Outside magazine, May 1999
Epitaph for a Crusader
Terry Freitas lived for a cause, a place, a people, but he died for no good reason at all.
When Terence Freitas returned to the United States on March 10 from his fifth trip to the remote cloud forests of northern colombia, he traveled in the airliner's cargo hold. Freitas's body, packed in a crate marked "Head" at one end and "Feet" at the other, bore six wounds from nine-millimeter bullets, including two shots that had entered his back from a distance, suggesting that Freitas was shot while trying to flee his killers. He was 24 years old.
Freitas was not in the habit of turning from danger. During the previous two years, as a resourceful shoestring activist for environmental and human rights causes, he had become a vocal agitator in the United States on behalf of a tribe of indigenous Colombian mountain people, the U'wa, who are hoping to prevent L.A.-based Occidental Petroleum from drilling a vast oil field within the bounds of U'wa ancestral territory. During a previous trip to Colombia, in March 1998, Freitas had been dragged to a police station and told to sign a document releasing the Colombian government and local police force from responsibility for his personal safety. Freitas knew that on each of his visits he was stepping into the crosshairs of two contending factions in Colombia's decades-long civil strife: the military, which receives aid from the U.S. government and, allegedly, protection money from multinational giants; and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a vicious and highly disciplined guerrilla army that funds its insurgency through frequent ransom-kidnappings.
On February 25, Freitas and two other U.S. citizens--American Indian activist Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ena'e Gay, an advocate for Native Hawaiian rights--were leaving U'wa territory after a two-week stay. They had been working to establish a bilingual education program on the U'wa reservation. They set out by van from the U'wa village of Cubarß, accompanied by an U'wa driver and by Benito KuwarU'wa, the charismatic spokesman for the tribe. Benito's presence would seem to have assured safe passage for the group. Instead, the van was stopped by a pair of armed, hooded men in civilian clothes who identified themselves as members of FARC. They ordered Benito from the van, entered the vehicle themselves, and told the driver to proceed a few miles farther down the dirt road. There, they marched the American hostages into the cloud forest.
A week later, a farmer strayed into a pasture on the banks of the Arauca River after hearing the sound of gunfire. He came upon three bodies, faces covered with white handkerchiefs, hands bound, on the Venezuelan side of the boundary waters.
MY OWN DEALINGS WITH TERRY FREITAS WERE LIMITED TO SEVERAL long phone conversations we had over the course of a few days in May of last year, after Outside had asked me to fly to Colombia to investigate the dilemma facing the U'wa. Freitas was the primary contact for the tribe. The U'wa had made a blip on the radar screen of the American media, in the wake of a sensational threat that had been delivered by Benito: If Occidental Petroleum were to go forth with its planned oil drilling, Benito said, all 8,000 U'wa would leap en masse from a sacred cliff.
I was excited by the story. It seemed to unfold at a pitch of near-apocalyptic extremity. It featured a dazzling central character in Benito, a man who had been raised by a shaman and whose readiness to obliterate his followers rather than face obliteration by his enemies had tremendous historical resonance. The story provided an industrial villain in whose rapacity all of us who demand cheap oil owned a stake. Finally, in the hallowed cliff, the story contained that rarest journalistic element: a ready-made metaphor for the ritualistic violence at the crux of modernity.
But violence is not a metaphor, and the more I spoke with Freitas the more concerned I grew about the possibility of encountering the sort of banal violence that occurs as a matter of course in Colombia. Freitas was a crusader, and I admired his dedication to the U'wa. I'm not a crusader, however. I was after a good story. Let's be frank. I wanted to visit an exotic place and to poke my head in on the lives of its exotic people. Freitas warned me about the very real prospect of being stopped on the road by hooded renegades whose motives were unclear. He spoke with some bravado. He had, after all, been down there before. He knew the political landscape, was intimate with the U'wa leadership; he felt he could contend with most anything that came his way. I was less sure of myself. I backed out of the story at the last moment. I regretted my decision. I felt weak. Now, retrospect reveals that I was right and he was wrong. But that is a hollow and depressing revelation.
I spoke with Freitas's mother, Julie, one evening after she had come home from transporting her son's body to a lab for autopsy. "Of course I worried when he would go down to Colombia," she told me. "But he always promised me that he'd come back. I never thought it would be in a box, though." She spoke of his love for the outdoors, his skill in tracking animals, making pottery, making moccasins. "I'm devastated," she said, "but I'm so proud of him. He wanted nothing more than to do what was right."
It's easy to be glib about activists. I've done it; Outside has done it. Activists can come across as self-righteous, compulsively narrow in their focus, humorless. At times they can seem hopelessly ineffectual, steeped in the private vocabulary of the reports that they exchange at conferences. Precisely because Freitas was willing to take risks for which I was unprepared, I felt not only shocked by his death, but chastened. There are others like him: people who side with the hopeless causes; people who trust that the condition of the Earth, and of the species on it, including humans, can be bettered. Freitas was enchanted by the U'wa, by their avowed aversion to violence, by their funky animism. Was he naive? Was he indulging an anthropological romance? Does it matter?
Don't forget: Freitas was 24. He would have been 25 this month. "Terry loved to play," says Leslie Wirpsa, a former girlfriend. "He loved Sarah McLachlan and Ani diFranco. He was a great cook."
Days before he took his last trip to Colombia, Freitas moved to Brooklyn and leased an apartment in Park Slope, a few blocks from where I live. I'd like to think that, in a better world, he and I might have run into each other at Ozzie's, the local coffee shop, and hung out for awhile, maybe argued about the environment or politics. After his mother retrieved his body from a cargo hangar at LAX, Freitas's remains lay in state at a funeral home across the street from the headquarters of Occidental Petroleum, in Westwood. I'd like to think he might have gotten a kick out of the appalling rightness of it. In his line of work, you take what victories you can.
Mark Levine is a contributing editor of Outside.