Posted by Adriaan Alsema on Jul 23, 2011 Leave a comment

My Colombian soap opera

Brian Andrews' plaque on Monserrate

When I left Colombia a year ago, a lot of false rumors were being spread about why I so suddenly had to leave my job at RCN. Now, a year later, I’ve decided it’s time to share the story of what really happened and why I left after working so hard to share Colombia with the world in English.

Some of the rumors about why I left Colombia were outlandish. One was that I had been run out of the country by drug-traffickers because I had hit on one of their girlfriends at the San Pedro Parties in Neiva. Another rumor claimed I had fled the country in advance of a sex tape being leaked to a gossip show that was secretly shot at a swimming pool in Honda, Tolima. Another one I saw somewhere said I ran out because of a bad investment. None of them were correct, but they all were juicy.

What really happened was like a chapter out straight out of a movie script. The FBI had heard from several informants that the FARC were planning to kidnap or even kill me. On this ominous warning, I rushed from the south of Colombia to the capital, Bogota, and eventually decided to leave for the United States.

The nightmare started on a Friday morning in early July 2010 and ended days later, when I landed at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport.

I was on a beautiful hacienda in the gorgeous countryside of a village called El Cerrito, Valle, not too far from Cali. I had gone there with a crew from RCN for a news shoot. The idea was to do stories on Valle’s budding fashion industry and the region’s plans to become a tourism destination.

I was in my room with the window open, listening to chirping birds, working on my laptop  when my blackberry started buzzing. It was Rosa, my dear friend and “right hand” at RCN News in English. She was calling from Bogota and had an air of uncertainty in her voice.

“Briancito, I just got a really weird call in the office here from the FBI in the U.S,” she said. My ears perked up. “They told me they needed to talk to you right away. They know you are in Valle and said that you’re safety is in danger,” she continued.

What?!  At first I was amused and a little surprised. We’ve had all type of crackpots call the TV network before so I wasn’t exactly worried. Rosa continued to tell me that she took the agent’s number and called him back to see if he was the real deal. She says she got the FBI switchboard in the U.S. and they patched her right through to the same guy with the same voice. “Brian, I think you need to call him right away,” she said.

So, I dialed directly and an FBI Agent name Lance answered. “Mr. Andrews, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just be direct. We’ve got information of a very real threat against your safety in El Cerrito and I need to advise you to get off the farm as soon as possible and get back to Bogota,” the man told me.

“Yeah, right.  Lance, no offense, but how do I know you’re not some crackpot calling up a TV station?” I asked. “Mr. Andrews, you’re just going to need to trust me. I’ve got a very reliable informant.  We wouldn’t be breaking all the protocols we are right now to reach you if you weren’t in imminent danger. Time is of the essence. You have got to get out of there RIGHT NOW.”

Calmly, I told him I would take his warning with a grain of salt. In two and a half years of living in Colombia, I had never been scared for my safety. After all, Colombia was passion. The country was different. Bad things were always happening in far away places, never where I was visiting. I told him I was going to call an FBI Agent I knew in Miami from my days working as a news reporter there to see if he was for real. He said, “do whatever you need to do to get out of there, but I must tell you that your life is in imminent danger.” I just didn’t believe him and I told him I’d call him back.

I called the main number for the FBI in Miami. I knew the number from memory. I’d called it a million times when I was researching stories for my job in Miami TV.   I asked to speak to the Public Information Officer with whom I had worked for years at Channels 7 and 4.  However, I got sent straight to her voice mail. I hit zero and got transferred to the complaint desk. I explained to the guy who answered that I was a TV reporter calling from Colombia and that I’d just gotten this call and wanted to find out if there really was an Agent named Lance who worked in a particular field division. They put me on hold, and came back on the line. The complaint desk office asked me what number I had been given for Agent Lance. I gave it to him. He responded, “yes, that’s his government issued cell phone.” I felt a buzz of shock go through my body.

The Miami FBI patched me through to Lance. I told Lance I was sorry I had doubted him and that I was getting my stuff together and getting out of there. Lance explained that they had tried to go through proper channels to let me know, but they were running out of time and that if they had waited for the message to get through all the channels, I might be dead or in the jungle somewhere. He said the FBI Office at the Bogota Embassy had even tried to reach me, however, I didn’t have a number on file with the Embassy in the event of an emergency, and no one could seem to get through on the RCN switchboard. Agency Lance says the whole situation had developed really fast – like within the last 24 hours. He said they had information it was going to be a full-fledged kidnapping. He asked me to call the FBI office in Bogota once I got to the airport in Cali and was waiting at the gate so they knew I was out of harm’s way.

I could feel a wave of panic coming over me. It was a sharp fear.  The type that hurts your head and your stomach and makes you want to shudder. I ran out of my room and grabbed my field producer. I explained to her the whole story, as best I could, and that we had to get off the hacienda right away. For all I knew there could be a pick-up truck heading down the dirt road in front of the farm with 10 guys and machine guns. We had no time. Fran started to freak out. I watched as she ran to the front desk of the finca hotel and got a hold of the mayor by phone. All I could think is what an idiot I had been the night before taking a moto-taxi into the nearest village to buy a bag of chopped chicken since the hotel restaurant was closed. There I was riding off into the night on the back of some motorcycle, happy as a clam, with my bag of chicken. What if I had been snatched?

Fran got a hold of the Mayor, grabbed the news crew, and packed up in under 5 minutes.

As all of this was unfolding, my head was spinning. Why me? Why was I a target? What the hell had I ever done? Who would want to kidnap or hurt me? I got through to the Vice President of RCN and told him what was happening. I could hear the panic in his voice. He said he was going to get someone from Postobon, the other company in our group to come get us. At least it would be someone known to the company who would drive us to the airport.

I told him I didn’t think we had time to wait and that Fran had managed to get the mayor of El Cerrito to come pick us up. I ran to the other side of the hotel, facing a pasture with horses in it. I remember that wait. It was an eternity. I remember the color of the grass, the wheel-barrow in the middle of the field, the two horses eating at the grass, and the sound of traffic on the road on the other side of the pasture. Within 10 minutes, the mayor had arrived in an SUV. We threw everything in the car and zipped out of there toward the airport in Cali. He took a brief detour, driving through a nearby sugar cane field, so we could avoid going down the main road in case someone was looking for us.

Once we got on the highway, he told us that he had been kidnapped once, for just a few weeks; just what I needed to hear. I could feel my insides melting as I realized everything I had worked so hard for in Colombia was about to unravel. Worse, I would have to call my parents in Palm Beach and tell them what was happening. They had never been too keen on me chucking it all to go down to Colombia to chase my dreams. Now, it would be a real “I told you so!” Plus, I had spent years telling the world on TV and the internet that it was safe to come to Colombia, and explore every corner. Now, it wasn’t even safe for me to stand on a corner in Colombia. I had become a prime target for the FARC as there was about to be a transition of political power from one President to the next.

As soon as we got to the Cali airport I stepped outside to call my home. I called my Dad’s cell. No answer. I wanted to tell my Dad first because I knew my Mom would be unglued upon hearing the news. After two tries and no answer, I called my Mom. I told her that the FBI had foiled an attempt to kidnap us in Valle, that I didn’t know much, but it was supposed to happen that morning. I could hear my mom’s voice quiver. She just said “get back to Bogota and get safe. Then,” she said, “get home.” My mom told me she would get a hold of my dad who was in Arizona visiting his sister.

I went back inside the terminal, cleared security, and headed to the gate area. Fran and I went to the restaurant and ordered coffee. I couldn’t drink it. I felt tears in my eyes. My head was spinning. I wanted information, hard facts. I called the number for the FBI office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. I got patched through to an Agent who said he couldn’t tell me much more than they already had. The only new details I got was that they had received information from a variety of sources, that someone high up in the FARC had given an order the night before for members of the FARC front in Florida, Valle, to go out, find me, and get me – at whatever cost. The order had been transmitted from very high up in the FARC, possibly by “Alfonso Cano” himself. Trying to find something to offset the sickening feeling in my stomach, I thought, hey, at least I could be proud to know my work in Colombia had garnered some major attention, including from the FARC. :-)

The agent went on to say that they didn’t know the threat was real and that I was the actual target until it was cross referenced, earlier that morning, when an FBI Agent working in the U.S. got a tip from one of his informants in Valle telling him that a high profile gringo was going to be kidnapped. That agent called Bogota. They put 2 and 2 together and got “Brian Andrews” based on a number of information sources. Last all sides knew was that a group of guerrillas were scouring El Cerrito to find me. They were going all over town, checking hotels, and fincas, and it could have been a real mess.

The Embassy said they tried to get word to the National Police in El Cerrito, but they couldn’t find me either.  Maybe, I thought, it was because they didn’t want to.  I would later find out there were some real concerns about corruption within the ranks of the National Police Force in that part of the country. I hung up, finished my pastry, and went to sit on the floor against the giant glass window overlooking the plane. There were no seats to be had in the waiting area.   Fran was on the phone with her family. My Cameraman was talking to his wife. The gear assistant was talking to his wife. I felt so crappy I just wanted to lie on the floor. Minutes later, it was time to board.

When I landed in Bogota an hour later, I — the gringo who never needed security and took the Transmilenio to work every day — was picked up by a team of armed security guards in a bullet-proof car and whisked back to the channel.  There, I met with the bosses, then my team, and then I went home with body guards. I didn’t sleep. For years, I had been telling the world to come to Colombia, that the country was safe. Now, I knew it wasn’t safe for me. I had fought so hard for this job. I had given up a huge career in Miami to come to Colombia and start this. My life was changing faster than I ever imagined.

The next day, I was picked up by body guards and brought to the office. An official from Colombia’s National Police was there to speak to me. The attending officer listened to my story, and then told everyone in the room that the threat against me was basically bullshit because no one at the National Police had heard anything about it. Rosa sat in on the meeting and translated it for me. I was getting angry. This was all being turned around against me.

Rosa said the guy was making it sound like I was making up the story for attention, because the Police would have known if there was a threat. Next, the channel brought in someone from the GAULA, the National Police Force’s Anti-Kidnapping Squad. After conversations happening around me for 45 minutes, it was decided that the GAULA officer, the heads of RCN Security, an myself would be going to the US Embassy that afternoon to meet the Special Agent in Charge to get to the bottom of what was going on. The guy from the GAULA seemed to realize there was more to this than anyone was saying.  He was very comforting.

When we arrived at the Embassy, I was met by a Special Agent named Leslie. She was a striking and powerful woman;  professional and reassuring at the same time. As we walked from the back gate to her office in the main building, she told me that she was from the Pacific Northwest, that she liked to fly helicopters, and that it was her job to keep an eye on Americans in Colombia who had threats against them.

Leslie took me into her office and asked the others to wait outside while we had a private conversation. Behind closed doors, she explained to me that she couldn’t share any information with the Colombians about my case because it was classified and that it was classified for good reasons. She said she couldn’t tell me anything more about it than I knew because the classification meant they could only tell me what I needed to know to get myself out of harm’s way and that was it.

While she didn’t come right out and say it, it was implied that the Colombians weren’t told of this threat because of an major ongoing investigation. I had covered enough FBI cases in Miami to know that probably meant corruption, dirty dealings, pay offs, and favors. She did tell me that the threat against me was real and that I was only told what I was because my life depended on it.

According to the FBI official, I was probably the highest profile gringo in the country after the Ambassador, with my smiling face on national TV twice a day, going to places that gringos dared to visit.  She also said this was not the first time I had been on their radar with safety concerns. They had been aware of several threats against me in several of the cities I had visited in Colombia. However, this one was the most dire. The more I heard, the more my heart sank.

“Brian, I’m not going to tell you what to do,” said Leslie, “but if you were my little brother, you would have been on the first plane from Cali to Miami, not Cali to Bogota. And if you’re going to stay, all I can tell you is you should take full advantage of any security precautions RCN offers you.”

Next, she called in the GAULA Agent and the heads of Security from RCN. She spoke in perfect Spanish and told them the same thing. She repeated that my case was classified so she could not discuss it with them, but that the threat against me was real and that every precaution should be taken to protect me while I was in country. I had become the perfect target, an easy target, and as a US citizen on TV working for the largest TV network in the country.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was the perfect target. The FARC didn’t have Ingrid Betancourt or the 3 gringos any more. They had been rescued in an elaborate ruse called “Operation Jacque.” No doubt, the FARC was pissed about that. They had released most of their other high profile kidnap victims.  I had just been in Villavicencio to cover the reunions of former political and military hostages and their families at the airport. Them-President Alvaro Uribe was about to leave office and the guerrillas were looking for one big last “Screw-You” to his Democratic Security plan. Not to mention, I had been on “Muy Buenos Dias” a week earlier talking about my upcoming trip to Valle. I had committed the cardinal sin of security in Colombia. I had “dar papaya” on National TV. Plus, there also may have been some symbolism to the whole scheme against me. The kidnapping was supposed to happen on the weekend of July 4th, the most gringo of gringo holidays. Grabbing the RCN Gringo would have been the perfect PR stunt for the FARC. They would have made global news.

The meeting at the Embassy ended. I shook Leslie’s hand and gave her a hug. We drove back to RCN in an armored car. I was told a decision was being made that afternoon about whether I would be staying in the country.

That night, as I sat in traffic on the NQS expressway with my body guard, my phone started to buzz. It was the owner of my network calling from New York. He couldn’t have been more reassuring or nice. He said they wanted me to go home for a while, that the company would handle all of my expenses while I was away, but that they just didn’t want to take any risks.

As I watched the Bogota rain starting to fall, I felt tears coming down my face. My Colombian adventure was coming to an end, and I had no say in the matter. Some band of jungle jerks had killed my dream. It wasn’t safe for me the be there anymore, to take the Transmilenio to work like millions of other “rolos,” to go walking down the street to Coral for a hamburger or to Exito to do my grocery shopping, or to be living my life without a care in the world. What about the life I had built for myself in Colombia, my friends, the people I cared about?  It was all coming to an end.

I went back to my office late that night to meet with my staff. Tearfully, I said goodbye and told them I didn’t know when I would be back, but I would be damned if anyone was going to prevent us from doing the work we were doing of bringing all of the best of Colombia to the world in English. I made them promise that they would do whatever they could to fight what had become some nasty office politics to try to shut us down.

Things were not all peachy in RCN at the time. Some people felt threatened by our project. Others didn’t understand it because they didn’t speak the language, and others just looked at us an annoyance because of all the resources we were tying up to put it on the air. We were doing a lot with a little. We were asking people to work longer and harder than they were used too. Good enough wasn’t good enough on my watch, and I was quite verbal about it. I ran it like a U.S. newsroom, which didn’t always go over very well in the very relaxed Latin American way of doing business. Regardless, my team promised me they would make sure we stayed alive.

A year later, all that bad blood is like water under the bridge. We’ve built new bridges to other parts of the company and have created a real team environment for a thriving multilingual international news operation.

That night, Rosa, my producer, drove home with me and the body guard.  Alejo, my other producer, joined us at my apartment. We ordered pizza from my favorite place up the street called Pizza 1969.  Alejo ran down to the corner shop and picked up 2 bottles of red wine. It felt like a wake. Both of them were trying to cheer me up. I was sitting there in a t-shirt that said “Soy Colombiano.” Every song on the radio seemed sad. Alejo tried to make me laugh, by talking about all the great adventures we had from Ipiales to the North Coast, but all the three of us could do was cry. I gathered up everything that was important to me and stuffed it into suitcases.

The next morning, I was driven to El Dorado Airport to get what would literally be the last seat on the morning flight to Ft. Lauderdale. I was in the last row next to the toilet. As I sat in misery at the airport sipping on a Juan Valdez Coffee, I noticed someone taking my picture. I would later find out it was a photographer from newspaper El Tiempo, tipped off by someone from RCN that I was leaving the country for good. I lost all respect for El Tiempo the day they published the bullshit story about my departure.

It was three-and-a-half long hours to Ft. Lauderdale and then another 2 hours drive home to Palm Beach. When I opened the door, there was my mom. Hugging her was the greatest moment of my life. I felt safe, yet destroyed. A thousand things were racing through my mind. I had given up a great career in Miami TV to go chase my dream of doing Colombia’s News in English, and this is how it would end: with a pile of suitcases on the kitchen floor, and me and my mom in tears. However, I was determined to just let it be a relocation not the end of a chapter.

A few days later, the FARC decided to blow up a bomb outside Caracol Radio in Bogota. Those goons were just looking for any excuse to grab some headlines before Uribe left office. I watched it all unfold live on TV Colombia from my family’s living room in Palm Beach. I felt so violated, so angry, run out of the country I loved so much. Now I could understand how so many other Colombians felt who had to leave their beloved country for MY country, uprooted because it was a life or death situation.

As time went on, all of that negative energy built up inside of me like a volcano. I was ready to explode. I went back to Bogota for a quick meeting in October. I hated it. I had body guards watching my every move and felt like a prisoner. I couldn’t enjoy Bogota the way I loved the city. It just wasn’t the same. It was decided I wouldn’t be coming back to live and work there. It was suggested I get out of my lease, sell my car, and work from the U.S.

Before I left Colombia on that trip, there was one thing left I just had to do. It involved a promise to myself and visit to Monserrate on the mountain that overlooks Bogota. When I had first fallen in love with Bogota years ago, I had visited the church and seen a room full of small plaques with messages of thanks. People actually had little signs made that said thank you to God or to the Saint of Monserrate for making miracles in their life. I decided that I wanted to make a plaque and leave a little piece of my heart on top of that mountain. So, I had one made. It reads “Opportunities are like sunrises. If you wait too long, you won’t see it.  Follow your heart wherever it takes you.” At sunset, on October 7th, I gathered my 3 closest friends in Colombia, and the bodyguard, and took the cable car to the top of Monserrate where I placed that plaque in the church. For me, it was a beautiful way to say good bye to my time in Colombia.

After all that, I finally calmed down. I had the support of the network owners behind me. It would be impossible for the gringo to do Colombia’s News in English from any place other than Colombia. It just wouldn’t work. It was time to shift focus, to change the game plan, and we decided to think even bigger. We decided to take this beautiful project we had for Colombia, and extend it to every country in Latin America, under the new brand of NTN24, RCN international all-news channel. We made trips to Peru, Chile, and Belize as we started rolling out our new Latin American content.

So, in the end, the FARC didn’t get their gringo. This gringo didn’t get to live in Colombia. BUT, this gringo got to take everything he created there and turn it into something even more global. Now, we have a beautiful project that shares the news and culture of all of Latin America with the world in English. I run a REAL international operation with teams in Bogota and Miami.

I’ve had a year to reconnect with my family and friends in the United States, and develop a true appreciation for what I had in my life here and what I had in my life in Colombia.

On August 1, I’ll be moving into my new place in Miami and preparing to open NTN24’s new office in South Florida. I still keep up with what’s happening in Colombia each day by reading RCN’s website and Colombia Reports (once our competitors at Colombia News).

While you can take the gringo out of Colombia, I realize you can never take Colombia out of the gringo’s heart.