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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Better Days: an inspiring tale of hope and love from the jungles of Colombia

Poor Colombia - the country just can't seem to catch a break.  I'm sure you've heard harrowing tales of drug lords and the FARC, revolutionary rebels who hide deep in the jungles and terrorize the countrysides.  I don't want to get too much into the politics of the situation, because that's not the point - it's not a good situation for anyone involved, and surely empathy is deserved all around.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had been around since 1960, and had a nasty habit of taking hostages in order to finance their rebellion:

By the time that the FARC and the Colombian government announced a ceasefire at the end of last year, their civil war had become one of the longest-running and bloodiest in the world. The FARC, Latin America’s oldest surviving left-wing insurgency, has been labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department and has a long history of kidnapping to help finance its operations. In the past decade, 6,880 people have been snatched in Colombia and held for ransom — some for as long as 18 years. Five hundred of the hostages are either involved with the military or politics. While the FARC prefer to kidnap Americans for money, prominent Colombian prisoners can be valuable political leverage. 
Hostages’ accounts of their time in captivity are harrowing: Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero was one of Colombia’s "forgotten" hostages, held by the FARC for nearly 13 years. After his release, Forero spoke of relieving his mental anguish by bonding with jungle animals and one pet pig he called Josefo, whom he got hooked on coffee. Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, held for six years, recalled being chained to a tree by her neck.

Our tale takes place in 2010, and our hero is Colonel Espejo, the communications expert of the Colombian army.  The Colonel had a problem: he needed to send a messages for the hostages of the FARC.  Commando missions were taking place throughout the region, pushing hard to rescue hostages who had been held for close to a decade and were losing hope, fearing they had been forgotten.  Since the FARC would shoot hostages dead at the first sign of a military invasion, Colonel Espejo needed to tell the hostages to prepare to escape.

But how do you communicate to captives deep in the tropical jungle?  The Colonel called 42-year-old advertising executive Juan Carlos Ortiz, who had worked with the military before creating a unique campaign against Colombia's cocaine problem.

But how do you send a message to a hostage?  Whatever the hostages saw, heard, or touched, their captors would see, hear, and put their hands on, as well.  How could Ortiz send a message that would remain invisible to the captors, yet be understood by the hostages?  It would have to be in some kind of code...

In 2010, it was known that many of the captives were military members.   "What about Morse code?" suggested Colonel Espejo.  Morse was taught to many military members as part of basic training, yet FARC members, civilians from the Colombia countryside, would not have this knowledge.

The military knew that hostages often had access to the radio:

...it relieves the tedium of long hikes through the Colombian jungle and keeps their minds from escape. 
Communicating with hostages via radio is a years-old practice in Colombia. The show "Voices of Kidnapping" on Bogota’s Caracol Radio is dedicated to victims’ families who send messages to their loved ones via special call-ins. Creator Herbin Hoyos Medina came up with the idea in 1994, after he was kidnapped for 17 days. He now broadcasts the show from Madrid, giving families 30-second slots to send messages.
After tossing about the idea of hiding the code in a commercial, the team of advertising executives and military members decided upon a pop song.

Teaming up with composers and advertisers from Colombian radio station Radio Bemba, military police coded a 20-word-long message and tucked it after the chorus of a song they composed.  The message was repeated 3 times during the song to ensure that it would be heard and understood.  Recorded by musical artists Natalia Guiterrez Y Angelo, it actually sounded like a Top 40 pop hit with a musical synth interlude.

The short message conveyed words of hope, reassuring hostages that if they chose to run away, they would not die alone in the jungle: the military was nearby, waiting to rescue them:

Listen to the powerful song below:

Now try to read the lyrics without getting teary-eyed:

"Better Days"

In the middle of the night
Thinking about what I love the most
I feel the need to sing
What my heart has to give
I talk about those I love
About how much I miss them
I talk about pride and strength
Which beat inside my heart

A new dawn singing this message
From my heart
Although I'm tied up and alone
I feel as if I'm by your side
Listen to this message, brother

19 people rescued. You’re next. Don’t lose hope

I want to keep on fighting
For my friends, my family, my children
We will soon see each other again
I'm sure better days are coming

[CHORUS x 2]

Is someone cutting onions in here?

The military controlled many radio stations near the jungle where the FARC hostages were held, and they managed to get the song significant airtime:
The song was played on over 130 small stations and heard by 3 million people. Though most Colombians in major cities would not even recognize the song, it became popular in the rural areas controlled by the FARC. By December 2010, "Better Days" was echoing across the jungle. And the plan worked. "We know of hostages who heard the message and were able to escape and provide information that led to the release of more hostages," says Colonel Espejo. 
....One former hostage was able to confirm the song’s effectiveness, according to Col. Espejo. He told Ortiz of a clandestine operation that resulted in the release of Private Joshua Alvarez. In his military psychological evaluation, Col. Espejo says that the soldier spoke of hearing "the code hidden in the song," and revealed how the message was passed from soldier to soldier. The song was even enjoyed by the FARC, who were oblivious to its secret message. Back home in his village in western Nariño, Alvarez was greeted with a hero’s welcome, including fireworks and banners. 
"It makes me very happy to think of the hostages listening to our song," Ortiz says.

Sergeant Pablo Emilio Moncayo, held captive by FARC for 12 years,
is released in March 2010 (source, source)

Colombia agreed to declassify the code operation in 2011, to allow Ortiz to earn a well-deserved rewards for his efforts.

As of 2014, FARC and the government of Colombia have been involved in peace talks, and have agreed to work together against the Colombian drug trade.

Original article by Jeff Marsh of The Verge, link

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