Kidnapped in Honduras!
For the sake of fluidity, I’ve told this story in English and not in Spanish. This took place in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a north coast industrial city where of course Spanish is spoken.
What started out as a sunny Saturday morning drive to my office, my son and I making small talk. I was happy he’d come to my office with me. I thought that before going to my office, I’d treat Johnny to his favorite waffles. The music we were listening to in our car was a collection of Buddhist chants, which I enjoyed before immersing myself in the world of the hotel business.
They raised the parking lot entry bar, which in hindsight should’ve alerted me to something, but the mechanism was always breaking down. We pulled into my roofed spot reserved for the manager, stopped the car, and got out.
From the far side of the parking lot, I heard a roar and saw a white sedan clunker race right at us, screeched to a halt. We were about ten feet from our car. It is a known fact that these getaway cars despite their shitty appearance are fine-tuned and tested for just this sort of escape.
In Honduras, it’s a fairly simple thing to threaten parking lot attendants so as not to get involved when the grab, a kidnap happens. They tell the attendants that if they call for help, they will be shot, as will their families. Done deal.
Four men piled out of the old, white sedan. They’d laid in waiting until I parked my car in the hotel parking lot when the roar of the approaching car caught my attention. All four men grabbed me. In what had to be seconds, I yelled at my six-year-old son to hide under our blue expedition, and to not move no matter what. I am thankful to this day he followed instructions perfectly.
They surrounded me and grabbed me, started kicking and striking me. The men seemed to scream as part of a scare tactic. This technique I’d heard from police friends years before has a tendency to disorientate the person being attacked. “Get into the car, you son of a bitch!” The panic in their voices was very clear.
Somehow I glimpsed towards my blue Expedition and thankfully my son was under it and watching the attack. Johnnys eyes open wide and at the moment too shocked to cry. The men had me in the middle of a circle, their old and beat-up vehicle idling nearby.
This was Saturday, 2008, October. In those days I was a devoted weight lifter, never a day passed without my strenuous workout and run. Despite my fifty years, I was in the best shape I’d been in since playing high school football. There was no way these men were getting me into the white car, I knew that if I got into the car that my chances for escape and survival were close to zero. Kidnap experts will tell you this. I held my ground as we scuffled. They continued to kick and pistol-whip me, but I felt nothing. I just knew I was not getting into that car.
One of the countless thoughts that shot through my mind was: where were the parking lot guards, none were to be seen. I yelled out: “Johnny, stay under the car, don’t move damn it, don’t move!” My main thinking was about my son Johnny. Finally, and out of desperation, one of the sicarios, or gunmen, pulled off his hood and looked into my face. “Look, you piece of shit, you either get into the fucking car, or I have to drop you right now, do you understand me?” His pistol in my face, against my cheek.
After what seemed an endless struggle, it became clear that there was no way out. No guards were coming to my rescue. The other thought that occurred was that the sicario had exposed his face to me. This can only mean one thing. It is always an assumed fact that if the attack victim somehow gets a look at the attacker's face, this usually means that you are a dead man. Simply, it means that should it come to there being a line up you might identify the gunman. So,if you see their faces, you will die. Sicarios do not take this chance, I will forever wonder why it was I was allowed to live.
I climbed into the back seat and one of them stuffed a cloth bag over my head as we roared out of the parking lot. I remember that as we screamed down a side street and careening madly around corners away from the hotel and out of the city, one or two of the men made cell calls, telling other lookouts that ‘it was done and to leave the area.
“Hey asshole, if you behave and don’t act like a Russian you might live so just be cool do you understand?” Using the word Russian in this way is like saying asshole or troublemaker. One man pushed hard on the back of my head and I pretended to have heart problems and told them they were pushing too hard.
Over the years I’d read a handful of books about kidnaps and being a prisoner, for example, there was one book about some Americans they grabbed by the deadly FARC in Colombia, another about prisoners in a WW2 South Pacific concentration camp, called King Rat, yet another about John McCain's nightmare as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, North Viet Nam, a place the prisoners called the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. There were others by Sozhenitzen about the Gulags. It is worth saying these books came to my aid. One thing they all stressed was to show some authority, at least make the attempt, very carefully, to throw my weight around. Complaining about being pushed down in the car was the start of this tactic.
In the interest of brevity, I will tell my story in short form. I could easily turn this into book-length. The simple fact is that a kidnap is a life-affecting experience. One’s level of sensitivity goes through the roof. One becomes a hyper sponge. There is nothing you don’t take in; things that shall remain with you for the rest of your life. Things are said of things in life, experiences, that affect you, this is one of those experiences. In a word: you record everything, nothing goes unnoticed.
Of note is that on all the major roads leaving the city there are police checkpoints. At least at two of these our car slowed but didn’t stop, I overheard some talk between the police and the kidnappers, we just kept going. Later on, I learned that all these checkpoints police are paid off.
On the highway, there was a moment of levity. At least to the kidnappers, when a car refused to let us pass them. “Hey show those mother fuckers your pistol!” We sped right by, much to the laughter of all those in the car.
After several hours and what seemed a hell ride on a Disney roller coaster gone mad, we slowed and turned off the two-lane highway, making our way up a dirt, rut-filled road.
They led me out of the car, my hood still on, and one guy had me by the elbow. I stumbled over things on my way to what was presumably a hut, the hideout. Chickens clucked and pigs grunted, birds sang loudly in trees. I could hear the unique snickering noises ducks make and dogs barked incessantly. We entered a dark space; it smelled of mud and thatch, maybe cooking beans, and they made me sit on a bed. “Close your eyes while I take off the hood, hey look, if you see one of us we’ll have to kill you.”
They tied a band of cloth around my head covering my eyes and plugged my ears with pieces of rag. “Go to sleep.”
That was it, “go to sleep”. When I think about it, what else were they going to say to me?
They left me alone, on my bed, what was to become my home for the next six days. I was not to move off the bed. If I had to go to the bathroom, I was to whisper, “Hey, I need to go…” Nothing out loud.
I was told that there were neighbors next door and that they could not know I was here.
The sicarios, or pistoleros left. I could tell because the guys watching me had different voices. I remember hearing that kidnap gangs hired gunmen to make the grab, the sicarios. In their place now were several country types. Though they spoke in very low volume, I could pick out their country accents, the Spanish is different. Having worked at a cattle ranch many years before in Guatemala, I could tell the country in their talk.
Very soon I got so that I recognized the different guards, I think there were three at all times. I assigned names to each to help me keep order in my head of who was who. ‘Crocket’ was a tall man who spoke in a deep voice, a leader of the guards, who reminded me of Davy Crockett. My first day when I had to go to the bathroom they gave me a small coffee can, giving me another opportunity for showing some authority. “Look, this can’t be big enough and I don’t want to go on the floor, I need a bigger can.” Crocket brought me a larger can, and he felt it proper to assure me I could ‘go’ without concern, that we were all men, in the sense that no one was going to make a grab at me. Hey, the world is a strange place. So I crapped and urinated in the can at bedside.
Then there was ‘Emilio’ because this guy sounded exactly like Emilio Estevez, the movie actor, finally ‘Shorty’ who loved to talk. He once asked me if I would ever find it in my heart to forgive them.
Emilio had a gift for making electric fans from cutting propellers from plastic milk cartons and somehow powered them with flashlight batteries. The heat in my ‘cell’ was like an oven, the tin roof only made the day’s sun seem more like burning hell. I learned very soon to slow down, lie down and not move, stay still and the heat just sort of gently held me though did not suffocate.
The thinking was that the less I moved around, the less heat I’d generate.
At one point I complained of a headache and insisted on getting aspirin. I could hear them going over in low voices my request in the next room, not sure what to do. I kept insisting, and finally one went to the town’s pharmacy for aspirin. Again, this was about giving orders.
I knew I was in a small country town as there was a church bell that rang tinny like, not recorded, one of those rope pulled bells in a belfry. Outside, each day an old woman with a deep tubercular cough passed by.
Though I was given a fan, all it did was move around the thick heat. For several years I could not have a fan on in my room. I had a large rag, an old towel which I kept wrapped around my neck. I told the guards that if they were ever given the order to kill me that a knife was going to be a huge and messy fight. So as a tiny bit of added protection I kept the rag around my neck.
Next door to my adobe walled cell there was some small, do-it-yourself construction taking place. They were doing some work on a tienda, or tiny store. I think they were all in on the kidnap together because one day a guy I didn’t recognize; I didn’t see him, I just knew, came into my room and shut off my fan, explaining to the guard that he needed the power for his power tools. Power tools were active all day long, saws, cutters, the spattering of welding, hammering, mixing. For several years after my release, these very common noises affected me in a very disquieting way.
One afternoon I called them all in and told them that if I had to die that it had to be by gunshot. I stressed to them I didn’t want one bullet either, “none of that”. That I did not want to survive a single shot to the head, so I said “tok tok”, simulating bullet shots, tapping the side of my head twice. “Understand men?” I reminded them again that a knife would be a horrendous and bloody affair, as I’m sure they had heard I’d put up a decent fight in the parking lot.
They said not to worry, but yes, they would do it like I asked.
Night sounds become a domain unto themselves. In my hut, it was a combination of several animals. Earlier in the evening, ducks make a unique snickering as they go along the outside edges of the hut rummaging for bugs and ants. Later in the evening, the pitch-black dark, I mean so dark that I couldn’t see my fingers in front of my eyes; the rats made it their world. Above me in the roof rafters, they ran all over, squeaking and carrying on general mayhem.
Funny moments were when the damn rats, sneaking around on the ground, would sneak up on the sleeping dog outside who slept snug against the base of my adobe and bamboo wall, startled the dog who’d let out a howl and the rats would scramble away squealing in shock and fright. Minutes later the little guys would try to sneak up on the sleeping pooch only to have the poop scared out of them again.
The men brought me four meals! Invariably meals consisted of delicious rice and beans, freshly made tortillas, a chunk of beef or pork, potatoes.
During my week-long vacation, I was given two baths. Though it was pitch dark I was told to squat, someone, handed me a stiff-bristled brush and another poured a bucket of water over my head. The floor was dirt of course and oddly the ground was at a slight incline so on one occasion I slipped on the watered-down earth and fell on my ass, which caused a chuckle. After scrubbing down, I was handed my shorts and undershirt again. I remember to this day how incredibly refreshing it was to take a bath!
This provided me with yet another opportunity to show who’s boss’. Please don’t get me wrong here about ‘who’s boss…’ I was always at their mercy. I complained that if they kept bringing me four meals that I was going to get so fat, my wife wouldn’t let me go home. This they found quite funny. After that, it was three meals. Honestly, I also wanted to cut down on the number of times I had to take a dump in the damn can!
Throughout the day, they’d bring me freshly made juices, pineapple, apple, orange, peach, papaya, a fruit called maracuya, and maranion. It’s not that they were trying to provide me with the five-star fare, in fact, this is what the country folk drink. I enjoyed the country-made coffee, but only in the morning. Coffee in the late afternoon made it hard for me to sleep at night, which only prolonged the nighttime hell of my predicament.
One night I heard a hiss. This is the sound a fer de lance snake makes, these are deadly creatures. Out in the boonies, they’re called Barba Amarillas, or yellow beards because of the yellow markings just under their necks. These large and aggressive snakes are common where we were, I correctly figured we were out in an area called Copan. Emilio was on duty and after doing a thorough search found nothing. These snakes have the reputation of being mean too. These guys wanted a damn fer de lance around about as much as I did!
One early evening I heard whispering, and I pretended to be asleep and Shorty brought in a woman to show off their prisoner. They were next to my bed and watching me and soon left.
One night in the pitch dark the room lit up, a cool, fluorescent-like light, and it was as though I was in a snowy-like arctic setting, just as clear as can be, the enormous stands of ice and snow. Another night I saw my first wife’s face looking at me through a haze.
At night to help me sleep I tried to remember the lord is my shepherd…’ Also, a Hindu chant called Gayatri Mantra, both of which I mangled but helped all the same. Yes, the Lords’ prayer was a godsend.
Another night the ‘jefe’ or boss, the head guy, showed up, which he did several times during my ‘stay’. It was around ten pm and he came bearing gifts, fruit, apples, and grapes. He said they’d had an early Christmas party. As a captive, you have to be careful not to allow yourself to get ‘chummy’ because of a phenomenon called the Stockholm syndrome. This was always present in my mind. I knew that had things gone poorly, these guys wouldn’t have given a second thought to putting a bullet through my head. These people are not your friends.
The night came that the ransom was going to be paid off. This part of the process requires several pages, so shall make it brief. It’s important to note that at any moment during this final phase anything, and I mean anything, can go and does go wrong, bringing everything to a sickening, crunching halt. As a matter of fact, the first night when the payoff was going to happen, something went wrong and was postponed. I don’t need to tell you that this was perhaps the longest, most agonizing night in my life.
One catch that night according to one of my guards was that a rival gang knew that there was a big payoff going down. These gangs will intercept ransom payments and make off with the money! People get shot and die, and so it’s better to cancel for that day.
Again, the following night the guards brought out my street clothes. Returned me my cell phone, which later on I discovered still had saldo or charge. For my stay, they had me in gym shorts and an undershirt. Shorty wiped everything down, I could see him from peeking under my bandana. There was one scary moment when Emilio entered my room and brought me my belt, handing it to me and as I reached, the bandana came partially undone, and for the briefest of moments our eyes met. Much to my eternal gratefulness, we both immediately carried on as though nothing happened, though his eyes registered shock. What could have been my death sentence was ignored. Why? I will never know.
To repeat this could have been a death sentence. He asked me, rather unnecessarily, “Did you see me?” Obvious that I had.
“No” I lied.
We continued preparations as though nothing. As they guided me into the vehicle, they once again put a hood over my head. This car was not the crummy clunker as before, rather it was a brand new 4Runner and smelled new.
One last note. Taking my final ride to freedom, a drop off in the middle of the night down an abandoned dirt road in the forested hills, the main boss asked me how much money I’d had in my wallet when I got grabbed a week before.
The wallet I carry to this day, now 2021, is the same wallet I had when I got kidnapped. One might think there’s some kind of twisted sentimentality. It’s just a damn good wallet which I’d bought at the Minneapolis airport years before, made of bulletproof Kevlar of all things. I don’t need to tell you that later on, this was the butt of much joking.
“500 Lempiras.” Back then, this was about twenty-five bucks.
“Okay, and you still have them, yes?”
“Well, no, but it doesn’t matter really…”
“Puta!! Someone is going to pay godamnit, bastards!” The boss told the driver: “Hey, drive over to the office, Puta!”
The strange and misplaced display of honor amongst thieves caught my attention.
He was pissed. I almost felt bad for the guys who guarded me. Though I was almost certain it was the pistoleros, the gunmen who stole the money, and not the country guys who guarded me. Even though 500 Lempiras is almost nothing, it was still potentially how I was going to pay for transportation back to San Pedro Sula, more than enough for something to eat and the bus.
The sicarios, or gunmen, were the evil stuff of movies. These are the real bad guys. It’s in their faces. The night before my kidnapping, I was out with my wife and many friends celebrating her birthday at a steak house. Across the way, several tables away, I saw four guys observing me. The look on their faces was one of pure evil, predatory. I was sure they were taking my measure. I used to get mean looks as I look like a gringo cracker and my wife is a Honduran with beautiful dark cinnamon skin. Some people, either black, Latinos, or white, struggle with that. But their stares were more than that. I will never know.
The moon was out as I tore off my blind, the roar of the kidnappers’ car now growing distant. I remember perfectly now that as I got out of the car, I fully expected to get shot. I ran into a field to hide in case they returned hiding in a partially destroyed structure and called my head of security in San Pedro Sula; I worried about snakes as they love these old buildings.