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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

November 2003

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The author recounts how close Uruguay’s Tupamaros came to kidnapping him from his home in Montevideo. It was a potentially dangerous situation, all too common in modern Foreign Service life. -- Ed.

Living with Terror

Montevideo was always known as a wonderful post in which to bring up families because of the good schooling, the lovely beaches, the inexpensive restaurants, and the many cultural and athletic programs, usually subsidized by the Uruguayan government so that they were readily available to people of all economic classes. About halfway through our tour there (1967-1971), however, a new phenomenon presented itself which made life far less pleasant for diplomatic families, particularly American families.

A national terrorist organization called the Tupamaros came out of Uruguay's frustrated middle class and began a campaign of terror and crime which, in its early stages, looked to the public like a Robin Hood approach. As they got more violent, including kidnapping and eventually murder, people realized how serious the Tupamaros' threat really was. The organization got to the point where their approach was "We have to destroy in order to rebuild." Their violence touched us all when they kidnapped Dan Mitrione, a USAID advisor to the Uruguayan police, and Gordon Jones, a young economics officer, one Friday morning. Gordon, while bound and wrapped in a blanket, and suffering from a severe gash on his head, was, nevertheless, able to escape from the back of the pickup truck in which they were carrying him to a hiding place. His bravery has made him one of my all-time heroes. (Gordon, by the way, is now retired and living in Florida.)

Since the Tupamaros wanted two Americans but one escaped, they came for me that Sunday night. Our whole family was home when a man carrying a soft briefcase came to the front door and asked for Ingeniero (Engineer) Rubenstein. I had seen a suspicious car parked near the house, and my wife, Estelle, replied that there was no Engineer Rubenstein at the house. The man went around to the back door, knocked, and asked for the same person, and was told again that there was no such person at the house. Meanwhile, looking out of our bedroom window, I saw several other men with what looked like blankets under their arms approach the house, particularly the garage, looking for ways they might enter. We had immediately called the embassy security people and hoped they were on their way. In the meantime, our neighbors on both sides suspected something. One neighbor let his two large German Shepherds out of the house and they immediately started barking. The other neighbor called us to see if we were all right because someone had been asking her questions about us.

When the frustrated kidnappers decided to leave, I saw that they had two cars, not one, filled with potential assailants. (I might note here that their standard method of operation was to trick their way into a house, rather than to force their way in. ) Not having succeeded, they drove away. In a few minutes Embassy security and Uruguayan police officials arrived at the house and, from that night on, I, particularly, and the family in general lived with resident Uruguayan security guards at the house around the clock for the nine months remaining in our tour. We continued to try to live as normal a life as possible and were reasonably successful in doing so, although some of our activities were obviously restricted during that period.

When my tour of duty was ending, Ambassador Charles Adair hosted a farewell party for me. It was the first social event he had hosted since Dan Mitrione (father of nine children) had been killed by the Tupamaros and since Dr. Claude Fly, an elderly American agronomist, had been kidnapped. (When they couldn't get me, they went for Dr. Fly.) As the ambassador's party was breaking up and the last guests were leaving, he got a phone call telling him that Dr. Fly had been released a few minutes earlier. The kidnappers had learned that Fly, who was hired directly by the Uruguayan government and was not a U. S. government employee, was suffering from a very fragile heart; they released him because they did not want the negative publicity of having an elderly man die in their hands. The kidnapping victim very easily could have been me.

We later learned that there was an East German publication entitled Who's Who in the CIA circulating around Latin America. The Tupamaros, including a group of young people who lived across the street from our house decided that the Ingeniero Rubenstein mentioned in the book was me. That Rubenstein was an Austrian, however, and was at least twenty years older than I. Too bad they hadn’t done their homework a little better. But I guess all's well that ends well.


The author had eight posts abroad in the Foreign Service -- Guayaquil, Lima, Montevideo, Managua, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, and Guadalajara. He and his wife, Estelle, now live in Florida.

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