Tuesday, 24th June 2003
Colombia, South America
Jake Carter ignored the perspiration dripping over his face and the stench of the damp foliage and undergrowth around him. Jungle litter had an aroma all of its own which he recognised. This wasn’t Jake’s first time crawling through such terrain.
His focus was on the camouflaged wooden building only 50 metres to his front. It was situated in a clearing, but still with a heavy canopy of greenery overhead. Even with such natural concealment, the men who organised the routine tasks regarding the remote building still insisted on two armed sentries to patrol the outer perimeter.
The organisers it seemed had watched movies about the US forces in Vietnam. The ground was cleared of most foliage out to around ten metres, which gave a wide expanse for any foe to attempt crossing without cover. It was a much narrower margin than had been used in Vietnam, but the theory was to create the same prohibitive open space. In this particular case, the perimeter was so narrow because otherwise it would be easily spotted by anyone flying overhead looking for processing labs in the jungle depths.
A slight twist of his left hand enabled Jake to make a mental note of the time. It was 16:15hrs local time. He would allow another 15 minutes to ensure that the other three members of his Special Air Service (SAS) team were in position. Moving in tropical jungle was difficult enough, but doing so in the leopard crawl was a painstaking task.
For men of their calibre there was no discomfort in the necessity to move on their bellies, but they each had a location to reach, and a cut-off time to do so. Once in place they would report in with no more than a click on their respective throat mikes. When all were in place, Jake would send a confirmation for the team to synchronise watches. About ten metres to Jake’s left would be Colin Cairns. Jake and Colin were sited to the south of the target, and the other pair would be 50 metres to the west.
Colin had joined up with Jake in early 2004. Up until then, Jake had been unemployed, living on his wits, while Colin had been working as a mechanic in a motorbike workshop in the east end of Glasgow. In the summer of 2003 when the two men met, Jake had already decided to join the Royal Engineers but he had injuries and was generally unfit.
As a regular at a gym, Colin suggested that he help Jake get into shape. He made up a training regime that at first was hard for Jake to accept, but he had deep-seated reasons that helped him drive on when the going got tough. The pair rapidly went from being acquaintances to becoming firm friends who would watch out for each other.
In February 2004, when it got close to Jake’s date for attending basic military training, he set off for what was supposed to be a farewell drink in Glasgow city centre with Colin and some mutual friends. It was that night that Colin told Jake that he too had enlisted. He was joining the same regiment; Royal Engineers.
The pair became known throughout training as the Terrible Twins. If one was involved in a fight, they were both involved in a fight. They were closer than brothers. Four years after settling into trade, both as explosives specialists; Jake applied for selection for the legendary Special Air Service (SAS). He knew a man who had been in that very select group of Special Forces and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Just as Colin had helped prepared Jake for joining the regular army, the pair trained together to take Jake’s physical fitness and military skills to a new, higher level. Instead of going for a run in vest and shorts, Jake wore a combat suit and boots. In addition, he carried a Bergen on his back loaded with at least 40lbs of weight.
Colin organised cross-country routes for the pair of them. The routes would involve hill work and long stretches on sand. Every day would see the two men swim, run, and spend at least an hour in the gym working with weights.
Sunday was always a rest day, but every other day was a training day.
Colin knew as well as Jake that there would be more to good preparation than physical fitness. Every evening they booked an hour session in the armoury. Colin observed as Jake worked with the standard weapons; the two available variants of the SA 80 rifle, plus the Browning 9mm pistol.
Whilst blindfolded, Jake would strip a particular weapon down to its component parts, ready for daily cleaning. Colin allowed ten seconds before he gave Jake the okay to reassemble the weapon; still blindfolded. When Colin saw that his friend was proficient, the next stage was to go through the same routines, but against the clock.
Colin would go out in daylight with a map to a wooded area and hide a small item, which Jake then had to locate within a given time. At first the item would be near to the edge of a track, but as Jake got faster, the items were then hidden in amongst the greenery.
When Jake proved his proficiency, Colin would hide an item and then go along to observe Jake looking for the item in darkness. Colin carried a flashlight, but only in case of emergency.
On some of their evening training sessions indoors, Colin tested Jake’s knowledge of First Aid, or Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare (NBC).
The failure rate on the bi-annual SAS selection courses was high, but Jake intended to be in that tiny percentage that made the grade. On occasion he cursed Colin as he pushed him almost to breaking point, but his friend reminded him that a positive attitude to the hardship was going to be just as important as physical ability and military proficiency.
Jake attended the summer selection course, and was a successful candidate. He endured more pain and discomfort than he thought he was capable of, and he remained positive and focused throughout. Mental attitude he realised was the key to success.
That high level he had aimed for had been necessary simply to ensure he made it through the rigorous and world-renowned selection process. There were many occasions when Jake was close to missing that elusive goal, but he succeeded. He bonded with his new comrades when they were awarded their coveted sandy-coloured berets with the winged dagger. Only seven men passed that particular selection course. It had started with 180 men.
Six months later, Colin had prepared himself with the help of two other colleagues in the Royal Engineer unit. Colin attended and passed on the winter SAS selection course. There were only six men who made it through, and one man had died in an accident during a phase towards the end of the process.
During the escape and evasion phase the men under selection were making their way as individuals across countryside that was known to be treacherous even in good weather. On the summer selection it was a regular occurrence for candidates to suffer from heat exhaustion. On winter selection it was the extreme cold that usually claimed victims.
It appeared that the casualty had slipped and fractured a leg. He was found dead about 12 hours later, following a massive search across the punishing Brecon Beacons; a range of hills renowned for their unforgiving terrain.
Within a few months, following successful completion of selection, Colin was once again working alongside his friend from Glasgow. As members of the elite unit, the pair served together on clandestine operations in many countries, in desert, jungle and urban surroundings. They found themselves in life or death situations more than once, but they continued to reduce the number of bad guys in the world.
Something touched Jake’s left hand. Moving only his eyes, he glanced down as a large snake rested the upper part of its body on his forearm. It then moved forward over Jake’s arm and his C8 SFW assault weapon. The 16in long barrel of the weapon had been too close to the undergrowth for the snake to go underneath, so it slithered over the top to maintain its route.
As the large head hesitated and turned for a moment towards Jake, he remained perfectly still. There was no danger of a poisonous bite, because he recognised that it was a python. He also realised that it was an extremely large member of the species.
If the snake decided to try winding itself around the Special Forces man, it was destined to live a much shorter life. Jake had a razor-sharp hunting knife seated in a sheath on the left shoulder strap of his lightweight webbing. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to ignore the massive reptile as it continued on the move.
Even a whisper on a throat mike would be too much in the circumstances. The first phase of the mission was observation only, so it was imperative that there was no movement. There was an offensive phase planned, but the timing was crucial. On completion of that second phase the team were to ex-filtrate through the jungle to a pre-determined location.
It was a deniable operation, so there would be no apologies between diplomats. If these men were captured or killed there was no official recognition. Black ops were recognised for their dangers by the men who completed them. It was all part of the job.
Jake listened intently for the faint double-click that would signal that Daz and Mash, the other pair were in position. Daz Wilson was an ex-Royal Signals radio operator whose speciality had naturally continued to be communications, although there was more done now with satellite communication than man-packs and four-foot antennas.
Mash Miller had been a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps so his decision to become a member of an elite unit was a little unusual in respect of his military background. Like the other team members, his physical fitness was at an incredible level. He gained the nickname ‘Mash’ from the acronym used for the US field units; Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Mash took his speciality so seriously that he often helped out as a volunteer at a local hospital whenever he was back at the peacetime base in Hereford.
Voices were being raised inside the building, and a door swung open. A man in a white suit and white Panama hat was first out and paused on the wooden porch. He looked around the surrounding jungle as if he was able to see amongst the trees, which would have been impossible, but he might still have seen movement. He didn’t appear to be looking for anything in particular, but he gazed from side to side, his eyes squinting and his lips pursed.
The man was about 5ft 9ins tall, and of average build. His complexion was red and glowing with perspiration, probably because he wasn’t accustomed to the extreme humidity. His dark beard looked like a few days of growth rather than an intentional feature.
He was wearing a white shirt under his suit and a red silk scarf around his neck. He whipped the scarf from his neck and wiped his face several times. The scarf was slipped loosely around his neck again when he’d finished mopping the perspiration.
As Jake watched the man light up a cigar, he thought he recognised him from somewhere. He couldn’t place him immediately and wondered if the man was in international criminal, or possibly somebody from somewhere far off in Jake’s past. He was thrown by the beard, but it was the way the man moved and his bearing that was bringing back memories to the soldier.
The man in white took a long pull from his cigar and briefly closed his eyes, as he raised and moved his head side to side while he exhaled the blue smoke. It was a strange, yet distinctive movement.
Two more men left the building, continuing a conversation as they did. One was tall with a thick neck and broad shoulders, whilst the other was a little shorter, but also muscular. They were speaking loud enough to be heard, but they were speaking Spanish.
Both men had long dark hair, tied back in a ponytail, and both were wearing shoulder holsters over their bright multi-colourful shirts. The pair wore fashionable light trousers and expensive shoes. They may not have been of the upper echelon, but they appeared to like to dress well even in such a remote location. No doubt their jackets were in the building.
The muscular pair fitted the descriptions of two of the Colombians that the team had seen photos of at the final briefing. Both men were smoking cigarettes. Apart from nodding at the man in the white suit, they didn’t include him in their conversation.
When there was the sound of a vehicle approaching the Colombians stepped down onto the grassy ground level. The taller one looked back at the bearded man and indicated with a nod and inclination of his head that he should step down and join them.
The bearded man did so, but remained silent. Jake noted that the man limped.
A black SUV with tinted windows crept along the narrow track and pulled up a few metres away from the porch of the small building. The driver and front seat passenger climbed out and went around to the tailgate. They were wearing what amounted to a uniform of sorts; a black shirt, black chinos and black shoes. Both wore shoulder holsters.
One of them raised the tailgate and then the pair of them reached inside and each pulled out a bound, blindfolded, and gagged prisoner. One prisoner appeared to be a teenager, and the other was a man in his 40’s. Both wore the ragged clothes of Campesinos; the local hillside farmers who cultivated the coca trees.
The prisoners were dragged, kicked and punched across the distance of a few metres to where the Colombians were waiting. The big man stubbed his cigarette out on the neck of the older prisoner which produced a shrill scream of pain, even through his gag. His shorter companion inflicted a similar wound on the younger prisoner and got a similar reaction.
At a nod from the big man, the uniformed men whipped the blindfolds from their prisoners. The prisoners blinked rapidly and looked around to take in their new surroundings. Their faces and bodies were covered in bruises and blood stained their torn clothing.
“I am Sal,” the big Colombian said, “and my colleague here is Rico. Our boss likes us to teach people to do as they’re told, and to learn from their mistakes.” He grinned and looked at the older prisoner. “I understand that your name is Carlos. Well Carlos, you are going to help us to send a message.”
Sal nodded towards the bearded man in the white suit before he continued. “This gentleman is from Europe and he must be shown how we deal with those who don’t do as they are told. It is for his benefit that I am speaking English, and I know you can both understand; which is also good.”
As Sal was talking, his colleague Rico had stepped forward about two metres. He stood at the edge of a pond, which was almost rectangular in shape and approximately five metres long by four metres wide. There was a large bamboo frame erected across the width of the pond, and from the centre of the bamboo cross bar hung a meat-hook.
The hook was attached to a pulley and rope assembly, which led along the main beam and down the side post to a short wooden stake with a shackle attachment. The wooden stake was near to where the group of men stood.
Rico bent down, untied the rope that was tied to the shackle and undid the knot. When he pulled the thin rope, the meat-hook slid along the beam to the upright post nearest to him.
Sal stepped forward and gripped Carlos by the shirt collar. “You my friend are going to pay the ultimate price for treachery.” He glanced back at the younger prisoner. “You Santos will watch what happens to your father, and then you will be taken back to the terraces where you will talk to your companions there about the need for obedience.”
Even as Carlos stood with squinting eyes, shaking his head, Rico slammed his fist into the man’s gut. Carlos doubled over and fell face forward to a kneeling position. At a nod from Sal, Rico reached up and pulled the grappling hook down from the frame and hooked it onto the bindings on Carlos’s wrists.
Rico pulled on the end of the rope, and as the strong cord attached to the hook strained with the weight of the man, it held at an angle from the bar on the frame.
Sal said: “Lift him,” and then he turned to ensure that the European visitor was watching the proceedings. The European nodded and took a long pull from his cigar.
Rico pulled on the rope and thanks to the pulley wheels, with very little effort he managed to have the prisoner slide across the grass and up into an upright position. Carlos hung by his wrists from the hook, looking like a goalkeeper who was reaching up with both hands to the crossbar.
As the doomed man felt his bodyweight pull on the bindings of his wrists and arms, he looked from side to side in panic. He muttered something in Spanish and perspiration formed rapidly on his bruised and bloodied face. The language was unimportant, because his wide-eyed stare, shaking head and thrashing, suspended body suggested he feared for his life.
Rico tied off the main rope to the metal shackle on the small post, and then reached behind his back. He pulled out a knife with a bone handle and a gleaming silver blade. At a nod from Sal, Rico stepped forward and gouged a line down the prisoner’s lower leg. The blood flowed and at first began to stick to the torn clothing. It also began to pool inside the unfortunate man’s canvas shoe.
At another nod from Sal, Rico pulled on the narrow cord, and the dangling prisoner was moved out at a steady pace, to hang over the centre of the pond. From the moment Carlos’s wound had bled, there had been a movement under the surface of the water, but when his blood flowed more freely the movement below seemed to increase. He looked down, eyes still wide and staring, his chest heaving with his accelerated breathing.
Rico lowered the terrified prisoner towards the water, and the man tried desperately to raise his legs by curling them up, but he had already had most of the fight and strength knocked out of him. As much as his gag would allow, he screamed and pleaded; his head flicked from side to side. Perspiration poured from his anguished face. Just as he let his legs fall straight and his feet touched the water, Carlos looked across at his son.
Santos was held firmly by the two men in black. His young eyes glistened with tears. He watched in horror as his father thrashed around in mid-air. The teenager strained against his guards and tried to scream and plead through the material of his gag. He looked from one Columbian to the other, but both men merely smiled at him.
Carlos was lowered slowly and by the time his feet touched the surface of the pond he had become much sought after by the tiny ferocious fish below. He was lowered until his feet were submerged, but by then the fish could be seen leaping at the flesh of his lower legs.
Piranha fish are among those creatures surrounded by myth. Stories abound of humans and animals being stripped to the bone in a matter of seconds, which is not generally the case. The piranha does however have razor-sharp, interlocking, triangular teeth, and most of the species are not more than 30cm in overall length.
Certain species are omnivores and will feed on vegetation, or meat. They also tend to live and feed as a group, which is related more to fending off predators than hunting prey.
Like most omnivores however, if piranha are kept hungry they will eat anything, including each other. The fish under the unfortunate Colombian prisoner were in just such a state of hunger. It wasn’t the dripping blood that attracted the small school of fish in the pond. It was the imminent offer of a meal.
Carlos’s eyes bulged and his head swung from side to side in his frenzy. The gag reduced his screams of agony to a muffled cry. Blood dripped from his lips as he bit into his own tongue. His eyes rolled back and he made a weak attempt at kicking his feet, but he no longer had feet; and he was losing blood fast.
Rico hoisted the dying man up from the surface just long enough to let the man’s sobbing, distraught son see that his father no longer had legs below the knee. It had more to do with nerve endings than pain that made Carlos’s body to tremble, combined with the few fish that hung to flesh, before falling back into the water. Carlos’s eyes closed.
Rico lowered the now dead prisoner, but on this occasion Carlos’s remains were pulled under the surface by combined efforts of the tiny carnivores. The water surface bubbled and foamed for no more than a few minutes before all was calm.
Even the European and the two uniformed men grimaced when the short Colombian hoisted up the skeletal remains. Carlos’s son had already fainted by the time the others turned to look at his reaction. He was lying in a pool of his own puke on the grass.
The bearded man in the white suit stepped forward and took a long pull from his cigar before he spoke. “That was fucking impressive guys. It was gross; but fucking impressive.”
The man’s Glasgow accent seemed out of place in such surroundings, but he sounded genuinely impressed by what he’d seen.
Jake was at a loss when it came to translation of the Colombian’s conversation with each other, but he was confident that his sidekick Colin would be equal to the challenge. Colin was the patrol’s linguist and spoke Spanish and Arabic; apart from English. It was only when he spoke foreign languages that Colin could disguise his broad Glasgow accent.
Until the man in the white suit spoke, Jake was still lost as to why he thought he knew him. After hearing the voice, Jake watched the man walk back and step up onto the wooden porch and lean on the rail to his front.
Apart from a Glasgow accent, the man had a pronounced limp and favoured his left leg. At that point, Jake noticed that he didn’t stand quite upright as he walked, and his left leg was turned out a little. When Jake’s brain processed all the details and he considered the voice, it struck him like a bolt from the blue.
“It can’t be,” Jake mouthed the words in disbelief, “not him; not out here.”
Sunday 16th July 2017
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