THE CODE: A declassified and unbelievable hostage rescue story
How the Colombian army sent a hidden message to hostages… using a pop song
By Jeff Maysh
Colonel Jose Espejo was a man with a problem. As the Colombian army’s communications expert watched the grainy video again, he saw kidnapped soldiers chained up inside barbed-wire pens in a hostage camp deep in the jungle, guarded by armed FARC guerillas. Some had been hostages for more than 10 years, and many suffered from a grim, flesh-eating disease caused by insect bites.
It was 2010, and the straight-talking Espejo was close to retirement after 22 years of military service. But he couldn’t stand the thought of quitting with men left behind enemy lines. He needed an idea, and when he needed an idea, he always went to one man.
Juan Carlos Ortiz was dunking his kids in the pool at his home in Coconut Grove, Miami, when he got the call from Colonel Espejo. With his easy charm and seemingly natural talent for creating clever commercials, the 42-year-old advertising executive had earned himself a Don Draper-like reputation in Colombia.
The ambitious Ortiz had shot to fame at the Colombian office of Leo Burnett — the legendary ad agency behind Tony the Tiger — where he created an anti-drug TV spot for the Colombian President’s Office. The ad showed an addict on a bus mistaking a fellow passenger’s dandruff for cocaine and snorting it up his nose. It made Ortiz the first Colombian to win a gold Lion at Cannes, the advertising industry’s Oscars. He returned to Bogotá a national hero and received a commendation from the nation’s first lady.
The success of his ad also brought threats from FARC guerillas, who relied, in part, on the cocaine market to fund their decades-old campaign against the government. "I had gone against their objectives with my anti-cocaine commercial," he remembers. "They offered me the opportunity of paying them in exchange for my life."
Deeply concerned by threatening letters and phone calls, Ortiz bought a bulletproof car for his family, and even assisted police in a sting operation to catch his blackmailers. But the threats persisted, and fearing for his safety, his employer urgently transferred Ortiz to its New York office. He took his family with him. A high-profile move to rival ad agency DDB in Miami followed, but Ortiz could never forget his enmity toward the FARC. He became the go-to guy for the Colombian army’s more bizarre requests in their battle against the guerillas.
On the telephone, Colonel Espejo explained that he urgently needed to get a message to the captured Colombian soldiers: help was coming. Daring commando missions were taking place throughout the region, including Operation Chameleon — a sixth-month operation that involved 300 government soldiers and secret raids. Because the FARC shoots hostages dead at the first sight of a military invasion, Espejo had to convey to the captives to be ready to escape.
How do you reach soldiers held under 24-hour armed guard in deeply rural territory? Juan Carlos Ortiz’s mind raced between ideas: Sky-writing? Aid parcels containing secret messages?
the army air-dropped 7 million pacifiers into the jungle with a message encouraging rebels to return to civilization
Ortiz had designed unorthodox campaigns to battle the FARC before. In 2008, he dreamed up an operation to persuade pregnant female guerrillas to defect: the army air-dropped 7 million pacifiers into the jungle with a message encouraging rebels to return to civilization. The operation involved seven helicopters, three airplanes, 960 flight hours, 17,800 gallons of fuel, and 72 soldiers flying twice a week for four months. During the holidays, the army illuminated giant Christmas trees across the jungle to remind guerrillas what they were missing. They also wrote messages promoting peace on soccer balls and floated them down the river toward the rebel encampments.
But this operation would be far more challenging. They had to create a message that could be understood by the hostages, but remain invisible to their captors. They needed to give the hostages hope, and encourage any soldiers harboring plans of escape that now was the time. Ortiz agreed to participate, and boarded the next plane to Bogotá.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, emerged in the 1960s as a group of armed Communist peasants opposing the government and demanding labor reforms. This followed a period in Colombian history known as "La Violencia," when fighting between the Liberal and Conservative parties resulted in 300,000 deaths. Driven deep into the jungle by a 1964 military bombing campaign, the FARC built up their strength and numbers. By 2010 the FARC had an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members, according to the International Crisis Group.
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.
Ortiz arrived at the Bogotá headquarters of the DDB advertising agency. The modern building features floor-to-ceiling windows that boast panoramic views of the traffic-choked Colombian capital, but keep out the symphony of car horns playing below. That day he was joined by his team of creative minds: Rodrigo Bolivar, Alfonso Diaz, Mario León, and Luis Castilla, the leading lights of Colombia’s advertising industry. Together with Colonel Espejo, they brainstormed ways to get a message to the hostages.
Sending messages directly to hostages is often impossible and not found in the guidebook of any law enforcement or military agency, says Christopher Voss, the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007. Now the owner of the negotiation firm Black Swan Group, Voss says: "When you send a message to a hostage, you have to assume the hostage takers are seeing it too."
Gary Noesher is a former Chief Negotiator for the FBI who spent 23 years rescuing hostages and has dealt directly with the FARC. He says that sending sensitive messages meant solely for hostages is "incredibly risky." Colonel Espejo’s case reminds him of a siege at the Japanese ambassador’s mansion in Lima, Peru, in December 1996. Noesher was on the team tasked with saving 72 hostages. "Secret messages were transmitted through the garbage. We received word that terrorists played indoor soccer in the living room, and a bomb was placed underneath the room and detonated," Noesher says. "That is the only time I can remember covert messages sent to hostages." Noesher won’t say exactly how the messages were sent, but adds: "Food and water were going into the embassy. All I can say is… messages were transmitted." All of the militants were killed, along with two commandos and one hostage.
Sending messages directly to hostages is often impossible
Col. Espejo ran the brainstorming session with the efficiency of a military operation. He explained that FARC guerrillas usually allow hostages access to radios; 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.
Ortiz considered hiding a message in a radio commercial, perhaps hidden in the fine print spoken quickly at the end. Then Diaz, the creative director, suggested using code. What about código Morse, he said — Morse code.
It wouldn’t be the first time Morse code was used in a hostage situation; in 1977, one of 52 hostages held captive by South-Moluccan gunmen on a Dutch train managed to transmit the message "get us out of here," using sunlight and a hand mirror. Then there was Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr., a United States Navy rear admiral who spent almost eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, four of those in solitary confinement. In a forced North Vietnamese television interview in 1966, Denton ingeniously used Morse code to communicate with American Intelligence by blinking his eyes to spell out "T-O-R-T-U-R-E".
"It was a eureka moment! We thought about hiding the Morse code in an advert," says Ortiz. "Then we thought, how about a song?" As a young man, Ortiz was a musician, but his career never took off. The idea of producing a hit song appealed to him.
Ortiz pitched the Colonel a plan as if he were pitching a commercial to Heinz or Coca-Cola. The Colonel stroked his chin. Espejo liked the code idea, because he knew that many soldiers — especially in the communications departments — were taught Morse code in their basic training. Furthermore, Espejo reasoned, "The FARC were peasants from the fields, they wouldn’t know [Morse]." It was a longshot, but if the team could disguise the telltale dot-dot-dash signals in a song, there was a chance the soldiers would hear the message.
Radio Bemba is a small recording studio with six electric guitars on the wall where musicians write catchy commercial jingles. If the DDB agency is in Bogotá’s "Manhattan," Radio Bemba is in the city’s "Brooklyn," sharing its front door with an architecture company in a 50-year-old building on an edgy street.Word quickly got around the studio that the military wanted to produce a song so popular it would enterr the "Lista 40" — Colombia’s Billboard charts. Producer Carlos Portela, 34, thought they were nuts.
"But they were deadly serious, and explained it was a secret project," says Portela, who wears an eyebrow ring and produces music for beer commercials. "Obviously we had never worked with Morse code before. But they were very specific about what they wanted. They needed to know if we could hide their message in a song, so that nobody would detect it unless they knew Morse code."
The team began experimenting with Morse code using various percussion instruments and a keyboard. They learned that operators skilled in Morse code can often read the signals at a rate of 40 words per minute — but played that fast, the beat would sound like a European Dance track. "We discovered the magic number was 20," says Portela. "You can fit approximately 20 Morse code words into a piece of music the length of a chorus, and it sounds okay."
"You can fit approximately 20 Morse code words into... the length of a chorus, and it sounds okay."
With the help of a military policeman skilled in Morse, they coded the message: "19 people rescued. You are next. Don’t lose hope." It was a signal to boost morale and indicate that help was nearby. Portela wrote the song and the lyrics with composer Amaury Hernandez, creating a thinly-veiled ballad about life as a hostage: "In the middle of the night / Thinking about what I love the most / I feel the need to sing… About how much I miss them." He even added the lyric, "Listen to this message, brother," just before the coded message kicks in. The code sounds like a brief synth interlude just after the chorus.
Portela says they played with the Morse code using Reason software, which gives each audio channel or instrument its own dedicated track. With a separate visual lane for certain elements, it was possible to match the code to the beat of the song — and, crucially, blend it in.
Hiding the Morse code took weeks, with constant back-and-forth with Col. Espejo and the military to make sure their men could understand the message. "It was difficult because Morse code is not a musical beat. Sometimes it was too obvious," says Portela. "Other times the code was not understood. And we had to hide it three times in the song to make sure the message was received."
Finally, in September 2010, the song was mastered. They titled it "Better Days," performed by session artists Natalia Gutierrez Y Angelo, fairly anonymous background musicians who’d worked on other jingles at the studio. Ortiz thought it was a masterpiece. "When I first listened, I thought it was a song of freedom," he says.
With the song completed, they had to get it on the airwaves. Commercial Colombian stations largely only played hits by famous artists like Coldplay and Shakira. Luckily, says Col. Espejo, in many of the jungle areas where the hostages were held, all the radio stations were controlled by the government. "The hostages were listening to our own stations, so we made sure the song was played," he says. "The code message said, ‘you’re next’ because the hostages thought if they ran away, they would die in the jungle. We let them know that our troops were nearby.’" At that time, active commando missions were underway, placing troops undercover in FARC-controlled areas.
Former hostage Major General Luis Mendieta Ovalle Herlindo helped the operation by appearing on live television and making an appeal directly to the guerillas. Herlindo, who escaped in one of the secretive commando-led escapes during "Operation Chameleon," said: "This message is for members of the FARC. For those being held captive without a radio. Please, give them radio." Though it might seem that this gave the game away, to Colombians it sounded like an appeal for hostages to be able to hear the voices of their families, who call in to radio shows.
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.
Later in December 2010, the FARC announced its plans to release five more hostages as a humanitarian gesture, including a police major, two military service members, and two politicians; two months later, Major Guillermo Solorzano, 35, and Corporal Salin Sanmiguel, 28, were released back to their families; and in the spring of 2012, the last 10 police and military hostages — some of whom had spent 14 years in captivity — were released and flown in a Brazilian military helicopter to safety. Colonel Espejo watched the hostages on TV, waving and punching the air with delight as they stepped off a helicopter in Villavicencio. At the country’s presidential palace, the president, Juan Manuel Santos, said: "Welcome to liberty, soldiers and policemen of Colombia. Freedom has been very delayed, but now it is yours, to the delight of the whole country."
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.
Ortiz still keeps in touch with Col. Espejo, who retired from the military and now works as a journalist. Col. Espejo wrote the book El Gran Cartel, an investigation into the FARC’s finances. Ortiz continues to travel between Colombia, New York, and Miami, where he has created commercials for Rice Krispies and Volkswagen. He’s earned a place in the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame, and on a top 10 list of "exceptional Colombians."
On the wall of Ortiz’s Miami office there’s a photo of him celebrating his gold Lion for the dandruff cocaine ad in 2000, wildly waving a Colombian flag on stage. He recalls how he persuaded a local tailor in Cannes to fashion him a Colombian flag on the morning of the awards. Receiving that award should have been the greatest moment of his life, he says, but that victory was marred by the FARC and their threats. "One moment, I was the king of the world," he says ruefully, "the next… just another Colombian victim of the terrorists. Being able to help the military with the code project was my way of helping them fight."
The army agreed to declassify "The Code" operation in 2011 and allowed the song to be entered into the Cannes Lions. "Better Days" earned Ortiz his second gold Lion. "This time," he says, "we enjoyed it."
Illustrations by Allegra Lockstadt