Later on it was the whole family shouting, “We’re running out of time!” but at the beginning it was simply Uncle Julian not coming home one night. The next morning at 10am, the phone rang.
“We have your Uncle. If you want him alive, don’t contact the police. We will call again in a few days.” And then just like in the TV shows they hung up. The caller had an accent from the Amazon provinces south of the capital, where the FARC has their strongholds.
Many sleepless nights later, the phone rang again.
“Your Uncle misses his wife, and Martica and Paulo and Andrés. You are a rich family, we have agreed with your Uncle Julian that a donation of $10 million dollars will help our cause to liberate the nation and then he can come home. Have the money ready on Monday.”
Our extended family had been staying in our home, waiting for the call from the kidnappers. In Colombia, they usually call the extended family. The immediate family is too shaken up to function and make the payments to get their partners or children returned. The FARC being Marxist communists, they usually abducted the head of the household, the wealth holder. The family had me answer the phone, they thought it was better to have someone young talk to them.
Aunty Paula started shrieking, “What are they thinking, 10 million?”
We were a well-to-do family in Colombia, but that is different from being wealthy in a place like Miami or New York. Someone like us might be able to put together a few thousands of dollars. Even for someone like my wealthy uncle, who owned a chain of Mazda car dealerships, a million dollars was unimaginable.
Our family sat in silence. I suppose we were all contemplating the loss of our Uncle as we couldn’t hope to meet their ransom demand. We agreed to gather again the next evening and discuss how much money we could pay.
I went to my classes at the Uni del Rosario as usual and tried not to think about my Uncle. My papa, Andrés, said he would speak to other people at his work who were familiar with kidnappings. The FARC had been taking normal people, not even the wealthy. Almost anyone with an office job could be taken. It has been going on for a few years. Most of the time people in Bogotá just didn’t talk about it.
At dinner we ate Aunty’s Pollo stew and talked about how delicious it was. My mother had prepared a Sancocho soup. We ate and talked quietly. When anyone mentioned anything about Uncle Julian a hush fell over our gathering. He was the center of our extended family, generous and full of warmth and good humor. After mother took the dishes away, Papa brought up what he had found out that day.
“My colleagues said if we want Julian back, we need to hire a consultant. I’ve made a few calls and found someone who has brought several people home. His name is Nicolas Pérez.”
My brother turned red. “He brought people home?” So Nicolas is one of them?”
“No, I don’t think he’s one of them, But how can we get Julian home if we don’t have someone who can talk to them?”
My brother silently walked out of the room and went upstairs. Papa being the most business minded person, and Julian’s brother, no one could really oppose his idea.
The next day in the early afternoon, Nicolas Pérez arrived at our house. We fed him snacks, he drank coffee, we talked endlessly about where we grew up and what parts of Colombia we have been to. Papa asked about all Nicholas’s relatives. He obviously came from a more rough and tumble part of the city than we did, but he talked in a very business like manner.
“I want to get your brother back. The fee for my services is 20,000 US dollars. I know that is a lot but the FARC has killed people in my position. If you do what I tell you to do, I’m confident we will get your brother home.”
Papa looked unhappy, but he nodded and agreed. After all, he had heard that Nicolas has brought people back for others who worked with him at his bookkeeping firm.
The next day Nicolas Pérez gave us our first instructions.
“This is going to be a long process. You must know that you cannot get your Uncle back tomorrow or next week, or the week after that. No matter how much you pay, they will want more. They will never stop asking for more.”
“Then it’s impossible! Fucking revolutionaries.” Papa rarely got angry, today was an exception.
“What you need to do now, what we all need to do as a family, is to convince the FARC that you couldn't care less about Julian.”
“But I do care,” Papa said.
“I know. But convincing them you don’t care if they kill him in the jungle, is going to decrease his value and help his chance of coming home and surviving this alive.”
Papa looked down and thought about this.
Nicolas continued, “Pinchao has been held for 5 years now.” Pinchao was a famous hostage at the time. After he saw we were ready to agree, Nicolas said, “Now what you need to do, is to look back at your every resentment, Julian’s every failing, build them up in your mind until you feel you hate Julian too. When they call you, you MUST tell them Julian is a piece of shit, and they should just leave you alone and not call again.”
The next week on Monday the kidnappers called, “Do you have our money? 10 million?”
Papa had answered. He said Uncle Julian’s car dealership was losing money, the whole business was insolvent. But because he was his brother he would pay them 10,000 out of his own pocket to fix this. The kidnapper on the phone ranted and shouted death threats, but Papa stayed calm until they hung up.
Nicolas Perez shook his head. “Damn! Why did you say you would pay them? Why did you do that?” he shouted. His anger made me feel for the first time Nicolas truly wanted to free our Uncle.
Nicolas stayed at our house most days when he didn’t have other business to handle.
“It’s hard, but the next time they call, this...needs to come from his Wife,” Nicolas said while looking at our Aunty Carina.
A few days later the phone rang, Aunty Carina had tears in her eyes, she had worked on her story with Nicolas.
Aunt Carina said into the phone, “We thought about it, but now I don’t want that piece of horse ass back here. He treated me badly, hit me. With him gone, I get to be with my true love, Angelo from university. Go and tell him if you like. Now fuck off you countryside hicks,” Aunty said and hung up the phone without waiting for a reply.
I hugged Aunty Carina and reassured her this was the right thing to do and we needed to trust Nicolas.
A week later they called again. They said Uncle Julian was a pain in the ass and they wanted to get rid of him. How about 1 million dollars?
Over the next several months, every family member got their chance on the phone to tell the kidnappers how awful Julian was. We brought up other neighbors and relatives, how they hated Julian as well. Old episodes from years ago. We said the FARC would do everyone a favor to get rid of him in the jungle or turn him into a farmer or a communist, out there like they were.
Of course, life in Bogotá must be very different from life in the tropical village they held Julian in down by the Amazon. We are the descendants of the Spanish and Bogotá has the best education in South America. We even speak Spanish better than most people do in Spain.
The back and forth game of our insults and their lower ransom demands continued for about 6 months, until they tried something different.
Aunty Carina screamed. We ran to the kitchen. She had just opened a package that arrived in the mail and there was something bloody wrapped up in plastic. Papa opened it and said it was a finger.
“That doesn’t look like his finger,” Aunty Carina sobbed.
“It's the right color,” Papa said.
“It can’t be his.”
These telephone calls had started to feel like a game with Uncle Julian away for so long. Now the reality of the situation sank back into us again.
The next day they called.
“How much can you pay us?”
“50,000,” Papa said.
“Fuck! Ok. GIve the money to Nicholas. He knows how to transfer it to us.”
Papa went to the bank and then gave the money to Nicholas. We didn’t know how they knew Nicholas’s name. They must have been watching us. Many of them work as drives and laborers in Bogotá, even our helpers might be talking to them.
Nicolas didn’t tell us how, but somehow he moved the money to the FARC, probably through someone sympathetic to the FARC in Bogotá. In Bogota, you could never fully tell who supported them and who didn’t.
The kidnappers stopped calling.
Two weeks later the police called. Uncle Julian had been found dumped on the side of the road in the Southern outskirts of Bogotá. He was pallid and gaunt, but alive. He was not missing any fingers or been physically harmed. Perhaps they had morals, or perhaps that would just be bad for business.
When Papa returned home with Uncle, we were overjoyed to see him. Julian was sullen and didn’t talk much.
Later we learned his captors, being villagers from the countryside and jealous of Julian’s status as a wealthy businessman in Bogotá, had tormented him with the words we said. For years, I was filled with sadness for thinking of the endless hours Uncle Julian was handcuffed to a wall with only the things we said to think about.
After that he did his daily work, managed with the minimum amount of courtesy, to get through life and run his business but somehow his spark for life was gone. At family dinners he would eat quietly. Sometimes he would hold my hand. Outside, he never went anywhere without a pistol being within hands reach.
A few years after Uncle had returned, I finished my education and immigrated to America to start a new life. Colombia is different now, the FARC have made a peace deal. But the memories of what could happen in my country never fade.