A former head of the F.B.I's organized-crime unit, McWeeney founded Corporate Risk International in offices above the National Rifle Association Cafe. McWeeney likes kidnap movies. "The agent always stretches out the phone calls," he says. "In real life, you pick up the phone and a voice says, 'Listen, asshole, I want my money now or I'm going to cut your fucker's hands off.' Click."
The K&R business is so secretive that one of the companies lists its return fax number as 000-000-0000. Control Risks proudly boasts that its agents operate under sterner security measures than they did as elite forces for their various governments.
I also met with David Lattin, a former U.S. Navy spy who spent most of his government career in Eastern Europe, doubling Soviet-bloc agents — persuading them to spy for the West while remaining in their old jobs. Lattin, who looks more like an insurance agent, is the American operations director for Control Risks. He has made more than 50 "deployments" and tells war stories like a trooper. One of his favorites involves a local flight he took in the Far East. He found himself seated next to the peasant-hero chieftain whose men had just kidnapped his client. Lattin calmly asked for and received the chieftain's autograph.
But cooperation with a journalist during a live kidnapping, Lattin finally told me pleasantly, is unheard of. "We are cross-cultural, you and I," he said. And we were — he from a cult whose greatest virtue is secrecy, I from one that withers in the dark. After months of trying, I seemed dead in the water. In reality, however, I had already been drawn into a strange and morally ambiguous netherworld where up often meant down, in often meant out, and men would tell me that death threats were a good sign.
"If I knew tonight that I would be kidnapped tomorrow," Lattin went on, as if to reinforce the point about the never-never land in which he lives, "I'd take the night plane to Colombia."
Colombia@f0 His words tell much about why kidnapping has become the scourge of the rich and famous — and a deadly concern for American expatriates. In the United States, Lattin says, the crime is played out, against generally efficient and honest police departments; 95 percent of all American kidnappers are caught. The penalties are severe and consistent, and therefore discourage the development of an experienced criminal workforce. So poor is the reputation of the North American kidnapper that The Miami Herald, which covers both locals and internationals, once dismissed a kidnapping as "a garden-variety American job, badly thought out, risky, potentially murderous because of the captors' incompetence." In fact, you are more likely to be killed by American kidnappers, who are inclined to eliminate witnesses. "In the United States, only loonies do [kidnappings]," says Peter Dobbs, a former British special-forces man and Control Risks negotiator who now sells kidnap insurance for Asset Security Managers Ltd.
But go elsewhere — Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Russia, the Philippines, Taiwan, even China — and everything turns on its head. In Colombia, where thousands of people and scores of multinational executives are snatched every year, 99 percent of all kidnappers are never convicted. In Manila, one expert says that up to 80 percent of the police force is on the take, and human heists are so routine that kidnappers take personal checks. Last year Mexico City traffic cops staged a protest after federal police ambushed four of their colleagues as they picked up a ransom.
In these places, kidnapping is the residue left from decades of Cold War. I found disenchanted Cuban ideologues and the spent forces of a dozen Latin revolutions who'd grown into an unlikely capitalistic middle age — like American hippies driving Suburbans. But the kidnappers aren't just retired revolutionaries. The men the United States trained to fight them have learned, too. In many countries, kidnappings are organized by cops and ex-soldiers. In Nicaragua, retired contras have taken up the trade. And out-of-work soldiers, cops, and guerrillas have kept the kidnap trade booming in Guatemala.
So the same gangs negotiate, over and over, with the same kidnap negotiators. They get to know one another's voices and M.O.'s. Codes of conduct are established, such as the Preserve the Porcelain Rule: Keep the victim alive. "If you are running a china shop," Dobbs says, "you do not break the china." A few hard-nosed kidnappers have tried to ransom dead bodies. But the discount is large. The object of both sides is to get 'em back alive.
Lattin says so many policemen are in cahoots with the kidnappers that he never attempts rescues. "Half of the rescue attempts," he says, "result in death or injury." Better to talk. No matter how long.
This makes for extraordinary pressures. I telephoned one multimillionaire who years earlier had been kidnapped and kept in a hole in the ground for nine months. He had since built a new, anonymous life. Merely by calling him without warning, I 'struck such fear into him that I have not yet fully forgiven myself. Nor is the terror restricted to the victims themselves. I talked with one whose mother has become an alcoholic and will not — cannot — answer the telephone.
At first glance, Susan Hargrove is unremarkable. A brunette with a quick smile, she goes from giddy to dead serious without a blink. She is not somebody you want to back against a wall. "An expat brat," Susan calls herself. While she was growing up, her father's work as an oil executive took her to the Philippines, Kuwait, Iran, Switzerland, the Aleutians. Her marriage simply continued the endless overseas trek. When she and Tom moved to Cali, in 1992, she thought of it as just another way station. Theirs had always been a close family and, at that point, the Hargroves were reluctantly preparing to become "empty-nesters." Their sons, Miles, 19, and Geddie, 18, were seniors in high school and soon would be off to college in the States.
Somewhere in her mind, Susan compartmentalized the knowledge that she was entering the most violent society in the world, sidewalk murders, armed assaults at stoplights, civil war, and a national pastime of political and for profit kidnapping. "If you put a frog in hot water, he'll jump out," she says. "But if you put him in tepid water and just turn up the heat slowly, he'll get used to it. We got used to it."
The dark side of expatriate life became background noise, its detail lost in the rumble of everyday life. The gates that always locked behind you, door gates, office gates, garage gates, embassy gates. The ubiquitous cameras and X-rays and sound sensors. The suit jackets that bulged ever so slightly. The wall around your housing compound. The wall around the wall.
Susan had been overseas far too long not to know about kidnap insurance. But she was, by nature, the perfect corporate wife. One simply did not talk about it. Talk encouraged kidnappings. Talk caused morale problems. Who was insured? Who wasn't@f1 One didn't ask. One assumed one was taken care of. Susan Hargrove assumed wrong.
An overseas company has more than one way to deal with a kidnapping. Most multinationals go with the K&Rs because they bring hostages back alive and minimize problems with the host government. Some Japanese firms, for example, have a cultural tendency to pay fast and in full for humanitarian reasons. Others, mostly churches, missionary groups, and altruistic organizations either don't have the money for insurance and ransoms or take a God-is-on-our-side approach. They just won't pay- do-gooder's version of the U.S. government's policy on terrorism: We will not negotiate with terrorists; we will not give them anything.
One missionary group, the New Tribes Mission of Sanford, Florida, has had five workers kidnapped in Colombia since 1993. New Tribes, which translates the Bible into tribal dialects, has 3,200 missionaries in 28 countries and feels that buckling in Colombia would put them all at risk. "We don't pay ransom, we don't talk ransom," says the group's spokesman, Scott Ross. "We're a faith group." Of its five kidnapped missionaries, two have been shot dead and three have been missing for five years.
Hargrove's organization had kidnap insurance, which provides professional K&R service. CIAT is also an altruistic operation that, at least in theory, works to help the people the guerrillas claim to represent. With that in mind, CIAT played to the guerrillas' dubious humanitarian side. "CIAT wouldn't negotiate," Susan said. "They put the message in one of those screwy, half-coded classified ads you see in the paper all the time in Colombia."
The kidnappers, seeking a counter-offer to their original $6 million demand, had asked that the ad read:
ATTENTION: LAST PROMOTION OF FABRICS. Lovely and durable pieces available for x amount of pesos from 1.5 meters wide. Tel. - BOGOTA.
CIAT replied: ATTENTION: LAST PROMOTION OF FABRICS. Lovely and durable pieces 1.5 meters wide without cost.
"Good God, FARC thought it had found a gold mine," Susan says. CIAT's approach was a variation on a common opening gambit.
A U.S. company will respond, "You know our government's policy. We're not even supposed to talk to you." Weeks or months will pass and a "rich uncle" is found. The K&R man then opens the negotiations. In this case, the guerrillas perhaps took CIAT's move as a sophisticated bargaining maneuver and dug in.
But, for Susan Hargrove, an innocent in the world she was entering, there would be no rich uncle. Later, she disparaged what she called CIAT's "hearts and minds" strategy.
What followed was a remarkable 11 month drama marked by dark, comic-opera scenes reminiscent of a made-for-TV movie. There was Susan, alternately described as "ditsy" (self- deprecatingly) and "magnificent" (seriously by others); the Hargroves' two sons, Miles and Geddie, who rushed home from college to help their mom; their German neighbors, Uli and Claudia Greiner, and their two teenage children; Robert Clerx, a 20-year-old Colombian friend of the Hargrove boys' who became the family's negotiator; Vivianna Perez, a 21-year-old Colombian law student who became their "lawyer"; a Catholic monk nicknamed "Okey-Dokey"; and a tough F.B.I. agent named Oscar Tejeda, who took it all personally and sometimes grew so overwrought that he could cry.
"Finally, CIAT sent somebody out to the house to give me some advice," Susan recalls. "'When the kidnappers call,' he told me, 'say you don't speak Spanish. Tell them to call our security guy, and hang up.' It was dumb advice. When I got a call, the guy spoke English and I was so rattled I kept saying 'I can't speak Spanish,' and I hung up."
Then the whole ordeal settled into something of a routine. "It became like bargaining for a carpet in the bazaars of Kuwait, where I spent part of my life," Susan says. "You signal to the rug dealer how much you are willing to pay by the way you increase the amount as you are negotiating." That seemed awfully cold toward Tom, but it was the way to do it. It was the way the K&R men did it.
Meantime, Tom Hargrove was on a forced march in the Andes. At first he was fascinated by the scenery, but as they climbed higher, Tom found himself in a "misty, ghostlike atmosphere" of mountain clouds, and he lost all sense of location. It rained every night and the cold cut to the bone. He drifted in and out of sleep, interrupted by strange dreams and the distant howls of pumas.
Remarkably, Tom managed to keep and successfully hide a diary. "It's like being taken, suddenly, and nailed in a box-or a coffin," he wrote on October 28, his 36th day in captivity. "You're left there in silence and darkness while the rest of the world goes on."
Kidnapping is the most heinous crime imaginable-worse than murder in some ways," says Oscar Tejeda, the Bogota-based ex-F.B.I. agent who lived the Hargroves' agonies. "At least with murder, you're dead."
No crime more terrifies the rich and famous. But one of the peculiarities of the K&R industry is that it provides little of substance in the way of prevention. Corporate customers get tidbits of advice: dress down, forget the Jaguar, and don't flash your corporate logo overseas, lest you draw the attention of logo hunters," who occupy the bottom level of the kidnapper food chain. The K&R industry is there to step in afterward and give its customers the best chance of coming out alive - with as little derring-do as possible. "Our customers expect to pay a ransom," says Ackerman.
Kidnap insurance may be the ultimate defensive device. The survival rate for all insured victims is about 85 percent. A policy buys more than ransom money. It pays lost wages to a corporate victim and even covers a family vacation and psychiatric help afterward. Most important, it buys an Ackerman, Lattin, McWeeney, or Dobbs to deal directly with the kidnappers. They do not come cheap. Ackerman charges $2,000 a day, and if two men are needed (as they almost always are in complex negotiations), he throws in the second for $1,350. Expenses run high. The negotiators like the best hotels and good food. After the kidnapping of an Occidental Petroleum executive, Ackerman charged $400,000 to negotiate the ransom down to less than $2 million.
Nor is the insurance cheap. Those feeling particularly kidnap-prone can buy in insurance from both sides. You can buy the conventional plan at annual premiums ranging anywhere from $10,000 to more than $150,000 per person. One South American billionaire has insured 90 members of his family; many insure their mistresses. Or you can buy a vacuna, or vaccination, directly from the kidnappers. In Bogota, a $60,000 vacuna will protect you from a half-million -dollar kidnapping. This saves both sides wear and tear.
Most corporations, as well as billionaires, Hollywood stars, and athletes stick with the conventional policy, often insuring all of their overseas employees. But getting someone to admit it is another story. Some policies call for cancellation if the customer talks. Boris Becker was not happy when, at the height of his career, a newspaper outed him as having kidnap insurance. Becker was insured for $10 million, with a top-of-the-line annual premium of $160,000.
But for every high-profile celebrity who is never kidnapped, there's an anonymous executive who is, such as McWeeney's diabetic client, who would have died without his insulin. Even before the kidnappers made contact, the K&R man took a month's supply deep into the Guatemalan jungle and drove until he was stopped. The guerrillas took the medicine. He reminded them that it had to be refrigerated. Refrigerated? They looked at him as if he were crazy, so he drove a daily supply in for the next five weeks, never knowing where they would stop him. Then there was Peter Dobbs's billionaire client who, while others paid in the millions, talked his own way out for $36,000. ("That's why he's a billionaire," Dobbs says.) Another Dobbs client had been followed for weeks as he made his regular visits to his mistress before the kidnappers finally struck. The client's wife answered their first call. "You can go to hell," she screeched, "and take him with you!" Dobbs laughs. It was the best opener I ever heard," he says.
I asked Dobbs to help me find a kidnapper, perhaps in a South American jail. "Not many of those," he replied. "No death penalty in most of those countries, you know. But few survive the drive to jail. We call it the de facto death penalty."
I eventually found my kidnapper, not in jail, but in a bistro in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The bright little cafe on the Rue Line was horrifyingly French moderne and plastique. Tube lighting washed out the shadows that, in the good old days, would have muted coffeehouse talk of conspiracy and muffled the intrigue from prying ears.
Jorge Masetti is dark and thin, with the bony angularity of a man who has made it on short rations. Now 42, he has long black hair spiked with gray and pulled back into a fashionably rebellious ponytail. His face is furrowed, its lines a map of too many hard Andean ridges run, too many jungle trails followed, too many revolutionary paths dead-ended. In self-exile now — from the Havana Cubans and their bourgeois Miami cousins —Masetti remains an intellectual purist, an ideologue who feels betrayed by the revolution.
Cuba embraced kidnapping as a revolutionary tactic almost by accident. The key event occurred in 1974, when brothers Juan and Jorge Born, heirs to one of Argentina's largest family fortunes —billions from grain and other interests were snatched off the streets of Buenos Aires and ransomed for $64 million. Still a record amount, the sum was staggering even by Latin standards.
The money trail from that single kidnapping became a two-decade fascination for revolutionaries and their Cold War adversaries. The ransom was scattered into banks all over the world. Then a decision was made to concentrate it in the United States. That plan died after a mysterious American banker's jet crashed in the mountains of Mexico. A decapitated, unidentifiable body was found at the site — but not the $17 million the banker was moving north. Shortly thereafter, the remainder of the ransom was directed to Cuba. Over the next 15 years, the interest was put to use in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and other Latin countries threatened by leftist unrest. During that time, political kidnappings were de rigueur in the Western Hemisphere, and the money was usually filtered through a "revolutionary bank" to the America Department, a Cuban bureau devoted to hemispheric revolution.
Our five-hour conversation became something of a scene. Masetti filled ashtray after ashtray with the hot stub ends of strong French cigarettes. A beautiful Colombian woman translated. Two young Americans sat nearby, mouths agape, as the Cuban described an era totally alien to their philosophically uniform world.
Masetti had been trained in many skills, from bank robbery to counterfeiting. By the early 1980s he was working out of Mexico City, coordinating kidnappings and robberies by homegrown revolutionary groups. His favorite moment was the scrupulously planned 1983 armed robbery of a Wells Fargo armored truck in West Hartford, Connecticut. The $7 million heist, second-largest in U.S. history, was then thought to be a simple inside job. Two years passed before most of the gang were rounded up — 14 members of a left-wing Puerto Rican group, Los Macheteros (the machete wielders). One of its members, 25-year old Victor M. Gerena, had long since been spirited into Cuba. So had the money, which had first been driven to the Mexican border in a truck carrying powdered milk, then transferred to a car with secret compartments designed by Masetti, then taken from Mexico City to Havana by diplomatic pouch.
Of the kidnappings he planned — several unnamed Americans, a big Salvadorian case, a botched Mexican job, a case known as the "French lieutenant caper," which he says exposed key C.I.A. assets - - Masetti spoke more sourly, turning wry only when he got to the case of Panamanian banker Sam Kardonsky, who asked no questions when a Colombian stranger walked in with an estimated $8 million cash deposit. The depositor was killed a short while later. When his successor showed up to make a withdrawal, Kardonsky made the biggest mistake of his life. He refused to release the money.
The banker was swept off the streets in broad daylight and hidden in Ecuador for the next 20 months. A year passed before negotiations began. The ransom — at least $9 million-covered the deposit, the interest, and expense money. Kardonsky was released at the Quito airport wearing a new silk suit, a Panama hat, and a pair of Ray-Bans. He was handed a first-class ticket home and several hundred dollars in "cab fare." Masetti grinned — you never know when you might once again need a Panamanian banker.
Not long afterward, the Mexicans caught on to Masetti and ejected him "the Mexican way," as he puts it. The federales surrounded his house and fired a fusillade of shots into the air. He ignored them, reasoning that Mexicans are always shooting. The next night they fired another fusillade, and he left. By that time, Masetti had become disgusted with himself anyway. "No revolutions were being won, and I was feeling and acting more like a Mafia man," he says. "One of the worst things about the revolution is that it cast these barbaric acts as romantic."
There are two major rebel factions in Colombia — FARC, which kidnapped Hargrove, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or E.L.N. Many Americans in Colombia argue that the revolution has now declined into simple, money-driven gangsterism.
"These guys don't know what a Marxist is," Tom Hargrove thought as he watched his captors. "They are all teenagers, some of them as young as 13. They carry around these heavy, heavy Marxist books, but they're illiterate. They can't read. They are not leftists. They are kids taking bazuco — or bazooka, as they call it. It's the dregs — that awful stuff left over after you refine cocaine. And drinking mountain brandy. And going nuts every night. It's about the money, That's all it was ever about."
The changes in the E.L.N. were analyzed in a 1995 New York Times article by James Brooke, who painted a picture of the titular rebel leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda. Marulanda, then 68, had been fighting his Marxist war since 1948 — 11 years before Castro took power in Cuba. He was still out there — "maybe getting a little shaky," but still fighting the dreamer's fight. Then Brooke described the younger generation beneath Marulanda, the E.L.N. majority, whose "dreams of socialism have given way to a reality of pure olive-green banditry." The E.L.N. had even gone Wall Street: one of its several autonomous factions had built a $12.5 million investment portfolio using kidnapping and extortion revenues.
In late 1996 the E.L.N. blew back into the news of "modern" kidnapping with one of the more sensational stories ever to hit the secret world of K&R — the arrest in Colombia of a mysterious superagent named Werner Mauss. It is not quite accurate to call Mauss a K&R man. He has too many other talents. But among international privateers, the 56-year-old German ranked with the best. His fees from German multinationals contained enough zeros to pay for a private jet and the runway to handle it at his fortified castle in the mountains of Hunsrück, Germany. His government so prized his occasional help that its own agents were made to face the wall so they couldn't see him during his visits to the headquarters of the German BND. The Ghost, they called him. The German James Bond.
Mauss seemed too good to get caught at a second-rate Latin airport half-organized against drug smugglers. But that's what happened one night in November 1996. Why Mauss didn't make it is anyone's guess. Maybe it was his traveling companions — two attractive women, one of whom was unusually fidgety. Maybe it was his passports he had 14 on him at the time, the choice of the day identifying him as Klaus Moellner. Maybe it was the eyecatching stub end of his half-missing index finger. Or his briefcase with a satellite phone equipped to use the Global Positioning System and two-way video. More likely, he had been set up.
Mauss had just paid the E.L.N. a $1.5 million ransom for the fidgety woman, Brigitte Schoene, who was married to the former local manager of a huge German chemical company. Word soon leaked that Control Risks had been working the Schoene case for the family, and that it had negotiated the ransom demand down to $200,000 before the guerrillas abruptly stopped talking. Then Der Spiegel produced videotape of Mauss with his arm around an E.L.N. leader at a mountain encampment, celebrating after settling an earlier multimillion-dollar kidnapping. In Colombia, banner headlines charged that Mauss had played both sides against the middle — targeting victims for the E.L.N., selling his valued services to the multinationals, and charging huge fees to both sides for quick resolutions.
Two weeks later, the German government admitted that all those passports were not quite forgeries — they had been issued to Mauss by its embassy. Documents Mauss was carrying outlined a plan in which Mauss would cut a deal between the cocaine cartel and the Colombian government, with the Germans serving as intermediaries. Frau Schoene, it seemed, had merely been a sideline.
The Colombians went Latin. The Americans, who like to think they run Colombia, went American, and the Germans went defensive. In a remarkable five-hour session of the German parliament, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's senior intelligence aide, Bernd Schmidbauer, was forced to back Mauss publicly — he was on a "humanitarian" mission, Schmidbauer argued — and tried to educate German legislators about life in the real world. "Half of the territory in Colombia is dominated by guerrillas, and the cases of kidnappings run into the thousands," Schmidbauer said. "When we call upon unconventional methods, it's because we're not dealing with decent people but with delinquents of the worst kind."
The Colombians threw Mauss and his wife, who had accompanied him to the airport, into jail outside Medellin.
Brian Jenkins, the former Green Beret, knows this dark universe as well as anyone. At the height of the crisis he told me, "One day they will quietly let him go and we will never know exactly what it was all about." Eight months later, the Colombians released Mauss and his wife. Not a word has been heard about them since.
After Tom was kidnapped, Susan Hargrove quickly fell into a surreal state. No words could describe her ordeal better than her own. "When someone in your family gets kidnapped," she says, "you get kidnapped. You don't go outside your walls. You wait. You eat at home every night, waiting. It got very strangely normal. Once, we found ourselves eating dinner under the table and we didn't think a thing of it. If someone calls you while you are on the radio with the kidnappers and asks, 'How are you?' you reply, 'Fine.' Like when you are a kid learning to write letters: 'How are you? I am fine.' And then one day you write, 'How are you? I am fine. I have the flu¹²
Modern kidnappings quickly create a buzz on the Internet, and the Hargroves were soon bombarded with tips, rumors, conspiracy theories, and offers. "Tom's brother in the States, Raford, began hearing from every guy in the world with a knife in his mouth," says Susan. "One guy offered to bring in the ransom money the way the drug people do it. He said he would bring it inside his bulletproof vest, where the X-ray couldn't see it. Is that how they do it@f2"
Upset that his sister-in-law was going it alone. Raford Hargrove hired a different K&R company, but that became a bureaucratic nightmare. "I flew to Miami to meet them," Susan says. "By the time I got there, the new company told me they can't help me, because they have some kind of conflict — they use the same insurance company as CIAT. My God! This is becoming an unbelievable mess. The U.S. government says it is against the law in Colombia to negotiate and pay ransom, so they can't help. CIAT told me they couldn't help me. They are going to give it the old hearts-and-minds try, and I could be arrested and put in jail if I continue what I am doing. And now the new K&R company tells me that they can't help me. They gave me two days of very intense training. But after that it's me and Uli and Claudia and four kids."
By then Tom Hargrove had been gone for three months. The guerrillas had moved him from a camp of mud huts in a high, bleak Andean hollow Hargrove called El Valle de la Muerte — the Valley of Death. Christmas was the worst time. As it neared, Tom thought it might be the occasion for his release. It was not. December 25 dawned "cold, foggy, and freezing." He had diarrhea. His young guards had grown meaner, and Tom was violating the first rule of a hostage: Don't get mad back. One of the group's 15-year-old leaders had been carrying on loud, nightly grappling matches with another boy. The rebels had begun chaining Hargrove to a mud wall each night. "Fuck you," Tom said as the chains were attached.
"Speak only in Spanish,² the youth said.
"Fuck you," Hargrove replied. "I hope I'm around when you die of AIDS."
Meantime, the kidnappers had begun to threaten the Hargroves over the radio. "Real nasty," Susan says. "The language was so bad — you know, 'Fuck my you-know-what¹ — the kids wouldn't translate for their poor, innocent mom. Then they would give us a two-week silence. We came to hate that voice; we came to love that voice. I was supposed to go in the bedroom with the dogs during the negotiations. The boys said I just got too babbling when the radio started. Miles did a video. I looked at it and they were right: I just went di-di-di-di."
Around Christmas, Raford tracked down a former Scotland Yard man who had once worked at Control Risks and was starting his own business. He agreed to help Susan. "He didn't want to be identified — just David," Susan says. "We called him 'our David.' By now we're using all these code names. I mean, why does Hollywood make this stuff up when they've got real life? The codes were pretty bad. One time Tom was the boat — the barco —and they were going to sink the boat. Then he was the bank and they were going to blow up the bank."
At about this time, the Hargroves got an encrypted phone so they could talk without being overheard by the police, the military, or the guerrillas. "You really couldn't trust anyone," Susan says. "And it started to get very expensive. David had to work all the time, so we got another David. The two Davids were running about $15,000 a week. I began to worry if we were going to be able to raise enough money within the family to pay any ransom at all."
A long-term kidnapping quickly narrows a family's lives to nothing. But the crime is so common in Colombia that Susan knew of at least 11 other negotiations going on in Cali. Negotiators were swarming all over town. "One time we had four K&R negotiators over for dinner — all of them on different cases," Susan says. "We had policemen over — and a monk who went up into the mountains to negotiate with kidnappers. We called the monk 'Okey-Dokey' because everything he said he ended with 'okey-dokey.' We had quite a dinner circuit — but always at our house. I would think, Gosh, Tom would enjoy this if he were here."
The first cordillera of the Andes looms out the window, and the 757 begins its careening, zigzag descent, fighterplane-style, to a thin-air landing at El Dorado International (elevation: 8,563 feet). Special training is required to land here in Bogota. Pilots call it "real flying."
I move with unexpected ease through baggage and customs —getting into Colombia is no problem — and suddenly I am disoriented, walking through a gauntlet of taxicab hustlers offering to take me to destinations I'm not sure I want to reach. Wary of logo-hunters, I nervously glance at my luggage tags.
Oscar Tejeda has promised to meet me. His reputation precedes him. Susan Hargrove calls him a "godsend." A rival describes him as "a legend in his own mind." I will soon appreciate both observations.
But where the hell is he? I scan the crowd, looking into eyes that respond too quickly and others too quickly averted. This is no place to arrive alone. Finally, an immaculately dressed man tilts his head. I tilt back wondering how TeJeda could possibly melt into any crowd.
A border-town Mexican-American from West Texas, Tejeda has a threateningly handsome peasant's face, razor-cut obsidian hair, and a black goatee flecked with gray. His $1,500 black wool suit, subtly pin-striped, tapers from powerful shoulders to high polished black loafers. Tejeda approaches me like a tailored V-wedge. On one wrist he wears an $8,500 gold Rolex; on the other, a gold chain and a self-designed gold ring inset with diamonds. "I look more like a doper than an F.B.I. agent," he says. "Here they'll mess with an F.B.I. agent. They won't mess with a doper."
Actually, Tejeda left the F.B.I. in 1997 to consult for General Electric, Kroll, and other companies whose special needs he is trained to accommodate. At 46 — and despite his high-sheen ornaments — he still looks the cop.
Today he is mine — Susan Hargrove made the arrangements — and he is showing me the turf. Bogota is a sprawling Third World city of 7 million people going on 20 million, a Shangri-la setting with a Calcutta present and a Mad Max future. Spectacular glass skyscrapers soar skyward. Propped against their protective walls are shanties with rusting tin roofs. Maseratis rev at stoplights, alongside unstirred burros.
Tejeda is driving a Taurus fitted with $1,300 worth of shatterproof glass. He apologizes. It will take a baseball bat, but not a bullet. He no longer has access to the embassy's light- armored Toyota Land Cruiser, whose windows were bulletproofed with one inch of Plexiglas affixed behind the standard-issue glass. He misses them. "We could go almost anywhere," he says, then laughs — a deep, rich laugh that takes all of the carefully designed threat out of him. "One of the agents smoked. Our view would get murkier and murkier until it was like driving in smog. Then I'd have to take out all the Plexiglas, clean the cigarette crud from where it had become trapped between the Plexiglas and the regular glass, and put it all back together again."
Outside, the sidewalks are moving masses of cell phones. No one would be without one in Colombia. They are low-rent bodyguards. This is a country so scarred by kidnapping that it has passed unworkable laws against kidnap insurance and negotiating with kidnappers in an attempt to stop the epidemic. "It's simply a way of life," Tejeda continues. "Brothers of presidents are kidnapped. Television anchors are kidnapped. It is like Diane Sawyer being kidnapped and held for six months in one room without windows or heat. Can you imagine that@f3 As a daily national routine@f4"
We stop at a traffic light in the business district. The streets are packed. I need to get my notebook from the trunk, and I reach for the door handle. "Not here!" Tejeda clamps my arm, his gold chain banging against my wrist like handcuffs. "I'll find a place," he says. Once, at an intersection, he rested his elbow out an open window. A street thief darted out of the crowd and got both hands on the gold chain. Tejeda broke two of the kid's fingers before he let go.
We have turned onto the town's major north-south artery, Avenida Caracas. During rush hour, there is a military policeman every 50 yards, facing the traffic, an Israeli Galil automatic rifle at the ready. As we head away from the main business district, the ruts are big enough to swallow the Taurus, the shops increasingly timeworn and low-slung, the tin roofs painted more garishly, the billboards more strident in their pitches: BIENVENIDO! It is from these shops that middle-class businessmen are kidnapped virtually every day — "fast-food kidnappings," Tejeda says, "ransoms $30,000 to $60,000, turnover quick."
By spring, the guerrillas had moved Tom constantly as they hid from the Colombian army. The camps were miserable — one little more than a wet bamboo grove. "A rat drowned in my piss bucket last night," Tom wrote on May 4. "Hope it's the rat that keeps running across my face at night." The winter rains had ended, but it was still very cold. Tom had infections in both cars. The guards' leader, a young man called Juaco, had just gone over the top on brandy and bazooka and shot himself. It was not a reassuring event. Juaco's replacement had taken to giving pep talks, assuring the child guards — boys and girls, some as young as 13 — that Colombia would soon be a Communist country like China and Cuba — and Japan.
By late spring of 1995, with Tom in his ninth month of captivity, Susan had grown sick with worry. She and the K&R men had long ago decided to pay a ransom, but negotiations were moving slowly. This was intentional. "There's a price set among professionals, and it takes months to work it to there." Susan says. "Ten percent of the asking price, but it's been climbing. It's been getting up to 15, even 20 percent." (The Mauss Syndrome, the K&R people call the increase.) "And they have no sense of time. That's one of their weapons. Oscar Tejeda talk about a blessing, that man. He was talking to a psychiatrist at the State Department, and the psychiatrist asked how we were handling it. Oscar told him it was like the movie Groundhog Day. We woke every day, no matter what had happened the day before, and it was the day that Tom was kidnapped."
Finally, a ransom agreement was reached: several hundred thousand dollars."We have all kinds of plans," Susan says. "We're going to put it in a statue of the Virgin Mary and take it to a church in the mountains. Lots of crazy ideas. Helicopters. One of the worries we have is that we have all this money and we might get robbed. The kidnappers agree to the ransom and tell you to have it ready by tomorrow. And then they go silent for a week before telling you where to put it. Just the bulk of the money is impressive. It's all in pesos — more than 800 to the dollar then — and that's real bulk. Uli comes up with an idea, and he builds crates for the money, but the crates are bigger than any of the door openings, so a robber couldn't get the crates through the doors.
"We hire a bagman to take the money up into the mountains," Susan continues. "A guy who does it for a living. He does drops. This is Colombia. The scene that morning is something. I have a friend visiting from Peru, Linda. We call her the Leopard Lady because all she wears is leopard clothes. She says into Miles' video camera, 'This is the second-worst thing the FARC-ies have done. Get me up at Six A.M!' On the couch, Oscar, our wonderfully, big, tough cop, is writhing in ulcerlike stomach pain, certain the bad guys won't send Tom back. Okey-Dokey is telling Claudia how to make dumplings for the people in his mission: 'Got it? Okey-dokey!'"
The drop man was a former police major. At the drop site, on a mountain road just outside of town, the guerrillas burst out of the woods, took the money, and disappeared again. "They wore no masks," says the drop man, whose request for anonymity seems fair enough. "They didn't give a damn if I recognized them."
"So we wait," Susan says. "Three days, they told us. But Tom doesn't show up. I haven't been out for months. I go out with Linda and spend the whole day buying jewelry. If you want to see jewelry from hell. The only time I really broke down was the Friday after we paid the ransom. I got up early and left a note saying I was going into the mountains. One of my sons woke up and saw the note and came out with a hoe to slash the tires on the car. The other came out with a piece of cheesecake. I had the strangest array of stuff in my suitcase: a book on stars, sunscreen, my chenille bathrobe, a Bible I had hardly ever read."
Tom never showed up. "People were saying, 'You paid the wrong people,"' Susan recalls. "It even got in the paper. The boys went on TV And the next day we got a letter by courier mail from the guerrillas complaining that they had seen the boys and the boys had said their dad looked starved. And the guerrillas said, 'Well, this money will help feed him,' and they asked for more."
By midsummer, the guerrilla guards were in trouble. The Colombian military was on their tail, so the guerrillas took Tom literally to the edge of a high volcanic crater. Tom was on his own edge. After nearly 11 months, he was wasting away, exhausted.
His diary entries had grown increasingly cryptic and bleak. 'Terrible despair, but must fight it somehow," he wrote on August 10. "Can't allow deep despair like yesterday... Cry too much. Must stop." Two days later: I will not go crazy. I'll get through today, then tomorrow." And two days later: "Live today, only today."
In June the two New Tribes missionaries had been killed. Susan heard rumors that the Delta Force had gone to Colombia but couldn't rescue the missionaries. It got to be all Internet stuff. Who knew what to believe?
The negotiations began all over again. By now, Susan says, I am really mad. I lost my favorite purse from the Philippines on the first drop. We were stuffing money into everything. We had gotten rid of the crates too. We were supposed to have the second ransom ready by Friday, and then it's Friday and Saturday and et cetera and they haven't called, and we can't just sit here with all this money."
Again, a friend of the Hargrove boys' came to the rescue. The friend's father worked for a multinational, and three of the company's employees had recently been kidnapped. "He has a machine-gunproof bathroom, a bazooka-proof door," Susan explains. "We take the money over there and we close the door, and it goes click-elang-whack-whack-it,hack! Eight bolts come out like knives from the steel door and set in the reinforced-steel doorframe, and there you go." Susan starts laughing. "I'm sorry, but some of it's funny, you know? All these movies — they haven't seen anything. And this is just a mom and a neighbor and a bunch of kids."
Meanwhile, Cali was suddenly crawling with Colombian special forces — the elite troops. It was the beginning of the government's final assault on the crumbling Cali cartel — not a good time to be negotiating a kidnap settlement. "My kids went to school with their kids," Susan says of the drug lords. "There are helicopters overhead and we are trying to contact the bad guys and we know we are getting monitored on everything and I am getting very tired. They are confiscating the property of everybody involved with the cartel and publishing their names in the paper. And there is our landlord's name. The Scorpion, they call him, and they arrested him. And we think, Oh my gosh! Here we are waiting for the bad guys to call and they are going to take our house. We wait weeks. And then they call. And the boys are directed to the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant. The notes are always in a men's bathroom. And you get there and you get the note and it says, Go to this hamburger joint on the other side of town and go to
the men's bathroom. And you go to about half a dozen bathrooms before you get the real letter with the demand and the instructions.
"Okey-Dokey, the monk, is going with our driver this time and they are going to tell him where to pick up Tom. This time it is so casual. 'The barco,' Okey-Dokey says, meaning the boat. 'Where do we get the barco@f5' They say the barco will be at such and such two days later. Two days later, Tom isn't there. We're not going to pay again. We had all the T-bones for Tom and we cooked them. We didn't know what to do next. Then this very strange man walks into my bedroom with 10 Indians he had picked up along the way, walking down from the volcano. He smelled like ashes and had lost 50 pounds, and I had gained about 100, and we were just stunned."
Tom Hargrove had been in captivity one day short of 11 months. CIAT finally kicked in with the ransoms, which had been negotiated down to about $500,000. Several of the kidnappers were captured by the Colombian army. None, to the knowledge of the Hargroves, has ever been charged.
Eight miles south on Avenida Caracas, Oscar Tejeda has parked the Taurus, engine running, across from the maximum-security federal prison, La Picota. He points beyond its great gray walls to the nearby suburban hills, to which red stucco dwellings cling like pueblos. This is Barrio Diana Turbay, a guerrilla sanctuary and the place to which urban kidnap victims are often taken before being moved into the mountains for long-term captivity. Tejeda used to drive his Toyota Land Cruiser into the barrio — dressed down, way down. He will not take me in. Not in the Taurus. No way. His eyes drift to the mountains beyond. They bring hard memories. The Delta Force story Susan Hargrove had heard toward the end of her ordeal had been no Internet fantasy.
In June 1995 the U.S. traced the location of the guerrilla force holding two of the New Tribes missionaries, apparently by cross-vectoring loose radio transmissions about another hostage. By mid-June, plans for a Delta Force rescue were well under way, according to sources both in Panama, where the elite unit was based, and Washington. Then a Colombian-army unit pre-empted the action by attacking the guerrillas — a firefight that took place about 40 miles into the mountains from where we were sitting. There were major casualties on both sides, including the two missionaries. Both were killed.
It became Tejeda's job to go in and identify the bodies. The missionaries had been killed as a coup de grace.. pistol shots to the head. Tejeda has no sympathy for the rebels — none at all. But the missionaries had been wounded so badly in the crossfire that he thinks the final shots were as close to humanitarian as things get in Colombia. Whether the Colombian army attacked by blunder or by design, the Americans were furious and the Colombian general is no longer a general.
It is late afternoon and an explosive equatorial rain is coming down. Avenida Caracas has become a river of raging water and chaotic traffic, and we are moving slowly upstream. In the murk, the military police are taking up their positions, Galils at port arms.
"How is Susan@f6" Oscar asks. His question hints at one of the great adjustment problems after a long kidnapping: people like Susan and Tom Hargrove will forever relive the most challenging year of their lives at an almost unbridgeable distance from each other. The family saw a psychiatrist for a year. He told them that.Susan and the boys had formed a platoon, and that Tom wasn't part of it. She came out of it scarred, with a new set of friends. Tom also came out of it scarred — and with a year gone, as if to amnesia. Shortly after returning to Texas, he heard a radio report that totally befuddled him: "Governor George Bush@f7"
Life has not been easy. Susan still feels pangs of guilt. Tom never returned to his job at CIAT, and she wonders if she ended his career by splitting with his employer over the "hearts and minds" strategy. Tom will have none of that. To him, Susan is the hero. "I never had to make any decisions that would kill anyone but me," he says. "It was a hard and awful life but basically pretty simple. There is absolutely no question in my mind that I would be dead if Susan had not taken the steps that she did."
Still, time and toughness have done very well by the family. The boys are both graduating from college this year Geddie with a degree in management information systems from Texas A&M, Miles in radio, television, and film from Texas Christian University. Tom published his diary as a book, Long March to Freedom (Ballantine, 1995), and quietly counsels other kidnap victims by telephone. At first, some need to talk every night. Tom listens. He has also been called to lecture to overseas F.B.I. agents, and both he and Susan speak to vulnerable corporate groups. Kroll-O'Gara is sending them on a five-country European tour to talk to multinational businessmen in June. The centerpiece of Tom's advice: Don't delude yourself into trying to make friends with your captors. The crux of Susan's: If you are an executive and one of your people is kidnapped, don't exclude the family from the strategy sessions — "as I was excluded," she adds pointedly.
Kidnap victims never get back to "normal." But the Hargroves are making a run at it. "She's doing O.K., I think," I reply to Tejeda. 'Tom too."
The Taurus plows ahead, blaring as it takes water over the gunnels to tack sharply away from a rusted bus, and showering brown water over an unblinking burro as it tacks back. Tejeda did not learn defensive driving like this — offensive driving, he calls it — at Quantico. "Goddamn!" he flares unexpectedly "I would have used the guys with the knives in their mouths!" He lets out a great sigh and adds quietly, "If we had just known where he was."
To get out of Colombia, you must pass through six security checks, including a hand search of your luggage and a full-body frisk. Eventually, the 757 is lumbering up into the thin air, banking away from the Andes, not far from where the two missionaries were killed. As we cross over Cuba, I remember Jorge Masetti's insistent words in the Paris bistro. "Don't romanticize it. There was never anything romantic about it." He had said it with the passion of a revolutionary.
At home, I make catch-up calls to some of my new K&R friends. Three out of four are in Guatemala, where the last of the leftist revolutions in Central America officially ended a year ago. The treaty signing was delayed by a kidnapping. All the people I have called have international beepers and satellite phones. Part of the K&R promise: 15-minute callbacks.
But I don't leave my number. I know business is booming.