by Patrick Fearon-Hernandez, CFA | PDF
When you find yourself surrounded by a squad of masked, black-clad fighters with their machine guns aimed at you, you can be pretty sure you’re about to have a bad day. The sense of foreboding was especially strong when this happened to me on a deserted road high up in the Colombian mountains, just after my jeep passed an abandoned one-room schoolhouse with “ELN Vive” spray painted on its wall, announcing that one of Colombia’s main rebel groups was active in the area. My only other feeling at the time was consternation: When my Colombian wife had talked me into letting her take our two young sons to spend the summer at her family’s coffee plantation outside the city of Manizales, she had assured me that it was perfectly safe. I was now on my way to pick them up and bring them home from this supposedly safe mountainside. As I watched the gunmen approaching my jeep, I realized that “safe” is a relative term for Colombians.
Once the soldiers had emerged out of the tall grass along the road and made my driver stop, their leader walked up and motioned for me to surrender my passport. In situations like this, the moment you hand over a U.S. passport is the moment you start to feel like you have a bullseye painted on your back. But as he examined mine, it gave me time to look more closely at the fighters. Their uniforms were all brand new and of the finest quality, including their Kevlar helmets. Their M16 rifles were so new they didn’t have a single scuff on them. The commander handed back my passport, assured me his squad would be patrolling nearby if my family needed help, and motioned me onward. I had just been rescued by Colombian solders trained and equipped by the U.S. Department of Defense under the “Plan Colombia” aid program.