Terrible events seldom happen out of the blue. They are the result of a trail of mishaps that culminate in disaster. A trail of mishaps was enacted in the southern border area of Colombia, the day after the DEA team and their CIA minders visited the Green Beret base at Pasto. These events were to prove that risk assessments written by people who had no true understanding of the nature of the risk, were worthless.
They were on the Pan American highway, south of Ipiales and realised they were heading towards the border crossing. The two-car SUV convoy and a single police escort turned round and headed off the highway towards Potosi and the area where coca production had been eradicated and the farmers were growing coffee and cocoa. The DEA took some photographs of these crops and the intention was to continue along the road, until it looped back to the Pan American highway near San Pedro. One of the DEA passengers suggested stopping at a service station for a comfort break and the female members of the party filed out to use the basic facilities. After a few (well rather a lot) of minutes they were on their way again, until one of the women realised, she had left her purse back at the service station.
The convoy doubled back and, in an area, where the road formed switchbacks through a hilly section, the road was blocked by a lorry that had spilled its load of sugarcane all over the road, effectively blocking it. The police car was leading and the two officers got out and wildly gesticulated, shouting at them to hurry up and get the cane off the road. The simple Colombian farmers produced two AK47s and killed the policemen, riddling the police car with around forty rounds.
The SUV drivers and the CIA minders knew they were in trouble and frantically reversed the vehicle. Camouflaged guerrillas appeared from the scrub at the side of the road and fired at the drivers, killing one and severely wounding the other and the CIA minder next to him. All credit to his bravery, the CIA man in the second SUV rolled out of the door and opened fire with his APC 9, killing two guerrillas before he went down in a hail of AK47 rounds, some of which wounded a DEA man in the rear of the SUV.
The armed insurgents dragged the four DEA representatives and the female CIA minder out of the vehicles and searched them. When the found the woman was armed, they clubbed her with rifle butts and ripped the radio equipment from her. The wounded still in the vehicles were shot where they lay. The two men and three women were marched at gunpoint through the cultivated strip and into the jungle, two men helping the beaten CIA woman. It was over in less than three minutes and the FARC now had five hostages that were extremely high value.
Rivera was working in the Agency when a CIA representative from the Directorate of Operations burst into the office.
“Head of Station needs to see you right now, Clarita!”
“What’s it about?”
“Haven’t you heard? The DEA team have gone missing. They found their vehicles and two dead bodyguards from the Administration, a male DEA member, the drivers and the police escort, all killed they think by the FARC.”
“Not a minute to lose. Let’s go.”
She remembered to log out of the classified terminal and followed the staffer to the Operations Directorate. The Director was on the phone, while his staff continued to provide updates as they came in. He finished his phone call and looked up at Rivera.
“This is a bad day for us, Clarita. You’ve heard?”
“Only the bare facts that Anthony told me on the way up here. Five dead including two agents?”
“And no sign of the rest of them. The trail leads into the jungle. They have Officer Suco.”
He showed her a photograph of the female officer, taken from one of the morning’s e-mails.
“I met her yesterday.”
“You know how the FARC treat our officers?”
“Do we know for certain it was FARC, sir? Could it have been the Cartels?”
“No. Two bodies were found at the side of the road, combat clothing and soviet weaponry. Definitely FARC.”
“What do you want me to do, sir?”
The Director finished his coffee, which had gone cold, “Can I have another coffee please? You hold regular meetings and briefings with Major Martinez and the Green Berets?”
“I want you to base yourself there with your remote terminal. Are comms good?”
“I need you to find the capability of our troops and whether they can mount a rescue mission.”
“In the jungle? I guess so, but we need to find out where they are being held.”
“There is a U2 en route from California to Puerto Rico where it will refuel and be based. It should mount the first reconnaissance flights over the area this afternoon. There’s a flight waiting for you at the airport, so make sure you take everything you need. I don’t need to tell you that Langley is jumping up and down about this.”
“We didn’t do the risk assessment, sir.”
“That doesn’t help, Clarita. Get going. Failure is not an option.”
While Clarita Rivera was taking off from Bogotá International Airport, a U2 of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing from Beal Air Force Base was leaving US airspace behind and heading over the Caribbean Sea. The Dominican Republic was to the left of the aircraft’s nose and ahead was the small Free-Associated State of Puerto Rico. The small island was well-served with a number of airfields and airports and the CIA pilot was heading for the quieter airport of Rafael Hemandez to the north of the island. Importantly, the airport held stocks of JPTS fuel. The pilot was flying below the aircraft’s usual operating altitude, so he was unencumbered by the high altitude suit he would normally wear.
The ground and support crews had already arrived by C17, which had been kept at one hour’s notice to move. They had sourced two pick-up trucks that would act as chase vehicles when the U2 with its vast wingspan landed. The pilot began to lose altitude and as he approached Rafael Hemandez airport, the shadow of the aircraft swept across the fields like a huge cross. He could see the chase vehicles match his slow approach speed and form in position under the wing tips. He would take the U2 into its dispersal and while it was refuelled, he would have a light meal and change into his high-altitude suit.
As Rivera was briefing Major Martinez, the U2 was airborne again and climbing to its operating altitude of 70,000 feet. The visibility for the pilot was poor on take-off and landing, but under the nose the Colombian coastline was a long-green smear in light cloud and he could see the isthmus of Panama way off to his right. The U2 crossed the coastline at Barranquilla and headed directly south to pick up the GPS coordinates, which was the beginning of the U2’s pass. It would fly on a reciprocal course for a second pass, north this time to re-photograph and interrogate the jungle below with its sensors.
The pilot selected electro optic imagery as well as the Perkin-Elmer tracking camera using a 3-inch lens, located in the Q-bay behind the pilot. In the large, circular monitor mounted on top of the instrument panel, the pilot navigated the aircraft towards the location denoting the commencement of the reconnaissance run, to the point the pilot would have to make a 180 degree turn to start his second run. The turn would take the aircraft well into Ecuador airspace, but there were no fighters or missile systems that could harm the U2.
He tensed as the aircraft began its photography run and concentrated hard when he made the 180 degrees turn. The Dragon Lady was an unforgiving mistress and overstressing the airframe could cause wing separation and an inconvenient ejection down, into the jungle. The second run was as uneventful as the first and as he was crossing Colombia, he placed a bag of coffee against the canopy to heat up. The imagery taken on the two passes was being passed to Langley via satellite data link and to the intelligence cabin on the Puerto Rican airport. Rivera would receive the digitised imagery as an attachment to an e-mail from Langley at 17:45 local time.
All this technology would be for nothing, without a wiry member of British Special Forces, the product of a Midlands post-industrial town, who was walking past the command tent, fully aware that something was happening. He and his American brothers in arms would be putting their lives on the line, the imperfect but highly motivated product of their countries’ armed forces. They just didn’t know it yet.
Rivera impressed the Green Beret officers with her ability to sift, analyse and present the raw data into intelligence they could use. She briefed them at 19:55 and the inside of the command tent was warm from the radios, comms equipment and computer monitors. They had put up a cot for her in a quiet area of the command tent, screened by a presentation board, although she doubted that it would see much use that night.
She was using a large display screen connected to her laptop and first of all gave them a situational briefing.
“We believe that of the DEA team, four were captured by FARC and there is the female CIA officer with them. The other two officers and the drivers were killed, along with their police escort,” she put the first slide up showing the road off the Pan American Highway they had taken the previous afternoon, “These were taken today from a U2 flown down from California. This is where the vehicles were attacked. The next slide shows the route they were taken across the cultivated fields and into the jungle. We know that at least one of them is injured because drops of blood were found, until they disappeared into the jungle. I suspect that will be our officer, as the FARC are notoriously cruel with captives they suspect are CIA officers.”
“We’ll never track them in the jungle,” Martinez said with frustration.
Rivera carried on with the slides, “This is the likely area of the jungle where they are being held. With the conventional photography we can’t see anything below the jungle canopy and as you can see, it’s a vast area of over a thousand hectares.”
“Well, that’s no damned use,” Martinez told her.
“Agreed. Now let’s look at the thermal and infra-red data.”
She put up a slide that looked like a greyscale photograph.
“Nothing here. And the same with the next slide, but let’s look at the next one.”
This slide showed the outlines of two buildings, one had a large, white heat source, the other some distance away had a number of cooler heat sources, together in the end of the building.
“What do you make of that?” Rivera asked.
Martinez looked at it with his head cocked to one side, “Obviously two inhabited buildings beneath the jungle canopy, one with a large heat source”
Turner and Collins nodded their agreement. Rivera pulled a laser pointer out of her pocket and circled the large heat source with it.
“I think this is their cooking area and mess. You see the other building? In the area where there are multiple heat sources, I reckon there’s about five people with a couple away from them down here. I would guess those are guards with four or five more, outside the buildings.
“And you missed a building on the imagery, just here where the canopy is thicker, but you can still see heat sources inside. I think this is their rest area for relaxing and sleeping. It would have had minimal occupancy when the U2 went over, which is probably why you missed it.”
Martinez looked at the young woman with admiration. She had come into her own, from an under-confident CIA agent lurking in a dead man’s shadow, to a competent intelligence analyst. The change was remarkable.
“I’ve got another slide, here. This shows more area and gives you some idea of the defensive positions around the complex. This was taken on the U2’s return flight north and the datum in the bottom corner show scale. You can see heat sources from defensive positions here, here and here, covering all the main routes in. This cooler linier area is a water course, perhaps a stream or irrigation channel for the coca field here. It might afford you some cover”
Martinez went closer and scrutinised the slide, “Where can we get the helicopters in?”
“There’s a clear area to the south, here,” Rivera said, showing the position with the laser pointer.
“That’s some 750 metres away from the buildings and would entail us going through these positions here. Every FARC and his dog would be fully alerted by the time we got anywhere near the hostages.”
Rivera looked troubled, “I know.”
“Well, that’s our problem. Thank you, Clarita. Go and get your head down for a couple of hours.”
“I can’t. I’m too excited and wound up.”
Martinez smiled to himself. And she was back to being the enthusiastic little girl that melted his heart. He turned to his lieutenants, “Ideas?”
“Crash land a helicopter close to the buildings, then rush out and overpower the guards, grab the hostages and get to the landing zone to the south.” Turner suggested.
“And permitting no broken bones and being shredded by fire, we nab the hostages and walk them 750 metres through the jungle?”
“More or less,” Turner said defensively.
“I think we’ll get the seniors in. See if they have any ideas.”
“Of course. He’s one of us now. He just talks with a funny accent. He may have done something like this before.”
The four SNCOs and the Doc assembled in the command tent and Martinez outlined the problem while Rivera went through the slides. Wilson, Morris, Nguyen, two Colombian Delta officers and Edge listened in while Martinez briefed them. When he finished, he looked at them.
“OK gentlemen, I’m open to ideas. The problem is in getting in and out, encumbered by the hostages on the way out, some who may be in a bad way. We’ve already had the suggestion of crash landing a helicopter close to the buildings and storming the place, but the FARC would be fully awake and mightily pissed. At the moment it’s all we’ve got.”
“What about fast roping from the Huey’s down through the canopy?” Wilson suggested.
Martinez thought about this, “It’s not bad, but we still have the problem of the helicopters waking everybody up. They could kill the hostages while we were still untangling from the rappel ropes.”
“What about tree jumping?” Edge proposed, “How many parachutists do you have and how many chutes?”
“All of the men are para trained, but only a few of the Colombians are,” Collins said.
“Ten chutes,” Nguyen said.
Edges mind was working overtime, “OK, specifically, how many of your men are HALO trained?”
“Ten or eleven,” Martinez recalled, “Would you mind telling us what the hell tree jumping is?”
“Back in the 1950s, the British were involved fighting the communists in Malaya. It was pioneered by the SAS to enable troops to be inserted into the jungle, where it was impossible to land helicopters. The parachutist goes through the jungle canopy and his chute catches on the canopy. He then needs to descend from where he’s hanging in the foliage to the ground by rope. Obviously, the parachute and harness are damaged and discarded.
“If the paratroops jumped from 14,000 feet, it wouldn’t alert the bad guys and you wouldn’t need to use oxygen. The jumpers could regroup in a quiet area and move in slowly to the buildings. You will need a scaffold tower to practice getting out of the harness and roping down to the ground. Twelve men should be enough for covertly clearing the buildings, but they will need silenced pistols as well as their rifles for the guards. Obviously we will need two more parachutes.”
“You could regroup in this depression…”
“Water course,” Rivera clarified.
“OK, in this water course and move in on the complex. The Colombian troops can cover the landing points and help the assault team with the hostages, in the event of a hot withdrawal. 750 metres is a long way, particularly if any of the hostages are injured, but that’s it I’m afraid. It is risky, but who dares, wins, as we say.”
There was silence in the tent, just the steady thrum of the generator and they were all looking at Edge. . In his time with the Regiment, Edge had made thirty-eight HALO drops with most of them carried out at night. He was an elite paratrooper, who had made three live, combat descents, all at night and on oxygen. His course had lasted six weeks, had been comprehensive and exacting, and Edge had loved it. He wasn’t afraid of the jump, but terrified at the prospect of crashing through the dense, jungle canopy
“I’ll make sure my medical facility is ready to take casualties. Hopefully, there won’t be any.”
“What do you think?” Martinez asked them.
“I think it’s a damned fool idea, but it might work,” Turner said reluctantly.
“I’ll re-write my will,” Collins said with a grim smile.
“We will need ropes, mountaineering ropes. How much?” Nguyen observed, ever the logistician.
“One hundred feet per man, twelve hundred feet in total. The blue stuff rather than the white. And twelve silenced pistols. Can the CIA help with that?” Edge asked Rivera.
“I’ll ask Langley tonight.”
“And a scaffolding tower next to the end wall of the hanger. It doesn’t have to be one hundred feet high, just high enough for the troops to practice getting out of the harness, retrieving their rifles and roping down.”
“I’ll get on to the local contractors in the morning,” One of the Colombian officers volunteered, “Same for a mountaineering supply place for the ropes.”
“And I’ve just thought, we’ll need climbing harnesses and shitloads of carabiners.”
“When do we go?” Collins asked.
“Tomorrow night. It will be tight, but we must get our people out of there,” Martinez said heavily, “Right, we all know what we are or will be doing. I suggest everyone gets a couple of hours sleep. Mr Edge, will you stay behind please?”
Once everyone had gone, there was just Rivera, Edge and Martinez in the command tent.
“Mr Edge, will you help train my troops tomorrow?”
“Of course, I will, sir.”
“Thank you. Now you don’t have to do this and I wouldn’t blame you for saying no, but will you go in with the paratroops and form part of the assault team?”
Edge looked at the ground and for a moment, Martinez thought he was going to say no.
“Major, I suggested this scheme of manoeuvre. It would be morally repugnant for me to let others do what I wasn’t prepared to do myself. I would be honoured to be a part of it.”
Martinez grasped his shoulder, “Thank you. I need some air.”
He went out into the night and Edge and Rivera looked at one another, “Thank you, Mark. They are my colleagues.”
“I quite understand,” he suddenly felt awkward, “Big day tomorrow. Get some sleep Clarita. It will be a long day.”
As he went to leave, she suddenly grabbed his hand, “I don’t know what to say to you, or any of you.”
He smiled warmly and squeezed her hand, “You’re as much a part of this as I am. Goodnight, Clarita.”
© Blown Periphery 2021