The Colombian Sojourn – Chapter 17

The jungle east of the Andes near the Ecuador Border.

A 9 Sqn UH-1D in Vietnam, 1970
USAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

They were waiting in the jungle at the side of the track, the usual fighting patrol of eight Colombian Alpha troops and two Green Berets, in this case Corporal Morris and Edge.  They had received intelligence from the Pentagon, that there was a major cocaine shipment due to be moved, from the labs near the coca fields to a secret airstrip in the jungle.  Another team had been earmarked to destroy the aircraft and capture any personnel involved.

A struggling legal economy and a dearth of alternatives presented by the government, have contributed to the increase in coca production in Colombia, which now outstrips that of the second- and third-biggest producers combined.  The Colombian government’s lack of follow-through on crop-substitution programmes and failure to offer alternative development projects have earned protests from coca farmers.

The coca crop takes around two months to grow to maturity, all year round regardless of the fairly stable Colombian weather systems.  The process for refining the raw coca into cocaine is hair-raising in its ease and disturbing in the case of the noxious chemicals used in the process.  First the coca leaves are mulched with weedkiller to make a noxious paste.  Then cement is poured over mulched coca leaves to prepare them to make coca paste. The cement is used as a binding agent on the mulched leaves.  The mulched coca leaves are mixed in vats that contain gasoline, ether, and other chemicals into a kind of yellow brew.  Then the producers stir a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste.  Apart from gasoline and cement, ammonia, sulfuric acid, sodium permanganate, and caustic soda are some of the chemicals used to produce the paste.  The mixture is put into a press so the basic liquid extract of coca paste can be squeezed out.

Gasoline is used to extract alkaloid from the liquid mix.  A vat holds liquid called “nata,” which means buttermilk.  The mixture of coca-leaf juice, gasoline, ether, and other chemicals will eventually be converted into coca paste.  The paste is extracted after adding a strong acid into the mix that will further precipitate the alkaloid.  The last step is called “fritada,” or “fry-up.”  The coca paste residue is placed in water and heated until most of the water content is evaporated.  Once the yellow paste is cooked to evaporate the chemicals and water content, it’s crushed to be packed and sold.  Then transported by boat, aircraft or road to either the Caribbean islands or Central America.

They heard two vehicles to the south, probably trucks carrying the refined cocaine to the airstrip, but they had to be sure.  As the lorries approached, a flare was fired up to illuminate the area and give the drug traffickers a shock.  Predictably they opened fire from the vehicles, firing blindly into the jungle.  It was a mistake.  The Alpha team had sited the ambush well and hadn’t needed the advice of Edge or Morris.  They were stretched out along one side of the track to fire down on the vehicles and not fire at each other. The SAWS was well back on the flanks to pour in enfilading fire if the Narcos tried to re-group in the shelter of the vehicles.

It was soon apparent to Edge that the men firing from the trucks were not FARC.  The weapons lacked the stopping power of the AK47 and these appeared to be sub-sonic guns, fired wastefully on fully automatic, with no attempt made to conserve ammunition.  Edge guessed that these protagonists were from the cartels.  Cartels or not, they were being shot to pieces by the fire of the Colombian commandos.  From their left they heard the chattering of the SAWS, engaging the few who had made it into the cover of the vehicles.

It was absolutely merciless and all over in about two minutes.  He and Morris heard the order to cease fire and they moved out of cover and approached the vehicles.  There were bodies in the cabs and on the roads, but it was the vehicles and their cargo they were interested in.  One man lay groaning and Edge finished him with a short burst.  It seemed brutal but it was actually a humane action.  He would have died anyway and they couldn’t take him with them.  Edge checked a couple of the bodies and took some documentation, which might prove to provide useful intelligence.

Edge and Morris placed the thermite bombs, under the fuel tanks of the vehicles, activated the explosive devices and moved back to the jungle.  The first charge went off with a roar, the heat burning the metal, which then became incandescent.  A noxious grey smoke rolled into the night sky, some being moved towards them by the wind and it made their eyes stream.

“Let’s get out of here.  You don’t want to inhale that smoke, otherwise you’ll be as high as a kite,” Morris observed and they re-grouped with the Colombians.  They moved north in double file on the track, the two Gringos forming the rear-guard.  Presently the burning trucks were out of sight, just the oily grey smoke appearing above the trees.

They moved quickly and silently along the track, covering the ground at a good lick.  About two miles away from the trucks, the oppressive jungle opened out, near a bridge crossing a stream.  The Colombian officer radioed for the helicopter that had inserted them.  Edge had the hand-held strobe to guide the Huey into the clearing.  All the other troops went into all-round defence and waited for the beating of rotor blades.  The darkness was giving way to the first grey light of the false dawn and some animal sounds came from the jungle.

Edge was tired.  He would be glad of his cot after the de-brief.  He hardly thought of Rivera at all.  He had gone through anger, to disappointment and was now at the resigned acceptance phase.  He had told no one about her betrayal, but he knew that from now on he would be extremely cautious in what he said to her, indeed if he said anything at all.

A few minutes later they heard the thud-thud of a Huey’s rotor blades and Edge briefly turned on the strobe to mark their position.  As it flashed, it threw the trees into stark relief.  He then turned it off, because the aircrew would be on NVGs and their vision would be swamped by the bright strobe lamp.  Also, if there were any more bad guys in the jungle, they would be pinpointed nicely.

The dark shadow of the Huey flared above the stream and it set down in the clearing.  The Colombians were on first, then Edge, sitting behind the co-pilot and Morris in the other rear-facing seat behind the pilot.  Edge fastened his seat belt, ever a creature of habit, and watched the jungle pass below in the dawn light, as they headed east.  The pilot was “sweating the metal”, keeping the Huey at a low altitude.  This was the territory of the FARC.

The helicopter started to follow a small river, heading for the Andean gap at Villagarzón.  It was so low that Edge could see the ripples on the water, caused by the downdraft of the rotor blades. Although he had largely overcome his fear of flying in helicopters, he was still nervous at such a low level and for good reason.

The jabiru is the tallest flying bird found in South America and Central America, often standing nearly the same height as the flightless and thus much heavier American rhea. For the continent, it also has the second largest wingspan, after the Andean condor (that is, excluding the great albatross occasionally found off the coast of southern South America).

The adult jabiru is 47–55 in long, 7.5–9.2 ft across the wings, and can weigh 9.5–19.8 lb.  The jabiru lives in large groups near rivers and ponds, and eats prodigious quantities of fish, molluscs, and amphibians. It will occasionally eat reptiles, bird eggs and small mammals. It will even eat fresh carrion and dead fish, such as those that die during dry spells, and thus help maintain the quality of isolated bodies of water. They feed in flocks and usually forage by wading in shallow water.

There was a bend in the river ahead as the waterway went into the beginnings of a steep-sided ravine.  The flock of jabiru were already up and feeding in the shallows.  They may have heard the helicopter, but it was more likely the chop of the rotor blades and displaced air that caused their panic.  The fifty or so jabiru panicked and with long, beating wings took to the air, right in front of the helicopter closing on them in ninety knots.

The Huey helicopter is an extremely robust aircraft and evidence from the Vietnam war has demonstrated that the Huey could sustain multiple hits and damage, and remain flying.  What it couldn’t survive were multiple bird strikes from a heavy mass such as the jabiru.  Around twenty birds hit the Huey or the Huey hit them to be totally accurate.  Each bird weighed on average 12 lb and it was inevitably going to be mutually assured destruction.

A jabiru smashed into the pilots Perspex.  The shattering of the canopy killed some of the bird’s speed, but minus its wings, legs and head, it entered the cockpit at around sixty knots.  It struck the pilot in the face, probably killing him instantly, but this was only the first of twenty bird strikes.  Two entered the passenger cabin.  One hit a door gunner and he was gone, holding up his hands to the disappearing helicopter, and then he hit the canopy.  The second jabiru gave a Colombian a glancing blow that broke two ribs.  The interior of the helicopter was filled with feathers and bloody offal, as the bird exploded against the rear bulkhead.

Other birds made glancing blows against the engine rotor fairing, pieces of them being ingested into the air inlet.  The engine began to scream, but it was the last bird that sealed their fate.  It missed the fuselage and skids, only to remove a blade of the tail rotor.  The Huey was now just a useless chunk of vibrating metal.  It began to spin as the co-pilot tried to control it.  Slowly at first and then with sickening speed.  Those who hadn’t strapped in were thrown out of the large open doors at the side, tumbling down to the ground and certain death.

The spinning helicopter went into the sloping side of the ravine, its rotor blades shattering into thousands of pieces of carbon fibre.  The engine was still spinning despite the shattered blades and it began to roll down the slope towards the river.  Again, some were pitched out as it rolled and Morris felt himself being thrown towards the door.  His harness was useless as the stanchion had been destroyed by a bird’s carcass.

“Help me!” he screamed and Edge lunged for him, grabbing his body armour.  He managed to get one leg back inside, but his left leg was still outside the cabin and it was crushed by the 9,000 lb helicopter rolling on it.  He screamed again and Edge heard the bones in his leg go.  He just held on to Morris who kept screaming in agony.  Edge prayed for the Huey to stop rolling, but it continued to go down the slope, finally settling in about five feet of water, on its left side.  Edge was under stinking water and he clawed at the release buckle to get out of it.  Steam came from the screaming engine and they had to wait until it had stopped before they got out.

“Kill the fucking engine!” Edge yelled at the co-pilot, but the engine effectively killed itself, whirling to destruction and clogged with bird entrails.

The silence was awful in its own way, but at least they could get out of it and take stock.  The only sounds were the moans of the wounded and the hiss of hot engine cooling in the water.  There was seven of them still alive, but Edge thought that along with Morris, one of the Colombians was in a bad way.

“Come on, get out before the fucking thing catches fire. Vamos, sal antes de que la maldita cosa se incendie!”

Edge pulled himself out using the starboard gun mounting, although the machine gun was long gone.  He helped the others out and then with the Colombian officer, they heaved out the injured Alpha commando and then Morris.

“Up on the bank.  There’s cover with some small palms and we should be out of the danger if the river floods.  Get the wounded up there first and make them as comfortable as you can.”

Edge went back into the helicopter to retrieve his rifle and medical bergen.  The steam was as dense as smoke, but he didn’t think the Huey would catch fire now.   He proceeded to scavenge the aircraft for anything that might be useful.  There was a first aid pack, some items of wrapped food in the water and he wriggled into the cockpit to grab some charts, half submerged.  These he handed out of the aircraft to the co-pilot.

Finally, he was out, wading across the river and up the bank.  The seven miserable survivors huddled together, watching the dawn rise through the trees to the east.  They had made the badly injured as comfortable as they could, but he could tell Morris was in a great deal of pain.  He opened the medical bergen and took out an ampule of morphine, plus a hypodermic syringe.  He gave Morris the full ampule and then got a second one for the Colombian.  Edge bent the needle and threw it across the river to the other bank.  The other casualty was unconscious and Edge suspected catastrophic internal injuries.  He held a council of war with the co-pilot and the Colombian officer.  He spoke in Spanish to them.

“The first thing we need to know is where are we?” he asked giving the charts to the co-pilot.

He sifted the charts and opened one out, “Here or close to this position.”

Edge looked at a thin ribbon of blue, one of many that wound through the jungle, joining a larger river.

“Are there any towns or villages within walking distance?”

“No.  The nearest habitation is at Villagarzón, four days walk and most of it through thick jungle.  It could take you at least a week and Villagarzón is controlled by FARC,”

Edge looked for another way but the Andes was an insurmountable block between them and Pesto.  The co-pilot read his thoughts, “You would never get across the Andes.  If FARC didn’t get you, the mountains and freezing temperatures would.”

Edge swore in English, “And even if they came looking for us, they would never see the crash through the jungle canopy.  OK so that’s out.  What about the other way, following the smaller rivers to this large one here?  Which direction does it flow?”

“It goes west.  It crosses the border into Brazil and then the Amazon.”

“But are the settlements on its banks?”

The co-pilot shrugged.

“I need to think,” Edge said, “So I’ll go and look for somewhere the rescue helicopters can land.”

“Rescue?” the Colombian officer laughed.

Edge couldn’t recall any likely landing points downstream so he decided to try upstream.  After about thirty minutes he had covered about a quarter of a mile when the trees opened out to a sun dappled glade.  Huge butterflies fluttered in the sunbeams and the place would be almost magical if it were not for their seemingly hopeless situation.   Edge paced the glade and came to the conclusion that it was too open to defend.

He trudged back, trying not to let the despair overwhelm him.  When he got back, they looked at him expectantly.

Don’t bloody look at me like that.  I’m not your saviour.

“We can get helicopters in about five hundred metres upriver.  The area is quite open and difficult to defend so we’d better dig in here.  I would strongly suggest that you bury the dead to prevent wild animals coming into this camp.  I would like one of the men I trained to take over as medic.  I’ll leave the bergen and it will be better than nothing”

“And what are you going to be doing, Edge?”

“I’m going to head east, following the water courses until they flow into the large river.  But first I must prepare.”

“Edge, you will never make it alone.  I will come with you.”

“No, sir.  Your duty is with your men, to lead them through this adversity.  To keep them alive.”

The Colombian nodded and looked rather relieved, “As you will, Edge.  Take anything you need.”

Edge scavenged for a daysack in the helicopter, found one and emptied the contents on the far bank.  There were a few bars of chocolate and a piece of chorizo, which he put in his top pocket.  Then he went to the medical bergen, opened the bottom zip and pulled out two, green waterproof pouches that he had his personal kit in.  He supplemented the items with clumps of dry grass, then sealed the green pouches tight and stuffed them in the daysack.

“When are you setting off, Edge?”

“Soon.  Time is of the essence.”

Edge went and spoke to Morris.  His morphine doped eyes fluttered open, “I’m going to get help.  Please hang on in there till the rescue party comes for you all.”

“Well, Edge, I guess a boil on my ass is the least of my worries.”

Edge grasped his shoulder, “I swear I’ll be back.”

“Sure, sure you will.  Take care, Edge.”

Edge had a sling on his rifle and he left the body armour behind, putting the magazines in the daysack.  He had a watch to gauge the time and help him navigate by the sun.

“Good luck, Edge.” The Alpha officer said to him.  A small crowd had gathered to see him off.

“You should be able to drink the water if you collect it from the palm leaves and put in puritabs.  I wouldn’t trust the river water. If you hear helicopters close, fire a flare upwards to help us pinpoint your exact position,” Edge said.

He made a few strides then turned round with his arm in the air, “Adiós mis amigos. Como el viejo Arnie, volveré.”

They waved back watching him until he was lost behind a corner of the river, “I’m afraid that’s the last we will ever see of him.”

“Is he abandoning us, Lieutenant?”

“No.  He’s giving us the only chance we have.”

Edge stared around at the jungle and the river flowing ever eastwards, “Well, Mr Skippy, you’ll have your job cut out.

He closed his eyes in a brief prayer then walked towards the rising sun.  Presently, his wet fatigues started to steam.

© Blown Periphery 2021