Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

A Diplomat Recalls Escape From a Kidnapping in Uruguay


Kidnappings, particularly those of high-ranking political officials, were not uncommon in 1970s Uruguay given the prominence of an urban guerilla group called the Tupamaros. Mistaken as someone with great importance, junior diplomat Mark Gordon Jones was kidnapped by the group in 1970. In “one of the dumbest luck things that could ever happen,” Jones was able to escape, and was subsequently removed from the country. Unfortunately, USAID Public Safety Advisor Dan Mitrione was not as lucky and was brutally murdered by the Tupamaros shortly after his kidnapping.

The Tupamaros were founded in the early 1960s on leftist principles of overcoming entrenched socio-economic divides in Uruguay. They were initially known for distributing food and money in the poorer areas of Uruguay.  They soon provoked the government and military into brutal responses, which helped increase the group’s popular appeal. By the early 1970s, however the Tupamaros adopted a policy of kidnapping and assassination which led to an erosion of popular support and heavy-handed repression by the Uruguayan government.  Finally, by 1973, arrests and killings by the government successfully terminated the presence of the Tupamaros.

Drafted by Jamie Smith

Mark Gordon Jones’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 24, 2007.

Read Mark Gordon Jones’ full oral history HERE.

Excerpts:
“I’d hit the side of the truck, and I could wiggle the heck over the side, and it worked beautifully. It only works if you have the adrenaline.”

Lead-Up to the Kidnapping: Nobody really, really knows, but I’ve got a favorite theory [about how Jones, at his junior level, became involved in the kidnapping]: after I left in August of 1970, I’d gone home on home leave. Then I’d come back to Washington, and I was on my way to Mexico. The Department mails eventually got me a lovely little tube in which was my new exequatur, which is the certificate you get to be a consul if you want. And I was not in the consular side, but I had been promoted while I was there, and it was that division between vice-consuls and consuls, so I had been made, to no particular effect, a consul, and notified to the Uruguayan government. And as it happens, about three weeks before the kidnapping, the president of the country, Pacheco Areco, had signed this exequatur for me. Then it took all that time to eventually get it back to me for whatever good it would be. And my guess is that, little as anybody knows about all our titles, the title of consul sounds pretty good. Now, as I said, it wasn’t even the kind of work that I was doing, but it’s my theory, and nobody’s really ever contradicted it much. I don’t think anybody else much cares, but that’s my theory. Several people I knew sort of said, “Oh, there was so and so at a cocktail party once, and you argued with him a bit, and they seemed like the kind who would have been Tupamaros, and they might have.” But I don’t think that. I honestly think it was just in search of a title.

 

There’s an irony to it, too. They were waiting for me in the basement of my apartment building that morning. And there was another guy from the embassy in the same building, a big apartment building, and we used to carpool into the embassy. And he’d gone down ahead of me, in fact, called me on the way out the door and said, “Come on down – we gotta catch up and find out what’s going on at the embassy. Somebody’s been kidnapped,” which was Dan Mitrione. His name was Nate Rosenfeld, he was the Cultural Attaché. That’s a pretty fancy title by itself, and the only way these guys from the Tupamaros knew who we were – they didn’t have photos of us or anything like that – they got our IDs out of our pockets. And they had mine. They got mine after I got down there, and they already had his, and his was “Nate Rosenfeld, Agregado Culturado.” And they said, “What the hell is that?” – sort of said, “Leave him; he’s not important. This Jones guy seems like he must be important.” I don’t know why, but they thought that, so they literally left Nate. They hit him over the back of the head, and he kind of slumped, and they just left him there – stole his car, actually. We went off in his car. So as I say, with this title business, they had no clue who they were dealing with – no clue in terms of being unimportant. We were just unimportant little fish.

 

The Kidnapping: As I said, they’d been waiting. There were three of them. They had 45s. I later described to somebody around the area as I was being debriefed, “The three had 45s and they were kind of all drab-colored. I hadn’t recalled seeing a 45 that was that way,” and they said, “Oh, yeah, that’s U.S. Navy-issue, and we have no doubt provided them to the Uruguayan military sometime in the distant past.” The reference is they’re called Stinsonized (which actually is not such a distant past thing: sometime around World War II), but Stinsonized is olive drab color on the gun. Anyway, I identified it that far, so they were obviously stolen or something from the Uruguayan military.

 

But there were three of them, and they had me at gunpoint and identified me, and I just stood there kind of feeling stupid, and my knees were going to jelly, which happens when you’re under that situation. And then somebody hit me over the back of the head, as they were doing to Nate pretty much at the same time. And I went down, not wanting to get hit again, and I played dead pretty effectively. They genuinely thought (they’d seen too many movies, you know) that one hit to the head will pretty much put you out. And so they bundled me into Nate’s car, and we got out of there and drove a couple blocks and met a pickup by some kind of prearrangement.

 

They tossed me from the car into the pickup, which I think was later figured out was stolen, too. Then we sped off with me in the back of the pickup and a couple of guys in the front. As it turns out, there was a guy with me, but I wasn’t 100% certain of that at the time. They drove fairly quickly to the only kind of expressway there was in town called the Avenida Italia, and they were zinging down it. You could actually get up some speed. They had tied me up in the process. They tied ropes along my body so I couldn’t move my arms and legs. So I was kind of there; I was conscious. The blow had not put me under. I said to myself, “Why don’t you just sort of throw your tied legs from one side to the other, and your legs will clear the side of the truck, and you can kind of squirm the rest of the way over.” But we were going pretty fast, you know, 40, 50 miles an hour. I said, “That sounds like a pretty painful landing,” and so I said, “No, don’t do that.”

 

The Escape: Pretty soon, we turned off into a little neighborhood, a little barrio, and we got suddenly into mid morning traffic, and you could hear bus horns and people passing by, quite innocently doing their shopping and things. I suddenly got the brilliant notion that if I just could get up on one elbow, I could yell for help, and all these nice people I could hear just yards away could rescue me. So I got up on an elbow and yelled for help, and the guy who was guarding me – whom I may have known about but totally forgot about in that particular moment – hit me over the top of the head with his and opened a lovely little wound, which kind of spurted, which those kinds of head wounds do. And so, he thought he’d half-killed me, I’m sure. You know, “Oh, God, I’ve killed the guy we were going to use to trade with. This is not a good thing.” So he goes up to the front of the truck – I could see out of the corner of my eye – to tell the guys in front that he screwed it up; he’d killed the victim.

 

So as soon as I saw him move any distance away, it was really nice: I had worked out, without thinking about it, the actual escape plan and just stashed it away in the back of my head. And that was throw my tied legs from one side to the other. I’d hit the side of the truck, and I could wiggle the heck over the side, and it worked beautifully. It only works if you have the adrenaline. I tried to do it once without adrenaline, and it didn’t work at all. And there I was on the street, and I had attracted a crowd, yelling for help. So I had both elements: I had independently gotten myself free and created a situation where I was somewhat protected by people who didn’t know about me but were perfectly nice about sticking around. Anyways, I looked at the truck when I kind of rolled to a stop, and it was 20 yards away, and I saw the brake lights. I thought, “Oh boy, they’re coming back.” Well, they looked at the people around me, no doubt, and said, “No, we can’t get this guy back. Let’s just get out of here.” So then the brake lights stop, and they sped off, and that was that. That was just one of the dumbest luck things that could ever happen.

 

The Tupamaros: The Tupamaros were kind of a flashy little guerilla group. They loved to stage spectaculars. They at one point found a really wealthy guy whom they held at gunpoint, and he had, allegedly, a safe full of gold – Maria Theresa Thaler or something, some kind of coins. So they managed to steal the entire safe. That was the local version of cool. They did all kinds of things like that. They weren’t actually all that known for killing people at that point. They got a lot blood thirstier as they moved along, but they staged what I eventually think we figured had to be four or five attempts in that morning, just the one morning.

 

One was against the Brazilian consul, Aloysio Gomide. They got him, and they held him for a month or two, and eventually let him go. They got Dan Mitrione, who was our Public Safety Advisor with AID, whom they held for a couple weeks and then brutally murdered. Awful. I can talk more about that in a bit. I think they got the Public Works Minister, or at least they made a good stab at him. We kind of thought they probably tried for our AID Director because somebody had tried to cut off his car that morning, and the driver was clever enough as he saw the little barricade kind of forming up in the street, he took off and drove across the park and got away. So that was the theory at the time. I don’t know if anything ever came of proving that or not, but there were actually four or five that morning. Two others were successful, and I think there might have been a third involving the Public Works Minister.

 

Aftermath: Well, they took me to the embassy, and I sat with the ambassador [Chuck Adair] and the country team… He and the country team, and I was sitting there at his desk, and I was trying to remember every detail I could to see if I couldn’t help provide some kind of clue even unwittingly that might have led everybody to Dan. If I had known where the hideout was, or if I could have identified any of the participants or something like that, there might have been some way to dope this all out and maybe we could get Dan back. That was our theory, and so we worked on that most of that morning, and about noon, the ambassador looked up, and he said, “Gordon, you’re still bleeding.”

 

 

The head wound hadn’t totally gone away. So he said, “Why don’t you and the gunny (the gunnery sergeant) go off to the hospital and get yourself patched up and get back here because we’ll probably still be able to use your thinking. So, I hadn’t really realized I was bleeding. So we went off, the gunny and I, and it was really one of those nice, weird episodes. We were kind of paranoid, and so the gunny was in civil. He slipped a into the pocket of his raincoat, and the two of us just went off – absolutely innocent abroad –to the hospital, got me patched up, and came back to the embassy and got back to work. Ed Grayson was his name, by the way; that’s a name I will probably never forget.

 

Leaving Uruguay: Well, they did, actually [send me out of Uruguay]. That’s right. I wasn’t particularly eager to go. One of the things that happens to you when you’re in those circumstances is you get a little false courage, and you sort of say, “By God, they’re not going to force me out of the country.” But the papers got off onto all kinds of weird notions as to who I was and why they’d taken me, and the fact that I’d gotten away made them look bad, and things like that, and so the ambassador’s decision was pretty quickly: “Let’s get him out of here.”

 

Yeah, I couldn’t have probably been very useful at that point. My family and I were staying at the ambassador’s residence because it was considered the safest, the most secure place. I had a Marine guard of my very own for a little while.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     Studied engineering at Cornell University                                                                                                  1962

     BA in engineering from California Polytechnic State University                                                           1965

 

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                                         1966

     Montevideo, Uruguay—Rotation Officer                                                                                                    1969-1970

     Mexico City, Mexico—Assistant Commercial Attaché                                                                             1970-1973

     Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—Economics Officer                                                                                                1977-1978

     Rome, Italy—Commercial Attaché                                                                                                              1978-1981

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