Birds of Prey

Within the instructive story of four American adventurers gone to Colombia on vacation, we encounter dozens of armed rebels, several ransom demands, one daring escape, many hard feelings, and a single elusive, slightly drab, certainly-not-worth-risking-your-life-over bird

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Say "bird-watching" and most of us see an eccentric, vaguely absurd avocation, the province of khaki-clad milquetoasts armed with field guides and jumbo binoculars, craning their necks at treetops and excitedly disputing whether their quarry is a boat-tailed grackle or a black-eared bushtit. But birders, as the committed know themselves, will argue that it is in fact a sport of considerable sophistication and sometimes daring risk — a game that requires its best players to be intrepid travelers and skilled naturalists who can identify feathered specks by arcane distinguishing characteristics picked out in leafy darkness, through sheets of rain, or at great distance; who can name an unseen singer by slight variation of pitch discerned from the general chatter of the forest; and who will go to great, sometimes foolish lengths to spy those evanescent and rare birds not yet cited in their life lists — the bird-watcher's equivalent of the gunfighter's notched barrel.

These life lists can take on a life of their own, spurring their owners toward a blithe acceptance of perilous circumstances. Such was the case with New York birders Peter Shen and Tom Fiore, who often ply their sport in the wilderness of Central Park's Ramble, where rats scurry across paths and the sounds of sinister doings emerge from the tangled thickets of Muggers Woods. With more than 300 resident and migratory feathered species, Central Park is prime birding habitat — a green island in an urban sea that lies squarely in the path of the Eastern Flyway migratory route. But for birders like Shen, 35, a cell biologist at New York University Medical Center, and Fiore, 42, a part-time bike-shop mechanic, 300 kinds of birds is not enough, not nearly enough. And so it was that this spring they found themselves traveling with two other American birders deep into the countryside of Colombia — home to over 1,750 species of birds, more than any other country in the world, and more than North America and Europe combined.

Colombia claims other superlatives too, however. Along with its reputation for narco-terrorism and an astronomical murder rate, Colombia is the kidnapping capital of the world. Hostage-taking for profit is a $200 million business there. Most of the people snatched in the country — last year the official figure was 1,500 victims, though unreported kidnappings make the actual total much higher — are Colombian citizens, yet at least 92 Americans have been kidnapped and held for ransom by various secuestradores in Colombia since 1980, and 12 of them have been killed or died in captivity. A State Department travel advisory in effect earlier this year cautioned, "U.S. citizens in Colombia are currently the targets of kidnapping efforts by guerrilla rebels," adding that "since it is U.S. policy not to pay ransom or make other concessions to terrorists, the U.S. government's ability to assist kidnapped American citizens is limited."

Fair warning, though not enough to scare off some. "We knew what the situation in Colombia was," says Louise Augustine, a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher and former nun from Chillicothe, Illinois, who accompanied Shen and Fiore and Todd Mark, a 33-year-old flight attendant from Houston, on their trip to Colombia last March. The four had first gotten together in the wilds of the Philippines, and separately all had birded extensively in remote spots around the world. For Augustine and Mark, this trip was the third time they would be defying the U.S. advisory against travel in Colombia. ("I don't even check with the embassy in Bogotß when I come down," says Mark, "because they'd just tell me to take the next plane out.") Shen, too, knew what he was getting into; his mother is Colombian, though he had only been there as a kid. None of the four is easily intimidated. On a trip to neighboring Peru a year earlier, Augustine and Mark had been robbed at gunpoint while crossing a 9,000-foot mountain pass.

Such things, and worse, were simply part of the risk you took if you were really serious about birds. In 1995, a 32-year-old military clerk at the British embassy in Bogotß was stopped by leftist guerrillas while pursuing a rare dove down a remote road and held for ransom for four months before being freed by an army raid. Five years earlier two British ornithologists looking for guacharo birds in a Peruvian cave were captured by Shining Path guerrillas and murdered on the spot. Yet as recently as October 1997, Augustine and Mark had come to Colombia on a birding expedition led by British ornithologist Paul Salaman — a visit that was eventful only in the sense that the group recorded 1,040 species, a world record for a single month-long trip. The danger was always there, certainly, but the birding payoff was simply too tempting to pass up.

The four friends rendezvoused in new York and flew together to Bogotß on Thursday, March 19. Mark had set up their four-day itinerary to maximize the number of birds that first-timers Fiore and Shen would see, and to try for some that he and Augustine had missed on previous trips. The first three days were productive: Everyone saw at least one "life bird," a species new to that person's life list. (They each have lists in the 3,000-species range.) They did not, however, succeed in accomplishing their main objective: a close encounter with the Cundinamarca antpitta, a solitary, brownish, robin-size ground bird with great birding cachet. The species was first spotted in 1989 by a Washington, D.C.-based birder named Peter Kaestner, a man revered not just as the discoverer of a new bird but as the possessor of a 7,150-species life list — an amazing number, considering that there are fewer than 10,000 bird species in the world.

Monday was to be their last day in Colombia, so the four Americans rose hours earlier than birds typically rise, leaving their Bogotß hotel around 3:30 in a rented car. With Shen at the wheel, they went south, slowly descending from the cool morning chill of the capital city's 8,000-foot plateau into the humid rainforest of the eastern Andes, which in turn slope down to meet Los Llanos, the grasslands of the Orinoco basin that are home to a third of the bird species in Colombia. Just before dawn, they turned off the highway onto a spur road leading up one of many long valleys draining the mountains — a dirt track that they recognized, even in darkness, as Antpitta Road, named for their chief quarry.

The deserted track climbed toward 6,000 feet, where Mark had read that they would have the best chance of finding the elusive, drab bird and luring it into the open with a tape recording of its call. Six miles after leaving the highway, just as it became light enough to see, the shape of a stalled truck emerged dreamlike in the road ahead of them, facing downhill, with no driver in sight. Mark says he got out and walked around the truck to assess whether they could pass. After several minutes, he came back to the car and said to his friends, "I think we might be in trouble." As he spoke, Augustine, Shen, and Fiore saw a group of 15 or 20 men in uniforms with guns dangling from their shoulders advancing on the car.

For the men with guns — guerrilla fighters of the 53d Front of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) — the sudden appearance of a car full of Americans posed a serious problem. The guerrillas were preoccupied with preparations for setting up a roadblock on the highway below, the chief route between Bogotß and Villavicencio, the principal city of the eastern plains, when the birders came along. "We blew 'em away," Todd Mark recalls. "They didn't know what to do."

In a sort of awkward interview, Todd and the guerrillas stood around for a few minutes discussing the situation in a "friendly enough" way, as Augustine recalls it. But then, having reached a decision, the guerrillas told the Americans to get out of their car, saying, "You will need to come with us for a few days." Their money, passports, and gear — binoculars, telescopes, walkie-talkies, and Mark's tape recorder and shotgun microphone — were taken from them. The four birders were then put into the back of another truck and driven away, uphill into a warm rain getting colder and harder as they climbed into the cordillera.

The myth of El Dorado was born in the land now called Colombia in 1499, when Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda heard the coastal Indians' tales of vast wealth in the interior. Birders have cashed the myth in for feathered riches, finding a dazzling variety of iridescent, bizarre, exquisitely unique birds such as the Andean condor, the recurve-billed bushbird, and the colorful puff-leg (one of an astounding 160 species of hummingbirds native to Colombia). Within its borders lies a bewildering array of distinct habitats, from tropical lowlands to uplands of three distinct Andean cordilleras rising to nearly 19,000 feet, in effect creating a series of "island" ecosystems, home to 79 endemics — birds that occur nowhere else. Great stretches of the country are so rugged and remote that they have not been settled, much less scientifically studied. One bird-watching travel Web site describes Colombia as "a birder's dream," adding that "it really is a must for a serious neotropical birder."

For some of the geographical reasons that account for its plethora of birds (and some others of cultural derivation), Colombia is also a paradise for anyone looking to swing a gun for principle or profit, and since the colonial era the country has been bloodied by nearly continual rounds of conflict between regional interests and partisan factions only weakly bound to the constitutional authority in Bogotß. La Violencia, an outbreak of internecine political feuding during the late forties and fifties, left 300,000 dead.

In recent years, four guerrilla factions, together with the ferocious cocaine cartels and several right-wing paramilitary groups, have essentially driven the government back into the cities, dividing up the rest of the country — some have estimated as much as 60 percent of Colombia — among themselves. The two largest guerrilla factions, the FARC and the ELN (Ej‰rcito de Liberaci n Nacional, or National Liberation Army), both began as communist crusaders supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba; lately, they have begun creatively financing themselves by offering protection to the drug trade, as well as through extortion, robbery, and kidnapping.

The business is well organized: Some FARC units are reported to carry laptop computers to their roadblocks, giving them access to a database with information on anyone in the country they think worth grabbing. Abduction has become so common that it seems normal, a grisly part of everyday commerce. Potential victims and companies reportedly can buy protection by paying vacunas ("vaccinations") to the guerrillas in advance — but in the case of the American birders, none of them had dreamed they might need such insurance.

The bird-watchers were driven all morning up the dirt road, with a stop in the hamlet of El Calvario for a bathroom break and a yogurt, until the road became impassable in the rain. Then they got out and walked for another half an hour with their escort of guerrillas toting AK-47s and M-16s, dressed in camouflage and ammo vests. The birders' guards refused to answer their questions about the FARC's plans for them. When they arrived at a camp consisting of lean-tos and tarp-covered planks in the forest, the four were fed and given sleeping bags for the night.

While the kidnapped birders were being trucked and marched into the mountains, the FARC highway roadblock had gone ahead as planned, and that afternoon Colombian channel-surfers were treated to video footage of an unlikely traffic jam snaking for miles through the green countryside, while the guerrillas interrogated motorists, shopping for choice prospects to kidnap. After four hours, the military turned up and a firefight broke out, with panicked motorists ducking bullets from both sides while government fighter planes strafed overhead. When the FARC soldiers retreated, they took an Italian citizen and about 20 Colombians along as hostages. Four dead bodies were left behind, victims either of the cross fire or of summary execution at the hands of the FARC men.

The following morning, the birders awoke to a commotion in the guerrilla camp as 19 hostages taken at the roadblock arrived after having been marched on foot all night. For the next few days the hostages simply "milled around" on the hillside, says Louise Augustine. "We knew we were in real jeopardy," she recalls, "but we didn't know what was going to happen or how long it would take to find out." Despite their apprehensions, the birders were holding up well, in part because the rigors of birding all over the world had made them all exceptionally fit. Augustine, who is thin and wears her long gray hair in a braid, looks much younger than most women in their sixties, and the men were likewise in top-notch physical condition. They tried to talk with their captors about birds and answered questions about life in America, but mostly they were bored.

On the fifth day, a bearded, 29-year-old FARC leader who uses the nom de guerre Comandante Roma±a arrived at the camp. Roma±a interviewed the four together, asking who they worked for and inquiring repeatedly what their incomes were.

"If they had known what we were worth, they wouldn't have bothered," says Peter Shen. According to Augustine, "The thing that really bugged Roma±a was the fact that we wanted to be there, and that nobody was paying us. He just couldn't fathom that." Almost casually he informed them they would need to raise $5 million for ransom. "That was a devastating blow," says Todd Mark.

The next day, on a radio kept by the other hostages, the bird-watchers listened to a FARC representative give a press conference about the American captives. He read out their names and announced that they were suspected of being CIA spies, and that if proof were found, they would be killed.

The recent kidnapping boom is not limited to Colombia and other hot spots where intractable guerrilla wars make it tempting to grab foreigners to make blunt political points — as in Lebanon in the 1980s or Kashmir and Afghanistan today. High-risk travel in countries such as Yemen and the Congo can be particularly dangerous, but it is Latin America that has seen the greatest increase in hostage-taking. In 1995, a staggering 6,500 kidnappings were reported in Latin America; 50 of these victims were foreign visitors. The spree has gotten worse since then. Mexico alone has seen more than 2,000 kidnappings over the past three years. (As in Colombia, official figures don't account for the large number of kidnappings that go unreported.) The problem is also severe in Guatemala, where private bodyguards outnumber police, as well as in Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil. There have even been several prominent cases in relatively peaceful Costa Rica; in January 1996, relatives of a German woman and a Swiss woman were forced to pay $200,000 in ransom before the two tourists were released by their kidnappers.

Susan Hargrove, whose husband, American aid worker Tom Hargrove, spent 11 months in captivity in Colombia in 1994 and 1995, recently told a reporter, "When someone in your family gets kidnapped, you get kidnapped." Indeed, the crime can be harder on the families back home than on the captives themselves. Mary Shen, Peter's wife, grew deeply alarmed when nothing was heard from her husband after March 22 and he never showed up on his return flight to the United States. It was almost a relief when, on March 27, the birders' families learned that their loved ones were alive and being held captive by guerrillas who declared that they were evaluating the foreigners' wealth to decide how much ransom to demand.

FBI agents soon called, advising the next of kin not to make any statements or take any actions that could lead the kidnappers to believe they were raising money to pay for the release of the birders, thereby giving the FARC a reason to hold on to their prisoners for months or even years. State Department staffers regularly updated the families about developments but admitted there was little Uncle Sam could do to help.

Executives working abroad almost always carry kidnapping insurance, which pays for a professional negotiating team from one of several international "K&R" (for "kidnapping and ransom") firms — and if and when the time comes, pays ransom. The survival rate for hostages with insurance is 85 percent. For those unable or unprepared to pay, the odds are significantly worse.

Not long after news of the kidnapping broke, Mary Shen contacted a young Colombian woman named Liliana Davalos, a friend of Augustine and Mark's studying in the United States, and asked her to return to Colombia and do what she could to prove to the guerrillas that the bird-watchers were not wealthy or spies, but exactly what they claimed to be. The families gave Davalos personal photographs, birding mementos, and letters from birding organizations certifying that the hostages were birders of modest means. In Colombia, she was given radio and television airtime during the second week of the birders' captivity. When the listless and increasingly disheartened hostages heard one of Davalos's broadcasts, their morale received a considerable boost. "It was calming to hear her," recalls Todd Mark. "And at least we knew that if they killed us, the world would know we were innocent."

A few days after roma±a's visit, the camp was struck and the Americans, with several Colombian hostages, a handful of FARC guards, and a few mules, set off on a hideous parody of a guided adventure tour, heading northward on precipitous, muddy trails over ridges and through valleys, mostly under dense forest cover but occasionally skirting cleared fields. In daylight it could be suffocatingly hot, but at night the temperatures sometime dropped into the thirties.

Todd Mark had been rendered virtually blind for lack of saline solution for his contact lenses, but to the delight of the other birders, they sometimes saw a few hawks and vultures at the edges of clearings. Each night the caravan stopped in an abandoned farmhouse. The hostages were not handcuffed, but the men had their ankles tied together at night, and the doors and windows of the rooms they slept in were tied shut. Their diet consisted of rice, very few beans, macaroni, and occasionally greasy potato soup and fried bread for breakfast. Their captors' favorite beverage was an excruciatingly sweet coffee concoction called tinto, made with Nescaf‰.

Although the guerrillas generally treated them respectfully, the Americans were not impressed with the caliber of the rebel troops. "My nickname for them was the Crips and the Bloods," Todd Mark says. "Like gangs anywhere, they don't stand for anything other than just a family. I talked to these guys about gangs in L.A., and they perked their ears up at that. They'd get excited about killing. One said, 'Es bueno matar.'"

On the morning of April 2, 10 days into their ordeal, the prisoners and their guards were resting in and around a broken-down house perched high on a mountainside, just below a cloud forest; it was chilly and, at about 8,000 feet, their highest camp yet. Louise Augustine sat resting on a flat rock beside a stream, while Tom Fiore, she remembers, was sitting on a rock wall nearby. Then he wasn't.

Fiore, running for his life, got more than an hour's head start before the guards noticed he was missing. A search party was dispatched to find him, and two hours later the men returned without him. They lined up the captives and told them that they had caught Tom, had killed him, and would do the same to anyone else who tried to escape. "I had almost begun to sympathize with them," says Todd Mark. "But when they told us this in such a cold way, I thought, 'You bastards, fuck you all and everything you represent.' From then on there were a lot of days I wanted to kill my captors. It kept my world a little more black and white."

In fact, Fiore had made a clean escape down the mountain. Seven or eight hours later, he bumped into a very surprised TV crew from Bogotß outside a small village near the highway. He was flown to the capital and soon afterward called the Augustine, Mark, and Shen families to assure them that the captives were being treated well.

Up in the mountains, the nervous FARC guerrillas took away all of the hostages' radios, and they began marching even higher, with tighter security.

Two days later, the caravan started out early, in a hard rain. They traveled over steep terrain, without stopping for lunch or a drink. Early that afternoon, as the group was crossing a narrow, rocky ridge, Louise Augustine lost her footing in a muddy section and tumbled several hundred feet down the steep slope into a gully at its base — "far enough to have died," as Mark puts it.

Though suffering from severe back and abdominal pain, Augustine was still able to walk. She figured that she had pulled a muscle, maybe had hurt some ribs, nothing more. In any case, the FARC men insisted that they keep moving, but from then on, Augustine needed poles cut for her by the guerrillas to walk. Sometimes she literally crawled. At night she began to have trouble breathing. During the day, the long, seemingly aimless marches continued.

The army seemed to be closing in. They often heard firing, somewhere in the vicinity, and once, near an army camp, they saw an aircraft firing machine guns wildly and blindly into the surrounding jungle, a tactic reminiscent of Vietnam. Occasionally one of the FARC men would pick up a walkie-talkie and begin taunting an army radioman, and the adversaries would do battle over the radio, hurling insults at each other.

On April 15, Vito Candela, the Italian hostage who had been swept up in the FARC roadblock, was escorted away from the main group by several guerrillas and did not return. The Americans didn't know it, but this was the turning point of their ordeal. Candela, a businessman who lived in Bogotß with his Colombian wife, had been released, and he immediately told the press about Comandante Roma±a's $5 million ransom demand for the Americans, and also brought the news that Louise Augustine had been seriously injured.

Oddly enough, the FARC movement is intensely sensitive to bad publicity. In response to Candela's announcements, FARC spokesman Leonardo Garcia spoke to a New York Times reporter and denied that a $5 million ransom was being sought. He also acknowledged, for the first time, that FARC realized the birders were just birders. "It's clear that they were involved in something exclusively professional," he declared.

Meanwhile, after marching steadily for two weeks, the three Americans came into another camp, which they dubbed "the concentration camp" because some of the Colombian hostages there had been held captive for six months or more. It was there that they learned from other hostages who had listened to radio reports that Tom Fiore was safe back in New York.

On the morning of April 24, more than a month after she had been kidnapped, Augustine was spirited out of the camp on the back of a mule led by two FARC men, who refused to tell her where they were taking her. They backtracked determinedly, covering in six hours a route down steep trails and across mountain streams that had taken three days on the climb in. When they reached the valley floor, she heard shooting not far away and realized that they were approaching a white truck bearing a bright red cross on its side. She was being released.

By nightfall, Augustine was lying in a Bogotß hospital room. She had suffered eight cracked ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a collapsed lung, which had filled with fluid from advancing pneumonia. Had she remained in the mountains, she would likely have died there.

The next day, Mark and Shen were marched down the mountain for four hours to the same valley. There they discovered Comandante Roma±a and other FARC men chatting with a large group of reporters. Just as a Colombian army assault got underway and troops began lobbing mortar shells into the valley, Roma±a and his men retreated back into the hills. The two Americans, the Colombian journalists and TV cameramen, and the Red Cross workers ran in the opposite direction. From her hospital bed in Bogotß, Augustine was amazed to see Todd and Peter crouched over as they sprinted across the TV screen, dodging explosions right along the road where she had met the Red Cross.

Within a few days, the three americans were back in the United States. Louise Augustine continued her convalescence. She professes to feel grateful for her deliverance. There have been no bad dreams, but she says she has deep regrets about what she has put her family through and has planned a pilgrimage to visit relatives scattered across the country and Canada.

Peter Shen and Tom Fiore are both birding again in Central Park. Shen has become wary of the press, which he resents for the flippancy he perceived in some coverage of their ordeal. Fiore, always intensely protective of his privacy, has declined to talk with reporters about his experience in Colombia. Though none of the others begrudges his saving himself, Augustine worries that he has been hard on himself in the aftermath of the kidnapping. "Tom doesn't talk a lot," she says. "It's my impression that he felt very guilty for leaving us. He felt like he deserted us and made it harder on us. Did it? I don't know."

In spite of what they've been through, all four are planning to return to South America soon — but not to Colombia, at least not yet. "Birding is worth it," says Peter Shen. "This particular experience wasn't worth it, but it's worthwhile going and exploring the world and taking calculated risks." Todd Mark, who plans to return to Peru in the fall, concurs: "You're vulnerable anywhere you go. I'd hate for people to think that just because this happened there, you shouldn't go anywhere. I think if anything we need to fight back as adventurers in the world." Still, he adds, "I'm ready to concede some places, at least temporarily."

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