No longer playing Robin Hood

William Lowther,Timothy Ross March 10 1980

No longer playing Robin Hood

William Lowther,Timothy Ross March 10 1980

No longer playing Robin Hood


By William Lowther and Timothy Ross

For years they were best known for their Robin Hood exploits—robbing pro-government storekeepers and giving the proceeds to the neighbors. But last week Colombian M-19 guerrillas—who six years ago stole the sword of Simon Bolivar the liberator* and pledged war on “the exploiters of the people”—exploded on the international scene with a coup as ruthless as any outlaw act in history.

As envoys from more than a dozen countries sipped cocktails at a Dominican Republic embassy Independence Day reception, green and white tracksuited youngsters abandoned their casual soccer kick-about nearby, picked up their gym bags and jogged through the gates of the red-tiled embassy on West Bogota’s ritzy Avenue 30. Minutes later it was all over. Taking guns and grenades from their gym bags they linked up with comrades masquerading as guests; blasted their way past security guards—the toll was one dead guerrilla and several wounded on both sides; and took more than 60 hostages.

Among these were 15 ambassadors, including Washington’s Diego Asencio. But Canada’s chargé d’affaires Paul Donohue was luckier. Detained at a

meeting with Colombian officials, he never set out for the party. Also absent: four Soviet bloc envoys who somehow left early. Reports said mysterious envelopes were delivered to their chauffeurs and the speculation was they had been given a tip-off.

For the rest, however, normal diplomatic routine was shattered. While the embassy doctor was on hand to care for the wounded, until Red Cross supplies were delivered next day there was nothing to sleep on and nothing to eat except cocktail party leftovers—smoked

salmon on brown bread, caviar and stale canapés. The guerrillas meanwhile were threatening to kill if triggerhappy Colombian soldiers and cops tried to intervene. They then issued a series of wide-ranging demands: $50 million in ransom, release of 311 political prisoners and safe conduct abroad. Said their leader—the self-styled Commandante Numero Uno: “We are prepared to stay here for one or two months if necessary.”

At week’s end that hardly seemed likely. The guerrillas had freed 19 women and wounded so that talks could begin in a van parked outside. But while Panama indicated that it would grant them asylum there was no lead as to whether their demands would be met.

And whatever the outcome the uncomfortable truth was that embassies—despite the sanctity of diplomatic privilege—are now about as safe as jetliners were a decade ago when hijacking was at its peak. They have become clearly established as the principal tar-

get of desperate people who hope to bring their causes to international attention. In the process, diplomacy has become one of the world’s most dangerous professions, especially for the Americans. In the past 10 years, five U.S. ambassadors have been murdered while serving overseas.

Worldwide there have been 24 embassy take-overs in the past 10 years, not so very many more on average, according to the state department, than in less violent times. But since 1974 the rate has increased dramatically from not more than three a year to 12 in 1979. And in 1980 so far there have already been eight attacks.

No fewer than seven of those have been in Latin America. In El Salvador, guerrillas last month took six hostages in the Panamanian embassy and won the release of seven imprisoned comrades. A dozen more were released this month when the Spanish embassy was occupied.

In Guatemala, in January, militant peasants seized the Spanish embassy and 39 people were killed when security forces stormed the building, setting fire to it. That over-hasty action drew an official protest from the Spanish government, whose ambassador was one of the dead.

In Mexico, demonstrators peacefully occupied the Danish and Belgian embassies in an attempt to gain the release of 120 people who they claimed were political prisoners, but left after the government had said it was not holding any.

*Bollvar, born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1783, was the man who freed northern South America from Spanish control. For 11 years, until his death in 1830, he was president of Great Colombia, which comprised what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.

Finally, coincidentally with the Colombian hostage-taking, the Salvadoran embassy in Panama was seized by Panamanians seeking to show their support for dissidents in El Salvador. They left after two hours and freed the six hostages they had taken.

Why the sudden upsurge? Said a source close to the state department’s diplomatic “anti-terrorist office”—a department that has been set up to deal with the safety of diplomats — “There is no great mystery. Throughout the world, small, nationalistic groups are seeking greater freedom in self-government or rebelling against repression. In frustration, many have turned to terrorism to reach their goals.”

That definition fits Colombia exactly.

Officially, the country is a democracy under President Julio César Turbay, elected in 1978. But in practice, says Larry Birns, director of the independent, nonprofit Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, the military controls many of the top administrative jobs and the minister of defence, Luis Carlos Camacho Leyva, is far more powerful. He is probably “the most important man in the country.”

As with democracy, so with drugs. Despite a recent highly publicized crackdown on the country’s rip-roaring cocaine and hash trade, illicit drug trading is still worth more than the country’s major cash crop, coffee, says Birns. “Public rectitude is almost unknown. There is corruption at nearly every level of government.”

There is also torture of the regime’s political opponents. Birns claims: “Our files bulge with proven cases.” And Am-

nesty International, which has spent recent months compiling a report, announced in London after the hostagetaking that it would be issuing it this spring and it would have plenty to say.

In this climate M-19—its full name is the April 19 Movement—operates with considerable support among the poor. One of four or five Colombian guerrilla groups, it was founded by radicals who broke away from the National Popular Alliance of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a popular ruler of Colombia, who ran for a new term as president in April, 1970, but was defeated, amid rumors of election-rigging. By coincidence the Dominican Republic’s embassy once belonged to Pinilla and was the home of his daughter, Maria Eugenia.

In the intervening years M-19 has carried out a wide variety of terrorist attacks ranging from romantic ‘’robthe-rich” exploits to kidnapping and political assassination. Last year an M-19

group tunnelled its way into an army arsenal and stole 5,000 guns, bringing ruthless reprisals. But security claims to have eliminated 40 per cent of urban guerrillas are thought, by Canadian sources in Bogota, to be greatly exaggerated.

In fact security generally, though particularly at embassies, seems to be porous in Latin America despite the existence of so many military regimes. But at least the embassy situation may soon be remedied. Following the Bogota hostage-taking, the state department said that in future all U.S. embassies would be equipped with new security measures including taps inside entrances, which will release disabling gas onto intruders, and what are described as “safe rooms”—in practice, large steel boxes— in which staff can hold out until help arrives or, at the very least, long enough to destroy secret papers. Such measures will also be available on request to the United States’ allies.

That offer, however, was little comfort to the 40-odd hostages remaining in the Dominican Republic’s Bogota embassy. As the siege entered its fourth day, what was upmost in their minds, no doubt, was Commandante Numero Uno’s chilling threat made to a local radio reporter. Asked what his plans were, he said the group intended to leave Colombia with the released prisoners. “If not, we will all die,” he added.