Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 13. Diana Turbay
Diana Turbay – the daughter of a former Colombian president – was a brunette with kind eyes and a magnetic personality. In August 1990, she was invited to interview a priest leading a guerrilla group called the Army of National Liberation. Due to the risks involved, her friends and family advised her against it. But Diana was not the type to shrink from danger if she thought that good could be achieved. She’d once travelled into guerrilla territory on a mule, hoping to gain an understanding of their motivations. She’d visited a camp to meet the leader of the M-19 – who’d fired a rocket that had almost hit the room containing her father when he was president – in the hope of helping the peace process along. Now if interviewing the priest would make things safer for Colombia, she’d gladly risk her life.
On August 30, an old van arrived in Bogotá to take Diana and her crew to the priest. The two young men and a woman who emerged said they were part of the guerrilla leadership. West of Bogotá, they switched from the van to two other vehicles. After eating at a tavern, they traversed a dangerous road in heavy rain, and had to stop at dawn until a landslide was cleared.
After a sleepless night, they met up with a patrol with five horses at 11 am. For four hours, Diana rode on a horse, while most of the group walked through mountain forest and a valley with houses nestled into coffee groves. Recognising Diana from the TV, some of the locals yelled greetings. In the evening, they arrived at a deserted ranch near a highway, beyond which was Medellín. A young man claimed to be with the guerrillas, but offered no more information. Perplexed as to why they weren’t in guerrilla territory yet, they consoled themselves with the notion that the priest wanted to meet them in the unlikeliest of places as a security precaution.
After two hours, they stopped in Copacabana, at a small house with white walls, its roof tiles green from moss. Diana and a female companion were given the best room at the back. As its windows were boarded over, a light was kept on in the room. The guards didn’t have the usual guerrilla weapons. One was even wearing a Rolex.
Three hours later, a masked man greeted them on behalf of the priest. He said that for security the women should travel to the priest first. Getting split from her male colleagues troubled Diana. One of them whispered that she shouldn’t go anywhere without them. With fright in her eyes, she gave him her ID.
Before sunrise, the women were moved to a bigger house. Her male companions arrived on September 10. Diana confided that she was depressed over having led them all into what she now suspected was a trap. She said that she didn’t fear for herself, but if anything happened to her colleagues, she wouldn’t find any peace. Throughout the night, she was kept awake by thoughts of what her husband, children and parents were going through. The next night, Diana and two female colleagues were forced to trek along a path in the rain.
Diana’s distressed parents asked the government to locate her through their channels of communication with the guerrilla groups. Seven of the groups denied any knowledge of her in a joint statement.
A guard finally came clean: “You’re being held by the Extraditables. But don’t worry because you’re going to see something you won’t forget.”
On October 30, sixty-one days after Diana’s kidnapping, the Extraditables announced: “We acknowledge publicly that we are holding the missing journalists.”
Particularly concerned about a colleague with a heart ailment, Diana entered his room. He’d recently been in hospital and had opposed the trip. “Don’t you hate me for not listening to you?” Diana said, her eyes filling with tears.
“Yes, I hated you with all my soul when we were told that we are in the hands of the Extraditables, but I’ve come to accept captivity as an unavoidable fate.” He felt guilty for not talking her out of the excursion.
Diana and her colleagues were moved numerous times to houses with different guards and conditions. The women were mostly housed separately from their male companions. At any time, they could be uprooted from one house to another due to the volatile nature of the kidnapping business; for instance when the authorities entered the neighbourhood where they were being held. They often found themselves rushed along muddy paths, going up and down hills in the rain. Sometimes they were moved around Medellín by taxis, whose drivers skilfully avoided checkpoints and police patrols.
In the houses, plates, glasses and sheets were generally unwashed. Toilets could only be flushed a limited amount of times each day. Guards urinated in the sinks and showers, and slept in padlocked rooms, as if they too were prisoners. Every so often, hooded bosses showed up to instruct their underlings and take reports. The mood the boss was in set the tone for the house.
Breakfast was usually a corn cake with a sausage and coffee. Lunch was beans in grey water, shreds of meat in a grease-like slop, a little rice and a soda. Cutlery was banned except for spoons. With no chairs, the captives dined on their mattresses. In the evening, they ate anything remaining from lunch. Vigilant for any updates on their disappearance, they passed time watching TV, listening to the radio and reading newspapers.
The man delegated to oversee Diana’s kidnapping was don Pacho, a thirtysomething who brought gifts, books, sweets, music cassettes and occasionally hope during his rare appearances. His underlings didn’t wear hoods and went by comic-book names.
Some of the guards armed with machine guns were teenagers. Displaced from the countryside, many had ended up in the slums of Medellín, where they had learned to kill. They wore T-shirts, sneakers and cut-off shorts. Starting a new shift, two would arrive at 6 am. They were supposed to alternate their sleep, but sometimes they drifted off together. A fifteen-year-old boasted about how many police he’d killed after Pablo had put a bounty on the police force, offering two million pesos for each killing. In response, the police were snatching young people off the street to torture and murder. Resigned to dying young, they consoled themselves by buying motorbikes and new clothes, and being able to send money to their mothers. They hated authority and the lives they’d been born into. They viewed crime as the only ladder up in a cruel world.
Attempting to steady their nerves, the young guards smoked marijuana at nights or drank beer laced with a tranquilliser called Rohypnol. They played with their guns and sometimes fired them by accident. One bullet went through a door and hit another guard in the knee. When the radio announced that Pope John Paul II wanted the hostages to be freed, a guard called the Pope “a nosy son of a bitch,” which provoked a near shootout among the guards. Many of them prayed daily to Jesus and Mary, and asked for protection, forgiveness and success in their criminal endeavours.
Diana was unsettled by the guards bragging about sexually assaulting strangers, and their perverse and sadistic tendencies. Occasionally, they watched movies with extreme violence and pornography, which created tension with the hostages, especially when they needed to use the toilet. Guards insisted on leaving the toilet door partially open. Sometimes they caught the guards peeping at them.
Initially, the guards stressed Diana out by strolling around in their underwear and blasting music, which prevented her from sleeping. Over time, she convinced them to dress properly and to lower the music. When one tried to sleep next to her, she had him leave the room. With the guards, she sometimes played Parcheesi: an Indian cross and circle board game. She helped the guards make shopping lists. They boasted that there was no shortage of money, and they could satisfy any request within twelve hours.
The hostages sometimes found comfort in messages brought from couriers who travelled from house to house. They delivered newspapers, toiletries and sweat-suits, which the hostages were required to wear.
At night, Diana and her friend, Azucena, who worked on Diana’s newscast, sought solace from each other. They discussed the news and politics, which helped distract them from their situation. They photographed each other in bed and tried to sleep until lunch arrived. They spent most of the time in a house belonging to a cartel boss, which was far more spacious than the other houses. They had a table to eat at. They listened to CDs.
Watching TV, Diana saw a show filmed in her Bogotá apartment. Realising she’d failed to lock a safe, she wrote to her mother, “I hope nobody is rummaging around in there.” Through a TV program, her mother gave her reassurance.
Assorted people visited the house. Unfamiliar women gave the hostages pictures of saints for good luck. Sometimes families with children and dogs showed up.
As the news reported the kidnappings of journalists, celebrities and members of the wealthy class, Diana realised she was part of Pablo’s plan to pressure the government into giving him the terms he desired for his surrender, including the end of extradition.
At night, Diana kept a secret diary of whatever was on her mind, which ranged from thoughts on politics to things happening around her. Her first entry was dated September 27, 1990: “Since Wednesday the 19th, when the man in charge of this operation came here, so many things have happened that I can hardly catch my breath.” During the early weeks of her captivity, no one had publicly claimed responsibility, which Diana believed, according to her diary, was to enable the kidnappers to kill her quietly when she was redundant to them. “That’s my understanding of it and it fills me with horror.” As usual, she was more concerned with the safety of her colleagues than herself.
Leaning on religion gave her strength. She wrote prayers such as the Our Father and Hail Mary. When she wanted to speak to God or her family, she wrote the words down. She even prayed for Pablo: “He may have more need of your help. May it be your will that he see the good and avoid more grief, and I ask you to help him understand our situation.” When the guards found out about the diary, they gave her more paper and pencils.
Diana’s ex-president father was doing everything in his power to try to get the government to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Pablo, which public opinion had moved in favour of. After the first round of bombings and assassinations, the outraged public demanded retribution and imprisonment. During the next round, the public still supported extradition. But now the bombings had gone on for so long that the public wanted peace.
The president’s security adviser offered an idea: if a trafficker surrendered and confessed to a crime, he would earn a sentence reduction, with a further sentence reduction available if property was turned over to the state. With the help of the justice minister, a draft was made: “Capitulation to the Law.”
Even though Pablo’s nemesis, General Maza, feared that Pablo would continue running his operation while incarcerated, he didn’t object to the draft, but he did say, “This country won’t be put right as long as Escobar is alive.” After the Council of Ministers signed the decree, Maza described it as a fallacy of the times.
As the decree didn’t guarantee non-extradition, Pablo was dissatisfied: “Because it must be in writing, in a decree, that under no circumstances will we be extradited, not for any crime, not to any country.” He wanted traffickers to be pardoned in the same way as the M-19, which had been allowed to become a political party. He also demanded safety guarantees for his family and friends, and a prison impregnable to his enemies.
Publicly, Diana’s father denied getting any messages from the Extraditables, even though he had received a three-page handwritten letter: “A respectful greeting from the Extraditables,” which he believed was Pablo’s pseudonym. The hostages were “in good health and in good conditions of captivity that can be considered normal in such cases.” The letter railed against police brutality. It included three conditions for Diana’s release. Firstly, the suspension of military operations against the traffickers in Medellín and Bogotá. Secondly, the withdrawal of the Elite Corps, a special police unit fighting traffickers. Thirdly, the dismissal of its commander and twenty officers accused of torturing and murdering 400 young men from the Medellín slums. Failing these conditions, the Extraditables would engage in a war of extermination by bombing the big cities and assassinating judges, politicians and journalists. “If there is a coup, then welcome to it. We don’t have much to lose.” The Extraditables wanted a response within three days, sent to a room at the Hotel Continental in Medellín.
A notary took the response to the hotel. As soon as he entered the designated room, the phone rang.
“Did you bring the package?”
Two young well-dressed men entered the room to collect the response.
Within a week, Pablo dispatched Guido Parra to negotiate with the parents of some of the prominent hostages. The forty-eight-year-old had practised law all of his life and was considered an expert. Wearing a light suit, with a bright shirt and tie, he said he was Pablo Escobar’s attorney.
“Then the letter you’ve brought is from him?”
“No,” Guido Parra said, realising his mistake. “It’s from the Extraditables, but you should direct your response to Escobar because he’ll be able to influence the negotiation.”
Dr Turbay and another parent of a hostage, Santos, took the latest response from the Extraditables to the president, who met them in a small room adjacent to his private library.
The president said that Guido Parra was a bad emissary. “Very smart, a good lawyer, but extremely dangerous. Of course, he does have Escobar’s complete backing.” After studying the letter, the president cast doubt on its authenticity. Maybe it was somebody playing a trick pretending to be Pablo. He said that the intelligence agencies had been unable to ascertain the locations of the hostages. The two parents left the meeting disheartened.
For weeks, Diana’s parents had requested evidence from the kidnappers to show that she was alive. In October 1990, a cassette tape arrived. “Daddy, it’s difficult to send you a message under these conditions, but after our many requests they’ve allowed us to do it. We watch and listen to the news constantly.”
Hoping for a progress report, Dr Turbay took the recording to Santos, and they visited the president in his library. Over whiskey, the president blamed the lack of progress on the Extraditables for demanding a more specific decree. Having worked on the decree all afternoon, he believed that tomorrow would bring better news.
The next day, the two parents found the president in a grim mood. “This is a very difficult moment. I’ve wanted to help you, and I have been helping within the limits of the possible, but pretty soon I won’t be able to do anything at all.”
Dismayed, Dr Turbay stood. “Mr President, you are proceeding as you must, and we must act as the fathers of our children. I understand, and ask you not to do anything that may create a problem for you as the head of state.” Pointing at the president’s chair, he said, “If I were sitting there, I’d do the same.”
Afterwards, Dr Turbay said to the other parent, “We shouldn’t expect anything else from him. Something happened between last night and today and he can’t say what it is.”
After having four children with Dr Turbay, Diana’s mother, Nydia, had remarried. With Dr Turbay making no progress with the president, Nydia became more active. She arranged masses across the country. She organised radio and TV newscasts, pleading for the release of the hostages. She had soccer matches open with the same plea. She went to meetings attended by the family members of the hostages.
An informant contacted the Colombian Solidarity Foundation, claiming that a note from a friend found in a basket of vegetables had stated that Diana was at a farm near Medellín, protected by drunken guards incapable of standing up to a rescue operation. Petrified that a rescue attempt meant certain death for her daughter, probably from police bullets, Nydia asked the informant to suppress the information.
The clue about Medellín prompted Nydia to visit Martha Ochoa – Jorge Ochoa’s sister who’d been kidnapped by the M-19 – who Nydia believed was capable of contacting Pablo directly. The Ochoa sisters listened to Nydia sympathetically, but said they couldn’t influence Pablo. They complained to Nydia about the heavy-handedness of the police, and gave harrowing stories of their family’s suffering.
Having attempted to send a letter to Pablo via Guido Parra, and received no response, Nydia asked if they’d give Pablo a letter from her. Worried that Pablo might accuse them of creating problems for him, the sisters politely declined. Nydia viewed the encounter with optimism. Having felt that the sisters had warmed to her, she believed that a door had been opened that might lead to Diana’s release and the surrender of the Ochoa brothers.
Meeting with the president, she described her visit to the Ochoa sisters. She asked him to use his power to prevent a rescue attempt and to give the Extraditables more time to surrender. He said that his policy was not to attempt any rescue without the families’ authorisation. Nydia left concerned that another entity might attempt to rescue the hostages without presidential approval.
Nydia continued her dialogue with the Ochoa sisters. Visiting one of Pablo’s sisters-in-law, she heard more details of police brutality. Hoping to provoke an emotional response from Pablo, she gave the sister-in-law a letter for him in her own handwriting that she’d constructed meticulously from many drafts. She addressed Pablo as “a feeling man who loves his mother and who would give his life for her, who has a wife and young innocent defenceless children whom he wishes to protect.” She said that Pablo had achieved his goal of drawing attention to his plight, and requested that he “show the world the human being you are, and in a great humanitarian act that everyone will understand, return the hostages to us.”
After reading the letter, Pablo’s sister-in-law said that she was sure he’d be moved by its content. “Everything you’re doing touches him, and that can only work in your daughter’s favour.” She sealed the letter. “Don’t worry. Pablo will have the letter today.”
Returning to Bogotá, Nydia was convinced that the letter would achieve its desired effect. As Dr Turbay hadn’t asked the president to stop the police from searching for the hostages, she decided to do so. The president declined, believing that it was OK to offer an alternative judicial policy to the Extraditables, but ceasing police operations meant stopping the hunt for Pablo. Enraged, she listened to the president harp on about the police not needing permission to act, and that he couldn’t order them not to act within the limits of the law. She felt that the president didn’t care about Diana’s life.
The families of the hostages formed a group called the Notables, which included two former presidents. After lengthy discussions, they decided to adopt the strategy of the Extraditables by issuing public letters. In the hope of achieving progress in the negotiations, they proposed that trafficking become a collective unique crime, and the traffickers be treated as political offenders, just like the M-19.
Pablo’s interest had been piqued. One of his lawyers asked the Notables to obtain a presidential letter guaranteeing his life, but they refused to ask the president.
The Notables issued a letter redefining themselves: “Our good offices have acquired a new dimension, not limited to an occasional rescue, but concerned with how to achieve peace for all Colombians.”
The president approved, but made his position clear: the capitulation policy was the government’s only position on the surrender of the Extraditables.
Enraged, Pablo sent a letter to Guido Parra: “The letter from the Notables is almost cynical. We are supposed to release the hostages quickly because the government is dragging its feet as it studies our situation. Can they really believe we will let ourselves be deceived again?” Since their first letter, the Extraditables’ position hadn’t changed. “There was no reason to change it, since we have not received positive replies to the requests made in our first communication. This is a negotiation, not a game to find out who is clever and who is stupid.”
In a letter to Guido Parra, Pablo detailed his goal of having the government grant him a secure prison camp. While negotiating their surrender terms, the M-19 had achieved this. He’d already chosen a location. “Since this requires money, the Extraditables would assume the costs… I’m telling you all this because I want you to talk to the mayor of Envigado, and tell him you represent me and explain the idea to him. But the reason I want you to talk to him is to get him to write a public letter to the justice minister saying he thinks the Extraditables have not accepted Decree 2047 because they fear for their safety, and that the municipality of Envigado, as its contribution to peace for the Colombian people, is prepared to build a special prison that will offer protection and security to those who surrender. Talk to him in a direct clear way, so he’ll talk to Gaviria [the president] and propose the camp.” Pablo wanted a public response from the justice minister. “I know that will have the impact of a bomb… This way we’ll have them where we want them.”
After the minister said no, Pablo offered more, including resolving trafficker conflicts, guaranteeing that more than a hundred traffickers would surrender and an end to the war. “We are not asking for amnesty or dialogue or any of the things they say they cannot give.” He wanted to get on with surrendering “while everybody in this country is calling for dialogue and for treating us as politicals… I have no problem with extradition since I know that if they take me alive they’ll kill me, like they’ve done with everybody else.”
Diana’s father and some of the Notables confronted Pablo’s lawyer. “Don’t fuck with me. Let’s get to the point. You’ve stalled everything because your demands are moronic, and there’s only one damn thing at issue here: your boys have to turn themselves in and confess to some crime that they can serve a twelve-year sentence for. That’s what the law says, period. And in exchange for that, they’ll get a reduced sentence and a guarantee of protection. All the rest is bullshit.”
“Look, Doctor,” Guido Parra said, “the thing is that the government says they won’t be extradited, everybody says so, but where does the decree say it specifically?”
They agreed that Decree 2047 needed to be revised because it was too open to interpretation.
“How soon after the decree is amended will the hostages be released?”
“They’ll be free in twenty-four hours,” Guido Parra said.
“All of them, of course?”
“All of them.”
On November 26, 1990 – the beginning of the fourth month of Diana’s captivity – Pablo decided to release one of Diana’s team. When the guards told Juan Vitta he was being freed due to illness, he thought that he was being tricked into going somewhere to be shot.
“Shave and put on clean clothes.”
After dressing, he was instructed on what to say to the police and the media. If he gave any clues about his location, which led to a rescue operation, the other hostages would be killed. He was blindfolded and transported on a maze-like journey through Medellín. His captors left him on a street corner.
Another of Diana’s colleagues, Hero Buss, was told he would be freed on December 11. The owners of his house of captivity were a couple who spent their bags of expense money provided by Pablo on constant parties and lavish dinners, attended by assorted family members and friends. They’d treated the large German as a celebrity, having seen him on TV. At least thirty visitors had posed for photos with him, obtained his autograph and even feasted and danced with him. At a time when the couple had no money and the wife of the house had gone into labour, Hero Buss had lent them 50,000 pesos for her hospital bill.
The day of his freedom, they returned his camera equipment and paid him back the 50,000 pesos plus 15,000 pesos for an earlier loan. Unable to find the correct shoes for his large feet, they got him a small pair that didn’t fit. He’d lost thirty-five pounds, so they bought him a shirt and trousers smaller than those he wore before captivity. His only wish that they’d never granted was his request to interview Pablo.
Carrying his bags on his back, he was left by the headquarters of a newspaper, El Colombiano, with a letter from the Extraditables, praising his human-rights activism and emphasising that the capitulation policy should guarantee the safety of the Extraditables and their families. The first thing he did was ask a passer-by to take his photo.
The release of two hostages lifted Diana’s spirits, which were further boosted when the guards told her and her companion, Azucena, that they were next. But as they’d heard that before, part of them refused to believe it. Assuming that one would be freed before the other, they each wrote a letter for the other to deliver to their family.
On December 13, whispers and noise in the house roused Diana, who leapt out of bed, expecting to be freed. Suddenly energised, she woke Azucena, and they both packed. While Diana showered, a guard told Azucena that only she was going. Azucena got dressed.
After emerging from the shower, Diana gazed at her companion, her eyes glistening with anticipation. “Are we going, Azu?”
Breathing deeply, Azucena lowered her head. “No, I’m going alone.” Azucena started crying.
Even though she felt as if she’d been stabbed in the heart, Diana mustered the courage to say, “I’m so happy for you. Don’t worry. I knew it would be this way.” She gave Azucena a letter for her mother, asking Nydia to celebrate Christmas with Diana’s children. Diana hugged Azucena. They walked to the car and hugged again. Azucena got inside. Diana waved.
On the way to the airport, Azucena heard her husband on a radio broadcast. Asked what he’d been doing when he found out that she was going to be released, he said he’d been writing a poem to her. On December 16, they celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary together.
On December 17, Diana’s cameraman, Orlando, was in a room he’d recently been moved to. Ruminating on the cause of the fresh blood stains on the mattress – either a stabbing or torture – was making him feel ill.
His door opened. In walked don Pacho, the boss in charge of Diana’s house. “Put clothes on. You’re leaving now.”
With hardly any time to dress, convinced he was going to be killed, he was given a statement for the media and his eyes were covered. Don Pacho drove him through Medellín, gave him 5,000 pesos for a taxi and dropped him off at 9 am. Unable to hail a taxi, he called his wife. “Slim, it’s me.”
At first, she didn’t recognise his voice. “Oh my God!”
During Orlando’s captivity, they’d decided to have a second child when they were reunited. After a couple of nights of being around too many people wanting to speak to Orlando, they got lucky right away.
Diana kept abreast of the news via TV, radio and newspapers, but missed the enjoyment of discussing it with Azucena. In her diary, she wrote, “I don’t want and it isn’t easy to describe what I feel at each moment: the pain, the anguish, the terrifying days I’ve experienced.” Increasingly, she mulled over dying in a rescue attempt, while hoping her release would be “pretty soon, now.”
Don Pacho stopped having long conversations with Diana and bringing her newspapers. Having requested to meet Pablo, she rehearsed what she would say to him, convinced she’d be able to get him to negotiate. Hearing her mother on TV or radio gave her hope. “I have always felt she was my guardian angel.” She was convinced that her mother’s determination would result in a Christmas release.
On Christmas Eve, a party at the house holding Diana included barbecued meat, alcohol, salsa music, coloured lights and fireworks. Assuming it was her leaving celebration, she expected to be told to pack her belongings. On Christmas Day, the guards gave her a lined leather jacket, which she believed was to keep her warm in the cold weather during her imminent freedom. She envisioned her mother getting supper ready and a wreath of mistletoe at home with a welcome message for her. But watching all of the holiday lights getting turned off crushed her hope.
The next day, her family appeared on a Christmas TV show, including her two children – who had grown in her absence – and brothers and sisters. Even though the family hadn’t been in a celebratory mood, it had been arranged due to her letter delivered by Azucena. Nydia, too, had anticipated Diana’s release that day.
Diana wrote, “I confess my sorrow at not being there, not sharing the day with all of them… But it cheered me so. I felt very close to everyone, it made me happy to see them all together.”
As usual, her thoughts shifted to her situation. Why wasn’t the government more actively pursuing the surrender of the Extraditables if it had satisfied their requests? “As long as that is not demanded of them, they will feel more comfortable about taking their time, knowing they have in their power the most important weapon [the hostages] for exerting pressure on the government.” She compared the negotiations to a game of chess. “But which piece am I? I can’t help thinking we’re all dispensable.” She’d lost faith in the Notables: “They’d started out with an eminently humanitarian mission and ended up doing a favour for the Extraditables.”
Since Christmas, Diana had been housed with another hostage, Richard. Their nocturnal existence consisted of listening to the radio and talking.
In January, a guard burst into the room of a hostage. “It’s all fucked up! They’re going to kill hostages!” Due to the murder of the Priscos – a group close to Pablo – by the authorities, Pablo had decided to kill a hostage every three days.
Diana overheard the guards discussing the death of the Priscos. One was crying.
“And what do we do now with the merchandise [hostages]?” a guard said.
“We’ll get rid of it.”
The words instilled Diana with so much fear that she couldn’t sleep. She was told that they would soon be changing houses.
The first on the kill list was Marina Montoya, who’d been missing for half a year and was presumed dead. Her brother had been the president’s secretary general, and had endured the kidnapping of his own son, who was released, only to be followed by the kidnapping of his sister nine months later. Once a stately figure, old Marina had withered from illness and worry. She’d charmed some of the guards who treated her as a grandmother figure.
On January 23, 1991, a guard called the Monk entered the room where Marina was watching TV with two younger female hostages. “We came to take Granny to another house.”
Marina was in bed, cold and pale, her white hair a mess.
“Get your things together, Granny. You have five minutes.”
He stooped to help her up. Her mouth opened but emitted no sound. She stood, grabbed her bag and floated towards the bathroom like a ghost.
While she was in there, a hostage said, “Are you going to kill her?”
“You can’t ask anything like that! I told you: she is going to a better house. I swear.”
After the two hostages asked to speak to a boss, another guard arrived and confiscated the TV and radio, which the hostages viewed as a bad omen for Marina. The guards said they’d collect Marina in five minutes.
Taking her time, Marina emerged in a pink sweat-suit, men’s socks and her original shoes, mildewed and too large for her shrunken feet. Under the sweat-suit, she wore a scapula with a plastic cross. “Who knows, maybe they’re going to release me.”
“Of course they are.”
“That’s right. How wonderful!”
Marina asked if they had messages for their families. She put some aftershave behind her ear and rearranged her majestic hair with no mirror. Sat on the bed, she smoked slowly as if resigned to her fate.
“If you have a chance to see my husband and children,” a hostage said to prevent herself from crying, “tell them I’m well and love them very much.”
“Don’t ask me to do that,” Marina said, gazing into space. “I know I’ll never have the chance.”
The two women gave Marina water and powerful sedatives, but she was unable to hold the glass with her shaking hands. One of the women held the glass, so Marina could swallow the sedatives. They gave her a pink wool hood. They hugged and kissed and said goodbye.
With a stoic expression, Marina approached the guards. They rotated the hood, so that she couldn’t see. The Monk steered her out of the house with her walking backwards.
On January 24, 1991, a corpse was discovered north of Bogotá, sat in an upright position against a barbed-wire fence, with her arms extended. Her outfit was intact except for her shoes, which had been stolen. The pink hood, still positioned with its eyeholes at the back of the head, was blood encrusted due to six bullets fired from a close distance. Most of the bullets had entered the left side of the face and the top of the skull. One had entered the forehead.
The crowd watching the magistrate examine the corpse was impressed by the white hair, the well-manicured hands and nails and even the quality of the underwear.
Unable to identify Marina, the Institute of Forensic Medicine sent the corpse to a recently dug mass grave, holding 200 people.
The beginning of 1991 saw violence escalate across Colombia. As well as cartel violence, guerrilla groups were bombing and kidnapping and murdering. Pablo issued a statement condemning the police for their practice of kidnapping young men from the Medellín slums. He claimed that at any time of the day, ten boys would be kidnapped at random, taken to a basement or an empty lot and shot dead without any questions asked. The police were operating under the assumption that the boys worked for Pablo, or eventually would, or supported him in some way. To back his claims up, Pablo referred to international human-rights organisations that were documenting the abuses committed by the Colombian authorities.
Desirous of insulating themselves from the escalating mayhem, the Ochoa brothers turned themselves in, which gave the impression of a division in the cartel. At the behest of the concerned females in the family, their surrender had been negotiated by Martha Ochoa. Each brother surrendered a month or so apart from the other, from December 18, 1990 to February 16, 1991. They ended up in Itagüí maximum-security prison.
Pablo was still holding out. Even though Decree 3030 – issued on December 14, 1990 – established that a prisoner convicted of multiple crimes would serve the amount of time for only the crime carrying the longest sentence, there was still ambiguity over extradition. Technically, the Ochoa brothers could have been extradited, which was unacceptable to Pablo. The new decree was criticised by many parties, including family members of the hostages, which led to the drafting of a third decree.
Diana’s mother viewed the surrender of the Ochoa brothers as a positive development. As soon as the first Ochoa, Fabio, had turned himself in, Nydia, her daughter and granddaughter, went to visit him in prison, accompanied by five members of the Ochoa family, including Martha.
In Fabio’s cell they were greeted by Fabio’s father. Now seventy but with a face that still exuded charm, Fabio Sr lavished Nydia with praise for her brave efforts to free Diana. He wanted her to ask the president to extend the time limit for surrender in the new decree. Unable to do so, she recommended that they put the request in writing. He offered to help her however he could.
When it was time for her to leave, the younger Fabio said to Nydia, “Where there is life, there is hope.”
Nydia visited the released hostage, Hero Buss, who said that after his first week of captivity, he hadn’t seen Diana, but the guards had told him that she was well. His biggest concern was a rescue attempt. “You cannot imagine the constant threat that they’ll kill you. Not only because the law, as they call it, is there, but because they’re always so edgy they think the tiniest noise is a rescue operation.” He recommended that she continue to lobby against a rescue and for a change to the time limit on surrender.
Since Pablo’s announcement about killing hostages, Nydia had been envisioning the worst for Diana. She pressed senior government officials to rely on intelligence agencies rather than launch a rescue. But her efforts were unable to fix her shattered heart, a pain aggravated by a feeling that something bad was imminent and a radio broadcast by the Extraditables pledging to wrap the hostages’ corpses in sacks and drop them off at the presidential palace if the decree remained unchanged.
She left a message: “I implore you to ask the president and the members of the Council on Security if they need to find bags of dead hostages at their door before they change the decree.”
When the president said that Decree 3030 needed more time, Nydia replied, “A change in the deadline is necessary not only to save the lives of the hostages, but it’s the one thing that will make the terrorists surrender. Change it and they’ll let Diana go.”
The president refused because he didn’t want to reward the Extraditables with what they wanted by taking the hostages. “Democracy was never endangered by the assassinations of four presidential candidates or because of any abduction,” the president said later. “The real threat came at those moments when we faced the temptation or risk or even the rumour of a possibility of an amnesty.”
Disappointed in Dr Turbay for not being more proactive, Nydia decided to write a letter to the president in the hope of inducing him to take more action, but she needed divine inspiration first. Cloistered in a room with a statue of the Virgin Mary and candles, Nydia prayed all night. At dawn, she started writing multiple drafts – some of which she tore up – while sobbing endlessly.
“I don’t pretend to be composing a public document. I want to communicate with the president of my country and, with all due respect, convey to him my most considered thoughts, and a justifiably anguished plea… The country knows, and all of you know, that if they happen to find the kidnappers during one of those searches, a terrible tragedy might ensue…” If the president didn’t amend the decree, “This would mean that the distress and anguish suffered not only by the families, but by the entire nation would be prolonged for endless months… Because of my convictions, because of the respect I have for you as First Magistrate of the Nation, I would be incapable of suggesting any initiative of my own devising, but I do feel inclined to entreat you, for the sake of innocent lives, not to underestimate the danger that time represents.”
The Extraditables issued a statement about the murder of the Prisco gang, which included two brothers and the man in charge of Diana’s captivity, don Pacho. They claimed that the police had used the usual excuse of a gunfight to kill Pablo’s associates in cold blood. One brother had been slain in front of his young children and pregnant wife; the other in his wheelchair – he had been paralysed during a previous assassination attempt. Within a week, a second captive would be murdered.
The statement was the realisation of Nydia’s fears. She had a sense that they were going to kill her daughter, and there was nothing that she could do to move the people who could prevent it.
The father of one of the hostages called the president. “You have to stop these raids.”
“No,” the president said. “That isn’t why I was elected.”
Slamming it down, the father almost broke the phone.
Former presidents joined the Notables in their call for a peaceful solution.
Around dawn on January 21, 1991, Diana wrote, “It’s close to five months, and only we know what this means. I don’t want to lose faith or the hope that I’ll go home safe and sound.”
Around 11 am on January 21, the mechanical noise of propellers intensified as four combat helicopters homed in on the house holding Diana. Acting on anonymous tips about armed men in the area, a military-style raid had been arranged in the hope of capturing senior cartel members.
A guard appeared at Diana’s door. “The law’s all over us.” The four flustered guards appeared incapable of standing up to the authorities.
With the guards yelling at her to hurry, Diana brushed her teeth and put on the clothes she’d been captured in, all too large now due to her weight loss. With the helicopters buzzing, she was pushed towards an exit and given a large white hat to make her look like a farmworker. They put a black shawl over her. Her colleague Richard was wearing his leather jacket and carrying his camera equipment.
“Head for the mountain!” a guard yelled.
Running, the guards fanned out, ready to train their weapons on the helicopters.
With the sun beating down upon them, Diana and Richard traversed a steep rocky path. Helicopters appeared. Gunfire erupted. Richard dived down.
“Don’t move! Play dead!” Diana said and fell facedown. “Please look at my back. Before falling, I felt something like an electric shock at my waist.”
Raising her shirt, Richard saw a hole in her body above the left hip bone. “You’ve been shot.” A high-velocity explosive bullet had shattered her spinal column. She had life-threatening internal bleeding.
The shooting grew louder. “Leave me here. Go save yourself.”
Richard fished a picture of the Virgin Mary out of his pocket and put it in Diana’s hand. To a chorus of gunfire, they prayed together.
With their guns pointed at Richard and Diana, two troops approached them.
“Don’t shoot!” Richard said.
“I don’t know. I’m Richard Becerra. I’m a journalist. This is Diana Turbay. She’s wounded.”
Richard displayed an ID. Some farmhands emerged from the vegetation and helped them put Diana on a sheet and carry her, conscious and in agony, to a helicopter.
Dr Turbay’s phone rang. A military source said that Diana had been rescued by the Elite Corps. Listening to the radio, he heard no news. He soon found out that Diana had been seriously wounded.
The first Nydia heard was that Diana was safely hospitalised, undergoing routine medical treatment. Whereas everyone else was optimistic, Nydia responded, “They’ve killed Diana!” Heading for Bogotá in a car, fixating on radio updates – the last of which said Diana was in intensive care – Nydia sobbed.
After changing clothes, she went to the airport and made a call. “They killed Diana, Mr President, and it’s your doing. It’s your fault. It’s what comes of having a soul of stone.”
“No, Señora,” the president said calmly, happy to share the good news. “It seems there was a raid and nothing is confirmed yet, but Diana is alive.”
“No. They killed her.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’m her mother and my heart tells me so.”
The Turbay family boarded a thirty-year-old presidential plane for Medellín. When they landed, a presidential adviser came on board with an update. In the helicopter to Medellín, Diana had lost consciousness. They’d cut her chest open and massaged her heart manually. Hours of emergency treatment had failed to stop the bleeding. She was dead.
At the hospital, Nydia almost collapsed upon seeing her naked daughter drained of colour on a bloodstained sheet with a massive incision on her chest. Afterwards, tortured by grief, she held a press conference. “This is the story of a death foretold.” She detailed her appeals to the president. While holding the Extraditables responsible, she said that the guilt should be shared equally by the government and the president, “who, with lack of feeling, almost with coldness and indifference, turned a deaf ear to the appeals that there be no rescues and that the lives of the hostages not be placed in danger.”
The media reported her statement. The president called a meeting. He wanted to issue a denial of Nydia’s claims, but instead it was decided that all of the senior members of the government would attend the funeral.
Before the funeral, Nydia sent Diana’s letters to the president.
In a crowded cathedral, the president got up and walked towards Nydia, intending to shake her hand, his every step followed by the eyes of the mourners and the lenses of the media. Convinced Nydia would turn away from him in disgust, he held out his hand. Cameras clicked and lights flashed. Relieved that he hadn’t attempted to hug her, she shook it gingerly.
After the mass, Nydia asked to see the president to give him some new information. Although he feared she was coming to pluck out his heart, he agreed to see her.
Wearing black, Nydia entered his office. “I’ve come to do you a favour.” Having learned that the president hadn’t ordered the fatal raid, Nydia asked for his forgiveness. Convinced that he had been deceived, she’d discovered that the purpose of the raid was indeed to free the hostages, not to capture Pablo. The authorities had obtained the location of the house holding the hostages by capturing and torturing one of Pablo’s gang. After taking the troops to the house, the gang member had been shot, left at the scene and accounted for as someone killed in the shootout.
The attitude of the president – which Nydia later described as a block of ice – reduced Nydia to tears and provoked her into relaunching her earlier attacks. “Just think about it. What if your daughter had been in this situation? What would you have done then?” Without giving him any time to answer, she said, “Don’t you think, Mr President, that you were mistaken in your handling of this problem?”
“It’s possible.” Nydia shook his hand and bolted out.
The police had claimed that Diana had been shot in the spine by one of the kidnappers. Pablo’s version of events concurred with Nydia’s story. He said the police had tortured two of his men, whom he named and for whom he provided ID numbers. Running away from the house, Diana had been shot by the police. Several innocent farmhands had also been shot and accounted for as criminals killed in the gun battle.
On January 30, 1991, the Extraditables announced that the order to execute Marina Montoya had been issued on January 23. “If she was executed, we do not understand why the police have not yet reported finding her body.”
The statement from the Extraditables caught the eye of the pathologist who’d performed the autopsy on Marina. She was located in a mass grave, next to the corpse of a boy who was wrapped in her pink sweat-suit. Her son identified her distinctive hands.
The deaths of Diana and Marina swung more people in favour of a peaceful settlement. With the president acquiescing, Decree 3030 was issued on January 29.
The Extraditables announced, “We will respect the lives of the remaining hostages.” They said one hostage would be released right away. But the negotiations were stalled by Pablo’s concerns about the continued killings of slum kids by the police, an alliance between General Maza and the Cali Cartel to kill Pablo’s people and the safety of his family and associates after he surrendered.