In Latin America, the mid to late 20th Century was a time characterized by military governments, guerrilla movements, and intense political turmoil — which often led to intense political drama. On February 27, 1980, the Colombian socialist guerrilla group known as the April 19th Movement, or M-19, burst into the Dominican Embassy in Bogota during a reception celebrating Dominican Independence Day and took dozens of people hostage, including several ambassadors. One of those was Diego Asencio, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. The crisis lasted 61 days, until April 27, when the captors agreed to release the hostages in exchange for (a much reduced) ransom and a flight to Havana.
Asencio, who served in Bogota from 1977 to 1980, recounts the dramatic events surrounding his capture; how he negotiated with the kidnappers and was able to moderate their demands; life inside the Dominican Embassy, including some tensions with other detainees over a case of champagne, and the “ambassadorial seminars” held with their captors; and his role as a symbol for the State Department following his release.
He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 2014. You can also read about Ambassador Burke Elbrick’s kidnapping in Brazil; the time when terrorists kidnapped hundreds of people during a diplomatic reception in Peru; and when the U.S. Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission were killed at a reception in Khartoum. You can read other Moments dealing with hostage situations.
“Suddenly four people walked in and began to shoot up the ceiling”
ASENCIO: It was the national day of the Dominican Republic. As you know it is the custom in those situations for ambassadors to go to national day celebrations. In this case it happened to be a noonday affair. Most of the ambassadors were there. I was looking to get out of there fairly early because I had a luncheon engagement.
I was actually on my way out the door when I was stopped by the Venezuelan ambassador who had some questions he wanted to ask me. Suddenly four people walked in and began to shoot up the ceiling. Everybody sort of headed for the floor. I wound up on the floor trying to get under a sofa. Some of my bodyguards outside and the police outside began a shootout. Another 8 terrorists came in behind the four.
Bullets were coming in through the windows, and it was quite exciting. I always say that I delivered the most sincere act of contrition of my career at that moment. But anyway the terrorists eventually took over the embassy. They got hold of me and made me go over to the door and call for a ceasefire. Fortunately, the police stopped.
My principal body guard had been hit, grazed by a bullet to the head, and taken to a hospital. The initial reaction was that since it was my car that they took him in was that I was the wounded one. The first impression was that what was begin heard over the embassy radio was that the Dominican Embassy has been taken over by terrorists and our man is inside, which is why I titled my book “Our Man is Inside.”
Fortunately one of the doctors at the hospital treating the people from my security party was a friend of ours and called my wife to explain to her that it wasn’t me it was somebody else, so she knew I was still alive. I guess after that initial sort of standoff, things quieted down and we tried to establish some sort of negotiating session.
“You can’t possibly go into a negotiation with those instructions”
It took a couple of days until the Colombian government decided that they would in fact negotiate, which was very important from the standpoint of the victims of the situation because we were in fact able to influence the terrorist negotiator and we had a negotiating team which was parked in a van outside the embassy. You had two negotiators from the government, the Foreign Ministry actually. Then you had the terrorist negotiator who was a woman. We also had arranged for the Mexican ambassador to sit in as a representative of those who had been kidnapped. Over time we were able to in fact convince the negotiator to take her instructions from us instead of her boss which I think was instrumental in getting us out of there in one piece.
Q: What were they after?
ASENCIO: Fifty million dollars and the release of about 360-odd political prisoners.
The Brazilian ambassador and the Mexican ambassador and I spent a lot of our time convincing the terrorists that there was absolutely no way any government could do this in Colombia and survive. That even if the President decided to do this, the next day we would be facing the Minister of Defense as the President of the republic. What they were asking for was just not reasonable or possible.
The terrorist commander read us his negotiating instructions. I took him aside after he had met with the group and said, “You can’t possibly go into a negotiation with those instructions.”
He was somewhat taken aback and he said, “Why not?”
I said, “They are going to say you are a savage and can only be dealt with by force. They are going to come in here and kill you. You said that if anything goes wrong I get shot first. I prefer almost any other solution.”
He said, “Well, can you do better?”
I said, “Hey, I am a negotiator. This is what I do for a living. I can put your instructions in language that will be acceptable to the other side.”
He was smart enough to say, “Give me a draft.” I got the Brazilian and the Mexican and said, “Come along, we are going to redraft the terrorist negotiating instructions.” In fact the Colombians of course were listening in and when they saw my draft emerge as the basis for the negotiations they praised it. They saw this as a means of convincing the terrorists to go down that particular route. That reinforced in the terrorist eyes the value of our participation.
We continued until we finally worked out a solution that was acceptable to all sides.
Q: Were you working with the kidnappers or were you kind of doing this on the side?
ASENCIO: Oh, we were definitely nose to nose with them all the time. We were living together. What we would do is the terrorist negotiator and the Mexican ambassador would go out to the van that was parked in front of the embassy and participate in the negotiation.
Then they would come back and the terrorist high command, the two or three top terrorists and the negotiating group, me and the Brazilian and the Mexican ambassador, would get together and debrief them as to what had happened and then determine what our next steps should be. So we became part of the negotiating process.
Q: When you take a set of ambassadors and put them together from various countries, you are going to come up with a very mixed bag of personalities. How did your particular group work out?
ASENCIO: The Mexican and Brazilian were quite stalwart and very good guys. They were really top flight and extremely helpful in this situation — without them we probably wouldn’t have succeeded. There were a couple of others, then the Venezuelan sort of flopped out and had to be medicated and eventually was left behind when we flew to Havana as part of the release mechanism. The Uruguayan leapt out of a window and got badly hurt but managed to escape. Some of the other ambassadors were supportive. Some of them were sort of paralyzed by the events that were going on so there was a little bit of everything.
“We flipped them the bird and went back to business”
Q: What did they do? Was your food catered?
ASENCIO: The Red Cross would bring our food and clean clothes so a couple of times a week a couple of the hostages would go out and unload the Red Cross truck and bring in the stuff. In fact that leads to one of my favorite anecdotes that also goes to your question about the kinds of reactions we were getting from our fellow inmates.
The Costa Rican came into the room where I, the Brazilian, Mexican and the Israeli were sitting there discussing next steps. He said, “You know, we are very unhappy at the way you guys are handling this situation.” He went up to the Mexican and said, “I have been in the diplomatic corps for 32 years and as far as I can see you are just a snot-nosed kid.”
I said, “Well, if you get out of this alive you are going to owe quite a debt to this guy, so you are a little bit out of line.”
He said, “Don’t talk to me. I am not speaking for myself. I am representing your colleagues who are all in the library of the residence. And we are very unhappy.” He marched out of the room, and I thought at the time obviously we have missed something.
I said, “Maybe we haven’t been keeping them sufficiently informed as to what we are doing. Maybe we should talk to them more.” The Mexican chimed in and the Brazilian chimed in and had ideas on how to do this.
The Israeli said, “You know there is something fishy going on here that I don’t understand. Let me go do a little reconnaissance of the terrain.” He was a military man. He went off and came back a few minutes later. He said, “You know what is wrong with your tactics and strategy? The problem is when you and I unloaded the trucks this morning. The French ambassador had sent us a case of champagne. You and I carried the case in and put it in the closet in this room. Your colleagues out there are convinced that we are in here drinking the champagne and haven’t invited them and that is what they are mad about.”
So the Israeli and I carried the case into the library and dropped it in the middle of the room and flipped them the bird so to speak and went back to business.
Q: Were you concerned that there might be an assault?
ASENCIO: Yes, very definitely. That was one of the overriding things. In fact there was a situation where one of the terrorists dropped a shotgun and it went off. There was a very loud report and we were surrounded by troops. It was the perfect sort of barricade situation.
So the Mexican ambassador went running down to the front door and opened it as the troops began to mass to make an assault and said, “It is all right. It was an accident. No one was hurt.”
There was another one where one of the female terrorists dropped a hand grenade that sort of rolled down the stair case in this sort of fancy house. We were expecting this thing to explode, so we all sort of sat there gritting our teeth waiting for the explosion to happen but nothing happened…
“They had to stop thinking like Chinese bandits and start thinking like politicians”
Q: Who were the terrorists?
ASENCIO: During the 20th century there [was] only one dictator in Colombia, by the name of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Very curiously he was a really active guy, very active in building Colombian infrastructure, roads and that sort of thing. He was actually quite popular. When he ended his duties as dictator he actually ran for President. The theory is he actually won but that the political class in Colombia counted the votes and then gave the election to somebody else. His political group then went underground and began to oppose the government. This was the M-19: April 19, which was the day of the coup.
Q: Could you deal with what the terrorists wanted?
ASENCIO: I had to convince them that there was absolutely no possibility of their obtaining prisoners. Again, even if the government acceded, the government would fall. This was not to their benefit.
If they in fact considered themselves an alternative to the government they had to stop thinking like Chinese bandits and start thinking like politicians. Therefore they would have to seek an agreement based on principles improving the welfare of the underclass, increasing trade, all those things that politicians promote.
They were still insisting on some sort of a payoff. The way that was handled by the Colombian government I thought was rather clever in the sense that since the Israeli was one of the hostages the Jewish community in Colombia got together and raised a million or two.
The President of Colombia issued a statement saying since the Dominican embassy was Dominican property and representative of the Dominican Republic, that the exchange of money between the Jewish community and the terrorists was not occurring on Colombian soil and therefore could go forward. So that was the way that was managed…
Q: Did you find that the terrorists were a pretty savvy group?
ASENCIO: No, they were — how would I say? — underclass types mostly. The commander had been a teacher in, I believe, high school and had run the teacher’s union or something. The negotiator had been a sociologist dealing with Indians. But all the rest were strictly students or gunmen. They were definitely underclass types and not particularly savvy. There were a couple of students who were quite bright but they weren’t commanding the group.
But as a result of their presence in the group, we set up sort of an ambassadorial lecture series, and had topics that they could come in and listen to like they were going to class. In fact I remember at one point they were arguing about the masses and their control by the capitalists.
I said to the guy who was making these observations, “What did your daddy do?”
He said, “Oh, my dad was an admiral.”
I said, “My dad was a boat painter. As I go around the group and ask, you were all sons and daughters of middle-class types. I am the only member of the proletariat here. I think you should take that into consideration.”
Q: What was the embassy doing while you were?
ASENCIO: I would talk to them every day and exchange what was going on, but we had a problem in the sense that I think I was telling you that the Mexican ambassador was ordered to leave the negotiation. But what was a real head banger was the fact that I had sent the embassy a copy of the negotiating positions of the terrorists that we had drafted and asked them to deliver the copy to the embassies of all the countries represented in the kidnapping.
Much to my surprise this wasn’t done. When I remonstrated, I was told that the Chargé had sought the approval of the Department for this particular maneuver, and the Department had decided that it would be unseemly for the embassy to be circulating terrorist negotiating instructions. I took some umbrage at this, as you can imagine. The terrorists became angry enough that I was afraid they might do me harm, but the Brazilian and the Mexican were quite stalwart by insisting that despite the nefarious American embassy they still needed my mental capacity in dealing with the negotiations so everybody just sucked up and took it…
“What I was concerned about was if they cared whether I was a dead hero or a live hero”
Q: How did the release go?
ASENCIO: We went to the airport in a caravan of buses, both the terrorists and the hostages. The Cuban ambassador had come in to offer us a plane ride to Havana, which I accepted on the understanding that they were to go to Havana and nowhere else and the terrorists were to be disarmed. I was afraid once they got into the air they would decide they wanted to go to Libya or somewhere else.
I explained this to the Cuban ambassador. He was quite bemused and said, “Coming from you that is kind of funny, especially your wanting us to disarm the terrorists,” but he understood and he took care of it.
So we went off to the airport. The Venezuelan ambassador was left on the ground because he was ill. The Israeli stayed behind, but everybody else got on the plane. It was an Ilyushin [Soviet aircraft]. I forget what number, but a very nice plane. I had my first square meal in a long time and a bottle of Cuban beer.
I was feeling quite comfortable until I went to the john and I discovered that the toilet paper was hanging on a nail that had been nailed through the door of the john. I wondered if they took care of their engines with the same care. But anyway we made it OK.
We got to Havana and held a press conference. Afterward I began talking to the Cuban ambassador. I said, “I think I really screwed you.”
He said, “How did you do that?”
I said, “I told the press that you were a good guy.”
He said, “That’s all right. I screwed you first. Because I told the press that I thought you were OK, too.”
There is no question that there was an attempt to reward me for whatever I had undergone. The Department had made that very clear….I was flown out of Havana into Homestead Air Base and they sent Air Force One down which was an indication I was going to be treated well.
On board were the Director General of the Foreign Service and the Director of Protocol. I sat in the President’s compartment discussing things. My wife and friends and family were in the passenger side.
One of the things the Director General told me was they were prepared to send me to an appropriate ambassadorial post as a reward. For instance, Argentina was coming up fairly soon, and I was offered the ambassadorship to Argentina. I was actually taken with that offer because my father as a young orphan had emigrated to Argentina. I still had family there.
However one of my friends, Foreign Service officer Betty Swope, was making herself useful passing drinks but mostly to be able to hear what was going on. She was running out and telling my wife what was happening. Betty stood behind the Director General and shook her head no.
So then he said, “Well then, we have a couple of assistant secretaryships open. How about Consular Affairs?” She went running out and stood behind him and gave me a big yes. So I said, “OK, I will take that.” So that is how I became Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs.
Q: Did you feel that they were treating you with you might say kid gloves for a while? Is this guy going to go nuts on us?
ASENCIO: I think once the State Department psychiatrist cleared me I was ready for duty….
Q: Now that some time has passed, what do you think should have been, what improvements, what things should be taken care of do you think when somebody comes out of a situation like that?
ASENCIO: Obviously having a psychiatrist check the guy is a good policy. There is no question about that. There could be after effects from a situation like that that should be taken into account. I had absolutely no problem with that.
The problem I had was the fact that I was actually discarded while I was inside. I was no longer the Ambassador. I was the hostage. I wasn’t being paid attention to. It turned out that I was the solution to the situation and had to handle it without their support, so to speak. So I think that is where I parted company. The fact that they didn’t take what I was saying seriously because they felt that I was being influenced by my captors or that I was being subjected to the Stockholm Syndrome.
Q: There was a tendency, not just with the State Department, where people were treated almost as if it was their fault, that they had done something wrong and they shouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation.
ASENCIO: That I would say is the State Department Syndrome. It is your candy store and whatever goes wrong is your fault. It doesn’t matter if it is a hurricane or an act of God or a political incident or whatever. Whatever happens is yours and you are looked upon as a pariah when you come back. No question about that.
In my case there was a clear attempt to get around that. For instance, when Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base, there was Vice President Walter Mondale and acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher (pictured) as well as ambassadors of all the countries represented in the hostage taking and a multi-gun salute and a bunch of my friends. Then there was a huge reception waiting for me in the diplomatic entrance of the State Department and a big press conference afterwards, the presenting of the Medal of Valor by the acting Secretary.
So they made a big fuss. It was clear they were trying to break through that particular syndrome.
Q: Your case was sort of the breaking of the ice on that whole situation.
ASENCIO: I think so. And I think there might have been some political motivation there too. The hostage situation in Tehran was still going on. There was an attempt on the part of the administration to make me out to be a hero as an attempt to show, I guess, whatever reflection of glory there was to reflect on them.
I had the impression even while I was inside that there was underway an attempt to picture me as a hero. What I was concerned about was if they cared whether I was a dead hero or a live hero. I preferred live, obviously.