Kevin Scott Sutay: Swallowed by the Jungle

Toby Muse on the American veteran kidnapped by Colombian rebels.

Juan B. Diaz/AP,Juan B. Diaz

In a hotel lobby in southeastern Colombia, a photographer urged an American military veteran to abandon his plan to trek across the country’s lawless eastern jungles. After a few days, despite warnings from the photographer and hotel staff, Kevin Scott Sutay set out on his long walk anyway. Less than a week later, he was kidnapped by Colombian rebels.

No one knew Sutay was missing—that is until the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia issued a statement Friday night saying he was abducted on June 20. He had been in Colombia just 13 days.

Sutay’s kidnapping has heightened tensions between the rebels and the government as the two sides navigate delicate peace talks that could end one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

The FARC, as the group is known, said Sutay had served in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, but left the U.S. Navy in March. The guerrillas said they would forgo their right to keep him as a “prisoner of war” and hand him over to a leading leftist politician and the Red Cross.

On Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos said he would not allow a “media show” surrounding the release, and would only permit the Red Cross to receive Sutay.

The FARC has yet to respond.

Carlos Villalon, an award-winning photographer experienced in both Colombia’s jungle and the FARC, is one of the last known people to have seen Sutay before his abduction. In an interview, he said he met Sutay in mid-June in the city of San Jose del Guaviare, an outpost at the jungle’s edge. Sutay was preparing for his trek to the Venezuelan border.

“When he said he was going to walk from San Jose del Guaviare to Inirida, I thought he was crazy,’’ said Villalon, who told him he would almost certainly run in to the guerrillas. “I told him it was a very dangerous journey and that if I were him I wouldn’t do it.”

But there were other risks of which Sutay seemed unaware: countless poisonous serpents whose bites kill within the hour, an almost impenetrable jungle, rebel landmines, stumbling in to combat between the guerrillas and the army, and air-force bombing raids on guerrilla targets.

Villalon remembers Sutay as someone who veered between silence and anxiety. “I don’t know if it was the trip ahead of him or his experiences in Afghanistan.”

Sutay had been traveling across Central America and for some reason yearned to see this isolated world. “I never understood why he wanted to do this. There aren’t any tourists in this zone.”

For someone keen to get away from it all, the jungle might seem the perfect spot. Colombia’s jungles are majestic, an unparalleled ecology of birds, monkeys and rarely seen plants. Hacking through the bushes and stepping on to a river’s shore, one can feel like the first person to set foot on this piece of the planet—and in this wilderness, perhaps you are.

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But the jungle has an ominous feel; one wrong step and it will swallow you whole. In some parts, the sun's rays struggle to pierce the tree canopies, casting the whole world in a greenish gloom. To be lost in these wilds is to come close to an agonizing death of hunger and thirst. Communities that live in the jungle accept that some of those men who venture alone into the rainforests, to hunt or to log, will simply never return.

The FARC hinted in its statement that Sutay might be working with the U.S. military or the contractors that continue to operate here—something denied by the U.S. embassy here. Villalon, for his part, thinks he was just a backpacker, albeit a confused one.

“No contractor would make this journey alone.”

Sutay told Villalon the police had advised him not to make the hike. Noting he seemed unconvinced, the police had him sign a piece of paper relieving the authorities of any responsibility.

General Alejandro Navas, the commander of the armed forces, confirmed the warning: “The police cautioned him that it was risky, but he ignored it,’’ said Navas.

From his experiences in the area, Villalon knew Sutay’s appearance would stand out as he crossing through the lands of lonely jungle farms. His military-style haircut would draw particular attention in the stronghold of the rebels, who accuse the U.S. of meddling in the country’s five-decade civil war.

Noticing his small backpack, Villalon told Sutay he was unprepared for what could be a month’s trek in the unforgiving jungle. He advised him to stock up on food and rubber boots for the knee-deep mud trails.

The last time he saw Sutay, he was walking along the road that leads out of San Jose del Guaviare into the wild. He still had the same small backpack and hadn’t bought the boots.

According to the FARC statement, he was probably taken three days later.

Villalon imagines that the past month has been hard on Sutay. “While they’ve been investigating who he is, they’ve had him marching, taking him ever deeper in to the jungle” to get away from the Colombian security forces. “He can’t be speaking to anyone because he didn’t seem to speak any Spanish.”

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon blasted the FARC, which had pledged to stop kidnapping for financial gain in February 2012.

“This organization had promised not to kidnap, and it kidnaps a normal citizen; it’s absurd that the FARC keeps abusing its promises that keep on turning out to be false.”

As strange as it may sound, Sutay is lucky: he was snatched when the rebels are in a peace process with the government and eager to make a show of good faith. Three U.S. military contractors were abducted in 2003 and rescued only in 2008, spending 5 miserable years in a jungle prison.

However, the kidnapping comes at a tricky time for the eight-month old peace talks which are centered in Havana, Cuba.

While both sides have lauded a partial agreement to investigate land inequality in the countryside, the most controversial issues remain unresolved. Particular sticking points are how much time, if any, guerrillas should spend behind bars and the handover of the FARC’s considerable arsenal.

A majority of Colombians approve of peace talks to end Colombia’s conflict that has killed tens of thousands. But the government and the FARC find themselves almost alone in defending the negotiations; peace groups who support the talks are routinely ignored by Colombia’s media.

Instead, the loudest voices come from the ever-tweeting ex-president, Alvaro Uribe, and his supporters. They argue no talks should occur until the FARC lay down their weapons, something that would in effect end negotiations for the foreseeable future.

After guerrilla attacks over the weekend killed 19 soldiers, President Santos ratcheted up the rhetoric: “Just as we have extended our hand in negotiations, so do we have a big stick.”

With the peace talks likely to factor high in next year's elections and even the government complaining of the slow progress, the question is whether the guerrillas and the Colombian government can make the final charge for peace.