As I watched news of the latest hostage execution in the Middle East — the death of CARE official Margaret Hassan — my mind flashed to a time 15 years ago this week when terrorism claimed a good friend and colleague, Tampa Tribune reporter Todd Smith.Back then, the people who killed Todd were called guerrillas. Today, the Shining Path insurgents who abducted, tortured and murdered him because they thought he was a drug agent or spy would more than qualify for the label "terrorists."
The labels have changed. The brutality hasn't.
* * *
November 21, 1989, started unremarkably. I was 29 years old, covering Tampa City Hall for the Tribune. Todd Smith was 28, an ambitious, aggressive journalist with his own daily column covering local politics.Todd was a good guy, fun to talk with, plugged in to the flow of news in Tampa. Our reporting group covered government, with Preston Trigg (now director of administration for Tax Collector Doug Belden) covering the court and Suzie Siegel covering housing issues. Our boss, Diane Egner, is now a Tribune editorial writer.
Todd was an avid student of Latin American relations who spoke Spanish fluently, and he'd already traveled to South America for gritty, dangerous stories. His series on drugs and murder in Medellin, Colombia, had run only weeks before. In September 1989, he sent a proposal to his editors asking to go to Peru to follow the thread of drugs and death further into the jungle.
His memo began:
"Greetings Diane and up the chain:
"I'm going to Peru. This is a proposal to A) represent myself as a Tribune reporter there and work up some stories and B) get some of my expenses reimbursed, or get paid some stringer's piece wage, or whatever. A is important, B is not."
The Trib wouldn't send him officially, so he went to Peru on his own dime. He treated the trip as a working vacation. I don't remember him talking much about it. I just remember expecting to see him back at his desk in two weeks.
On the day he was supposed to return, he didn't. By the next day, the news got slowly worse.
We heard things from journalists who were with him in Peru: he didn't return to Lima when he was expected; he was seen waiting to get on a plane out of the jungle; he was seen being dragged away from an airstrip in Uchiza, a lawless town in the heart of the world's biggest coca-growing region, the Upper Huallaga Valley.
By the evening, confusion began turning to despair. A body had been found in Uchiza. We hoped it was only a rumor. We hoped it was wrong.
We began working on a story about how Tampa Tribune reporter Todd C. Smith was missing in Peru, and had perhaps been kidnapped. But by that evening, as I was typing those words as a lead, Managing Editor Lawrence McConnell got the word from the U.S. Embassy and journalists in Peru: the body in Uchiza had been tentatively identified as Todd's.
The single thing I remember best about that day is sitting in the managing editor's office with Trigg and retyping the lead paragraph about the missing Trib reporter — and turning it into an obituary for Todd Smith.
* * *
Thanksgiving is a bittersweet time for me.I guess I should be grateful that Todd's death predated the modern practice of hostage deaths being taped and beamed worldwide. I can live without seeing images of my friend — a guy who sat next to me, who cherished a run to JD's in Ybor City for beef tips — being garrotted. They used a piece of wood to tighten the rope slowly around his neck. His body was dumped next to a soccer field, a crude sign declaring: ''In this way die North American spies linked to the Pentagon who are carrying out an anti-subversive plan in Latin America and especially in Peru. Death to the North American imperialism. Long live the Communist Party. Long live the war of the people.''
Over the next few years, various details emerged about Todd's capture. The four Shining Path guerrillas responsible were acting on orders from drug traffickers who suspected Todd was a DEA agent. Early on, one of the killers was caught and sentenced to 30 years. In 2002, remarkably, Peruvian authorities arrested the man they believed actually did the killing.
Today, the hold that the Shining Path once had on Peru is gone. Its power began to decline when its leader, Abimael Guzman, was caught in 1992.
Today, terror has a different name — Al Quaida — and a much more recognizable face.
Today, hostage murders are commonplace. We get to see them broadcast on grainy tapes. We get to read about them in our morning newspaper. It has made some people numb to the horror and the need for a solution in the Arab world. In Iraq. In Israel. In Palestine. Here at home.
Sometimes I find myself fighting to pay attention, battling to continue to care in the face of so much horror and hopelessness. Maybe there's a lesson in the stories Todd left behind.
Todd's series from Medellin was titled "Colombia: Among Assassins." Its closing lines detailed Todd's conversation with a Medellin man lunching at a shopping mall built by drug kingpins. The man said "drugs and violence had not affected his life. 'It's not our war,' he said."
Todd concluded: "He was wrong. This war allows no bystanders."
No war does.
The Political Whore gives thanks for his friends, both dead and alive, and urges readers who value foreign reporting to send a holiday donation to Washington and Lee Journalism for the Todd Smith Fellowship, Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA, 24450-0303. Political Whore can be reached by telephone at 813-832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected]