When the former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Colombia was taken hostage by terrorists in 1980, he was not worried about the siege until he realized the possible outcome of negotiations between the Colombian government and the terrorist group.
Diego C. Ascencio, now chairman of the Committee for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development, said that fear gave him and other hostage ambassadors the desire to slowly include themselves in the negotiation process.Speaking during a Brigham Young University symposium on national security, he said, "There is an element of conventional wisdom that says you should not talk to terrorists at all. They are met by force. This is nonsense. You want to know their mental and physical state and want to discuss with them just what is going on."
The Colombian government assumed that plea bargaining would not work, he said. Instead, officials would come in and "blow everybody away and take the bad press for a few days."
"Plea bargaining is an Anglo-Saxon way. They (Latin Americans) do not think like we do. As long as we don't think like they do, we have serious problems. We began to walk them (the terrorist group) toward their needs, but not against the policies of the countries involved."
Ascencio related his experiences as he and 62 other people were taken hostage in Colombia after terrorists stormed the Dominican Embassy during the country's national day celebration.
Ambassadors representing 15 countries were caught in the shoot-out between terrorists and security guards. Once the shooting stopped, the terrorists and hostages were barricaded inside the embassy. Sixty-one days later the hostages were released, and Ascencio was 60 pounds lighter.
He said hostage involvement in negotiations first started when he read the terrorist negotiations plan and suggested to the terrorists that they revise it. The group wanted their leaders released from prison, but they were asking for too much and sounded too forceful. He and several other ambassadors were asked to re-draft the letter.
After working with the terrorist, "we managed to convince the terrorists to let the women and the wounded go and get the decayed bodies out of the vicinity. We lobbied for the release of the civilians and slowly began to work the group down. Then we began to settle down for the long haul."
Ascencio said the U.S. government wanted him to sit back, wait for the rescue and allow the Colombian government to do the negotiations. But the ambassador's involvement "gave us certain advantages that are absolutely priceless."
"I was on top of the situation. I did not want a bureaucrat 2,000 miles away telling me what to do," he said. "The courses of action seemed clear to us. If we could make certain that the trials (for the terrorist leaders) were legitimate and followed all dictates of law, we would be out of the situation."
The former ambassador believes terrorism exists, particularly Latin America, because sometime in the early 1970s intelligence agencies decided to go high tech and eliminate the human resources that were tracking radical movements.
"By exclusively targeting the Soviets and Cubans, they released surrogates to get active out there."
Ascencio does say, however, that the United States is on its way to reestablishing a network for terrorist information, but the threat of terrorism is far from being over.
He said he considers terrorism a species of political theater, with its principle impact in the media.
"Television is particularly fruitful for terrorists, but I am not prepared to die for jeans" or whatever else is advertised during the six o'clock news. "A lot of what we see passes as news when it is part of our entertainment system."