Nuns and Kidnapping

When I arrived in Ecuador in 1977, a crisis had swept the nation. A young industrialist, Jose Antonio Briz López, 35, president of industrial Pichincha, was kidnapped by socialist revolutionaries who demanded a ransom of 5 million Sucres (USD $600,000) – a huge sum at the time. Crises involving a ransom thrive on both money and publicity, so the Ecuadoran government decided to go stonewall, refusing to pay and blocking all reports of the incident from being publicized by any media outlets.

Antonio Briz was a member of a long line of Spanish merchants who lived in Ecuador for many years. In messages to the Archbishop of Quito and a nun, the kidnappers demanded the money be deposited at a convent in Cuenca, close to where I was staying. Sister Francisca Lopez, a nun, was entrusted with carrying the ransom to Cuenca, a town 190 miles south of the capital Quito, where she was to leave it in the house of a Father, Pedro Soto. However, the police said Sister Francisca failed to find the house and returned to Quito with the ransom. Desperate and frustrated, the kidnappers sent another notice accusing the nun of deliberately failing to hand over the ransom, and threatening to behead Briz if they didn’t get the money in 48 hours. No one paid the ransom.

The kidnappers left the man’s head in the nun’s convent. It was found discarded in a cardboard box, the same type of square box wrapped with twine that nuns use as a makeshift suitcase. The media stormed this grisly scene and it was a big scandal.

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Figure 1. Newspaper Excerpt from Van Nuys Valley Newspaper, Dec. 13, 1977

So the government sent an investigative TV reporter who requested anyone who had any clues to come forward and speak directly with him.

That same week, my professional brother Dr. Edgar Rodas invited me to fly from Cuenca to Quito for a goodbye party for the president of the Catholic University, a Jesuit who was fired because he had gone to a party and “communicated” with students. There was also a sparsely publicized rumor that he had smoked marijuana at the party. So he had packed his bags to go back to Rome.

Edgar and I are talking at the reception, having a little beer, and he says, “You know, I know who did that. I went to high school and college with those kids. Now they’re out – half of them went socialists, half of them went capitalists. So there’s this dichotomy and we’ve not talked for many years. But I know them very well. I know exactly who they are.”

And I said, “Oh Edgar, you have a moral duty to report it to the investigative reporter.”

He said, “I have nothing to do with it. Why should I do it?

I said, “You’ve got to do that. You have to have justice. It’s the right thing to do.” So we went back and forth like that for ten minutes.

Then he said, “OK, I’ll go and tell him.”

Across the reception were several people talking to the reporter and Edgar mingled in there. In a few minutes, he got his chance to talk with him. He came back laughing.

“What’s the matter Edgar?”

“The investigative reporter said that he doesn’t need any information from me because the problem has been solved completely.”

“Well, who were the kidnappers?”

“The nuns!” he chuckled, and we both burst into laughter as the other side of the room erupted in heated debate.

So the next day, as we were going through security at the Quito airport, we saw the nuns. They were flying that day too – they travel frequently. Each of their “suitcases”, cardboard boxes about one and a half foot square, were sitting there with the twine removed, clothes and personal things spilling out. And they were all sitting there waiting for an inspection at customs. Oh it was a funny thing! They were so embarrassed. It was just awful.

I think the complexities of South American politics are incredible because you can never anticipate what will come next. All are unusual and unpredictable incidents – who could dream up such wild scenarios? But they happen time and again.

The nuns didn’t kidnap the Spanish industrialist. It was just a false report; someone had planted the story and the gullible investigative reporter had believed it. The ransom money was to be deposited at the convent in Cuenca, and the head was found on the nuns’ property, so the reporter assumed that the nuns had done it. They eventually found the real kidnappers through actual detective work, and the innocent and flustered nuns were acquitted.

The lesson I learned was that when you have a party, or do anything in Latin America, you have to remain in exactly the central position politically, and that means not ignoring everyone and not keeping to yourself. You’ve got to do the exact opposite: you’ve got to be friends and talk a lot with both sides, because ultimately you’re coming to help the people. Walking that political middle line means going to see capitalist doctors who are trained in the US and doing them favors because if you don’t, they feel like you’re taking their practice away. As a visiting physician you are an outside booster to their practice and their money, so you’ve got to be friends and let their wives host the social parties so they have a higher social profile in society. Often times if they have the American doctors at their party, they have their picture in the paper.

On the other hand, you have to be friends with the communists because it’s the communists that have real compassion for the people. Equality is an integral part of communism; all people are equal and everything is done at the behest of the people. In Ecuador at that time, nearly all the people at the university were communists and Edgar and I believed in the value of their thinking and the influence they have in the intelligencia[2] circles. So you’ve got to have them too.

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My Professional Brother, Dr. Edgar Rodas Sr.

Edgar played it exactly – although at that time I had no idea he was. He holds many socialist ideas and thought processes, particularly equality in society. In fact this aspect of Edgar makes him one of the most compelling surgeons in this world. It is his sense of equality of all people that is the cornerstone for his invention of the mobile surgery operating room, which takes surgical care to those without access in the jungle, the mountains, and the coasts of Ecuador. To complement his socialist upbringing, he completed his residency in four years in Miami, Florida at an American university, writing papers and learning how to do everything in our capitalist world, so he sees both sides of the coin. His broad perspective was invaluable throughout his career, allowing him to utilize the best of both worlds; for example, he united socialist and capitalist ideals in the formation of his mobile surgery program, imagining a way to provide equal healthcare access in the form of affordable surgeries to all, then putting the idea into real world action through a deal with the General Motors company for the truck he needed.

Every time I was with him after that he used me as a catalyst for a party, and the socialists and capitalists would greet each other, “Oh, Hi! I haven’t seen you in a while,” and they would get talking.

Out of contact for many years because of political isolation, the old friends began to laugh together and look forward to bridging the gap between them. This was a good example of the dichotomy present in Ecuadorian society, where young people were divided by sociological outlook (capitalist vs. socialist) and a dysfunctional society didn’t do its job encouraging healthy discourse and cooperation to unite its people. The acumen of Dr. Rodas was apparent in his novel approach to this societal problem, germinated in his socialistic schooling: hosting a mutually beneficial arena for social and intellectual discourse. By hosting social events featuring visiting Interplast doctors, both sides of the political and ideological spectrum came together with a newfound common interest in international collaboration, having a chance to put aside their differences and speak together about their future.

Edgar, Interplast, and I arranged sort of a social healing process, a la Charles Horton’s original idea for Physicians for Peace, bringing together two opposing countries through an interchange of knowledge between individuals from each nation, who then become personal friends through the process. This kind of unification through informal social celebration appeals to the very heart of human cooperation, and is seen in celebrations all over the world. Together Edgar and I saw the importance of person-to-person interaction and the power of friendship to surpass ideological boundaries – the party is a panacea!


[1] “Kidnappers Leave Grisly Calling Card.” Van Nuys Valley News 13 Dec. 1977, Vol 67 No 123 ed., Front Page sec.: 1. Print. Accessed online at: http://newspaperarchive.com/van-nuys-valley-news/1977-12-13/

[2] The “intelligencia” refers the societal class of intellectuals who form an artistic, social, and political vanguard or elite.

[3] Featured photograph: “Ecuador Nun Reading” by Sebastiao Salgado, http://www.fondationfrances.com/artiste/salgado-sebastiao.html

 

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