In exclusive interviews with Diálogo, two former Colombian police sergeants described years of captivity in jungle encampments after being kidnapped by terrorists with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Cesar Augusto Lasso Monsalve and John Frank Pinchao recounted their ordeals in a series of interviews. FARC terrorists held Lasso Monsalve captive for more than 13 years, and Pinchao for nearly nine years.
The FARC is engaged in ongoing peace talks with the government in Havana. As a condition of engaging in peace talks, the government required the FARC to refrain from committing kidnappings. Nonetheless, FARC terrorists were responsible for 32 of the 299 kidnappings that were committed in Colombia in 2013, according to the military.
Lasso Monsalve and Pinchao described the terrible conditions they and other kidnapping victims suffer. The two men survived heat, humidity, tropical diseases, loneliness, and other hardships.
FARC attacks Mitu
FARC terrorists kidnapped Lasso Monsalve and Pinchao following the three-day attack on the town of Mitu that began just before 5 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1998. About 1,500 FARC terrorists attacked the town, which had about 5,400 inhabitants.
The attackers ignited 200 gas-cylinder bombs which destroyed dozens of buildings. FARC terrorists engaged in shootouts with security forces throughout the day, and attacked a police station which housed most of the town’s security forces. The fighting raged for three days and nights.
Though they were greatly outnumbered, the 120 soldiers and police officers at the police station fought ferociously. By the end of the battle, 60 soldiers, police officers, and civilians were dead. Another 84 police officers were missing.
Among the missing were Lasso Monsalve and Pinchao, who at the time were both sergeants in the National Police of Colombia (PNC).
FARC terrorists had captured Lasso Monsalve and Pinchao, placed them in shackles, and kidnapped them. For years, the FARC kept the two sergeants in captivity.
The two sergeants survived heat, humidity, tropical diseases, loneliness, and other hardships. But both men survived and regained their freedom.
In separate interviews with Diálogo, Lasso Monsalve and Pinchao shared their dramatic stories of survival and resilience.
Sergeant Pinchao’s ordeal
Pinchao grew up in a poor section of Bogotá which was plagued by crime and violence. Seeing all the criminal behavior in his neighborhood inspired him to keep people safe, he recalled.
“As a child living in the poverty belts of Bogotá rife with crime and violence awakened in me a repudiation of criminals,” Pinchao said. “As soon as I was able I enlisted.” Pinchao joined the PNC in 1992, after his 18th birthday.
Pinchao knew that being a police officer could be dangerous. But he never dreamed he would face such a terrible ordeal.
After the fighting had died down in Mitu, FARC terrorists took the two captured sergeants to a jungle encampment. The conditions were horrible. Over time, the FARC took Pinchao and Lasso Monsalve to different camps, sometimes forcing them to march 20 days in a row.
For a while, the terrorists kept a chain tied tightly around Pinchao’s neck. The chain caused severe pain.
“We remained imprisoned in barbed-wire fences herded like in a Nazi prison camp,” Pinchao told Diálogo during a series of phone and e-mail interviews conducted in April. “The days were monotonous; however we sought distraction mechanisms, such as board games or physical exercise.”
The FARC fed Pinchao and the other captives meager meals of rice and peas. Several times, Pinchao became seriously ill with malaria. I
n October 2004, at which point the two sergeants had been in captivity for nearly six years, the FARC separated them, placing Pinchao and Lasso Monsalve in different camps.
A dramatic escape
After about eight years in captivity, Pinchao was determined to regain his freedom. He planned his escape for more than a year.
In April 2007, Pinchao put some corn tamale dough and a water bottle inside his pocket. He waited for a moment when a guard was distracted, then ran – and never stopped. The water spilled onto his tamale dough. For days, all he ate was wet tamale dough.
Pinchao walked, swam and crawled through the Amazon jungle, enduring mosquito bites and avoiding poisonous plants and dangerous animals.
Once, he climbed a tree to avoid a tiger. Finally, after 17 days, he ran into an anti-narcotics police patrol, which rescued him. Once he was free, Pinchao slowly regained his physical health. He also wrote a book, “My Escape to Freedom,” which was published in January 2008.
Pinchao retired from the PNC in 2012.
Thinking about the love of his family helped him survive his captivity, Pinchao said. To move forward in his life, he said, he holds no ill will against his captors.
“Forgiveness is important to move forward, it is a form of freedom from pain and letting go of the chains to the pastt,” he said.
Lasso Monsalve’s time in captivity a kind of “purgatory”
Lasso Monsalve grew up in Manzinales, where he dreamed of becoming a police officer. He joined the PNC in 1988, when he was 18
Lasso Monsalve’s memories of the FARC attack on Mitu are dream-like, “like an action movie where I was one of the actors,” he said.
Just before the attack, Lasso Monsalve and other PNC agents had provided security for Children's Day celebrations. When the FARC attacked, the town became a battlefield.
“After hours of intense fighting I ran out of ammunition,” Lasso Monsalve told Diálogo during a series of phone interviews conducted in April and May. “The (FARC) murdered 8 civilians in front of me with the excuse that they were police informers.”
Like Pinchao, Lasso Monsalve suffered health problems during his captivity. He contracted malaria four times, and suffered from severe abdominal pain and high fevers.
Some fellow PNC agents who had also been kidnapped died from disease and starvation.
Storms were dangerous. “During a night of heavy rain and thunderstorm my peers and I were out in the open with chains to our necks,” Lasso Monsalve recalled. “Lightning hit right next to us killing a (FARC operative).”
At times, FARC terrorists allowed Lasso Monsalve and other captives to listen to the radio program “Voices of Kidnapping.” On the program, family members and friends of kidnapping victims send out messages to their loved ones over the radio airwaves.
“To listen to the radio was a moment awaited by all of us,” Lasso Monsalve said. “Messages gave us hope. A message on our birthday was very special to us.”
Lasso Monsalve missed some major events in his family’s life during his captivity. When the FARC captured him, his wife was pregnant. She gave birth to a girl. In 2000, his father, Daniel Lasso, died of a heart attack.
In April, 2012, the FARC released Lasso Monsalve, along with 10 other police officers and soldiers. The release of the captives was a gesture to show a willingness to pursue peace, FARC leaders said.
Lasso Monsalve’s faith and pride in being a PNC agent helped him survive his ordeal.
“I learned to value life, friendship and family and to understand death. To never give up hope,” he said. “I learned the true meaning of being a policeman to be proud of it and that our job is to serve society. “I spent thirteen years and five months in purgatory between life and death “
Since the FARC released him, Lasso Monsalve has continued his police career and has been promoted to the rank of sergeant major.
He is grateful for his freedom and proud of his service in the PNC.
“Upon returning to freedom I found a National Police that has international prestige and is a model for many police institutions throughout the world,” he said.