It was with great interest that I read Brandon Webb’s piece about his travel to Bogota, Colombia. Having spent time there during the heyday of the Medellin/Cali Cartel, I was really interested in how much the city has changed. Bogota is beautiful and huge. I had heard from other SF guys who were there recently or had families there (quite a few SF guys married Colombian women) that since the peace deal with the FARC, tourism has been back and things are much better in Bogota. Yet, back then, Bogota, and Colombia were a much more unsafe place. And even a donut could be dangerous…
Colombia wasn’t considered safe for American military troops assigned to either the American Embassy or the Colombian Military Headquarters (CAN). Nevertheless, Bogota, and Colombia overall, was a fantastic place.
If memory serves me right, Chico, where Brandon was staying, is only about five minutes from the Zona Rosa. This is a T-shaped area of luxury shops, cafes, and upscale restaurants. The rich and famous Colombians would hang out there. If you were a single guy, that is what Special Forces guys would call “a target-rich environment.”
The Rich History of U.S. Special Operations Units in Colombia
Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs made multiple deployments to several areas in the country. They trained counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics troops and performed riverine operations. Delta Force troops did specialized training with select Colombian units. Also, they were part of the task force with DEA, CIA, and Colombians in the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Today, Colombia’s Special Forces are some of the best in the world.
During one such deployment, we had an augmented SF team assigned to the Colombian Army HQ. We were helping facilitate the creation of training packages between the American Embassy, Washington, and the Colombians. It was basically an administrative job and pain in your fourth point of contact. But the good part was that we got to live in Bogota.
Every two SF guys got an apartment, which was a nice perk from the embassy. Nevertheless, due to security concerns and threats against Americans, we had to get picked up each morning in an armored Suburban. Four heavily armed Colombians in a jeep would escort us from the front door of our apartment to the vehicle and follow us to the HQs.
Uniforms were low-key. That black windbreaker over the green dress shirt and no Class A jacket allowed, (those were left in the office). No berets or jump boots either… You get the idea. Although the distance was only five-six miles, due to the horrible traffic, it would take an hour to get there. The MILGRP had some great SF guys assigned there and they were always on top of stuff. My good buddy Wade Chapple was the American liaison officer to the Colombian Lancero School and we got to see one another on occasion.
We Are Ambushed by Donuts in Bogota
One particular morning, there was a bad accident on the route to work. So our drivers and security guys told us that we were going to have to take a different route. No problem, just sit back, read the Miami Herald and shoot the breeze. We were in the left lane of traffic zipping along at a pretty good clip. Then, suddenly, one of the guys spotted a piece of Americana across the road… a Dunkin’ Donuts. Although today there are several Dunkin’ Donuts in Bogota, back then there was only one, which we weren’t aware of.
“Turn left quick!” we yelled at the driver motioning him to pull into DD. He cut in front of a small opening of oncoming traffic and we zipped into the parking lot. We quickly went inside and ordered two boxes of Joe and two dozen donuts for the guys in the office.
Don’t make any mistake, Colombian coffee is the bomb and we had developed an affinity for it that still exists today. In fact, some of the big Colombian coffee producers would come by the Embassy every month and you could send home cases of the stuff that would be delivered to the Embassy mail room and shipped right out to addresses in the states. I had enough stockpiled back home in NC that I had a year’s worth upon returning.
Dunkin’ was a taste of home. And although they used Colombian coffee, the donuts had been sorely missed. But in our haste (or stupidity) of having the driver veer off the route, we’d neglected our security guys who were delayed in getting across the same oncoming traffic. And they were pissed.
A Direct Action Operation at a Dunkin’ Donuts
Believing something was wrong, or just to make a point, the three heavily armed security guys, entered the restaurant with drawn weapons and demanded to know what was wrong. The people in the Dunkin’ Donuts were aghast. They sat stock still and with mouths wide open. When we told them that nothing was wrong and we just wanted to stop at DDs, the commander of the detail fumed. He told us in no uncertain terms to never f***ing do that again.
“We were ready to come in shooting,” he said, which wasn’t true — they were too well-trained for that. Yet, their entrance had a great effect on the people behind the counter who looked like we they were about to empty their bladders.
We apologized to the detail leader. One of our guys turned to the cashier and asked how much we owed… He just pushed the donuts and coffee across the counter and shook his head. “Nothing, just take it and go,” he replied.
We passed the last few minutes, before arriving at our HQs, in silence. After which point, we all burst out laughing. Our escapade ended up reaching the ears of the MILGRP commander. He commenced with chewing our asses a bit, which was pretty common. He was a Marine Corps pilot and hated SF and the SEALs for our closeness and familiarity. All being on a first-name basis, regardless of rank, nearly gave him a stroke every day.
We Reach a Compromise
Later that afternoon, our security guys and driver offered a compromise. If we wanted, they’d drop us off at work. And every Friday, they’d go back and pick up a box of Joe and donuts for the crew… Perfect!
Our driver later told us that the cashier remembered him when he went back the next time. And he begged him to not bring the gringos back. “I thought we were all going to get shot because of them… my heart can’t take that stuff,” the cashier had told him!
Many years later I had a similar experience in Mexico City while working security for a film company. Hey, like my favorite coffee company says… “Coffee or Die.”
But that is a story for another day.