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Author Talk with Rusty Young
Talks / Lecture
2 August 2017
For seven years Rusty Young, author of the international bestseller Marching Powder, lived and worked in Colombia, where he interviewed Special Forces soldiers, snipers, undercover intelligence agents and members of two vicious terrorist organisations. The result was Colombiano.
Rusty speaks to Karen Middleton about the path that lead to his latest book.
*Speakers: Alex Philp (A), Karen Middleton (K), Rusty Young (R)
A: Good evening everybody, and welcome to the National Library on this absolutely spanking winter's Canberra evening. My name's Alex Philp and I'm the director of overseas collections here at the Library. As we begin I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for our country we are now privileged to call our home. Look, I'm delighted to see so many of you joining us here tonight for this discussion with Rusty Young to explore the story behind his latest novel, Colombiano. Rusty Young is the author of the international bestseller, Marching Powder, the true story of an English drug smuggler in Bolivia's notorious San Pedro prison. And, Rusty, I checked our catalogue today and you'll be delighted to know we've got a couple of copies in our stacks.
Rusty writes in pursuit of meaning and says he's found meaning in passion in political causes and trying to understand other people. During his time living and working in Colombia, he's interviewed special forces soldiers, snipers, undercover agents and members of two vicious terrorist organisations. Living amongst the people of Colombia, he saw their pain from the onslaught of corruption and violence that they lived in. He was struck most by the children and he vowed one day to turn their tales into a book and let their voices be heard and Colombiano is that story.
Joining Rusty on the stage this evening is political journalist, writer and broadcaster and Canberra local, Karen Middleton. We will have time for questions after their discussion before we join you - we ask you to join us in the foyer for book signing and a few drinks. So please join me in welcoming Rusty Young and Karen Middleton. Thanks.
K: Welcome to sunny Canberra once again.
R: Thank you, Karen.
K: So I'm impressed you're in shirt sleeves, everybody else is rugged up, I don't know how that works.
R: I've just come from Costa Rica so I just wanted to show off my tan.
K: Oh right, okay.
R: That's fine. I'm actually freezing.
K: I want to talk about both of your books because I think in order to understand how you ended up writing Colombiano it's important to understand the first book and the first one, Marching Powder, was non-fiction. It was a biography effectively or almost an autobiography written by you.
R: It was yeah a first person biography written from someone else.
K: That's right, and the second one is a novel effectively -
K: - but draws very heavily on your real life experiences. But I want to start, first of all, with you because it strikes me that these are crazy adventures and you're a boy from Mosman in Sydney, I think, is that right?
R: That's right, yeah.
K: Tell us about your upbringing in Sydney and how the boy from Mosman did the law degree and then ended up in Bolivia and Columbia?
R: Yeah I was a pretty straight kid when I was younger. I have two fantastic parents who are still together, Marie and Peter, they've been married for almost 50 years now so we had a - I've got a younger sister who's two years younger. Went to a private school and then I did commerce and law at New South Wales University. So I was on a trajectory, a fairly conservative trajectory, most likely would have ended up in the corporate world, I would say. But I was also a little bit rebellious and also loved travelling so one thing that my parents did as we grew up was always took us overseas, even if it was on a budget holiday, we were travelling a lot and that really opened my mind up to other worlds and other people and other cultures.
So I continued travelling throughout university, I'd work really hard and save my pennies and then go travelling and then come back and do same thing. And I really found Sydney and working in an office with a certain tie really stifling and I was like, this is the - there's got to be more to life than this. At the age of 24, I went travelling with my then girlfriend, Simone Camaleri, who was also a law graduate and it was our last big hoorah, last backpacking adventure before we planned on joining the workforce.
I was travelling through South America, through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, backpacking, staying in hostels like all the young kids do. And we read about San Pedro prison which was listed in the Lonely Planet Guidebook and the Footprints Guidebook as the world's most bizarre tourist attraction. My first thought was, of course, why would anyone want to go into a prison ever, but let alone not - when you're on a holiday, and particularly in a developing nation. Bolivia's a really poor nation. It's a beautiful nation, great people but unfortunately a really sad history of corruption at the governmental level.
We went to this prison, we put our passports with the police at the gate and the gate slammed behind us and we found ourselves inside the prison, so I hope that answers the questions about my childhood.
R: More or less. I don't know, maybe it was destiny, you - prison's probably a good place for lawyers to end up, isn't it? <Laughter>
K: Maybe. Well how did you end up doing law?
R: I was just ahead of my time, I think.
K: If you were a rebel with a wanderlust, why did you do law at all?
R: Yeah because my parents - my mum's a teacher and dad worked really hard, so we were brought up to work really hard. I always wanted to be a writer and I declared that when I was about 15. I said, I want to be a writer and they - I think my dad said, that's fantastic, son, what are you going to do for money? <Laughter>
K: Your dad is a smart man.
R: <Laughter> He was. So that was - it was always my - I guess I always had artistic inclinations but it's a real dream, particularly in Australia, I think the average writer - and I read this somewhere else, I don't know how accurate it is, but the average writer in Australia earns $13,000 a year, right.
R: So to be in a privileged position where you can write for a living and that can be - that's your mainstay, that's what you life is, it's a dream. I was very fortunate to pull it off on that that - my first attempt, but there was also every chance that I might have fallen flat on my face because when I wrote this book I didn't have a publisher, I didn't know any publishers, I didn't have a clue about how to get published, I just had this incredible drive to write this book.
It was only when I actually started running out of money and parents were paying off my credit card - two credit cards, they were paying off the interest bills every months and they said, you'd better get these books published, son <laughter>. So they were really supportive parents, a very close family, my cousin's there in the back row there. Yeah so I just - I had a pretty normal upbringing but just wanted to do something different and it was just a matter of whether I was able to pull it off.
K: So you heard about this prison and you went to this prison, and you - did you stay overnight initially or did you just visit for the day trip?
R: Yes I went in with Simone, we were 24 at the time and we paid $5, $2.50 goes to the guards at the gate and $2.50 goes to Thomas and his bodyguards. It doesn't sound like much money but in a developing nation especially when you're in prison where 10 cents is worth something it's a lot of money. And he was - he had approximately, depending on the day between 50 and 70 tourists going through per day.
K: Is this Thomas McFadden.
R: This is Thomas McFadden.
K: Who was a Tanzanian born Englishman in there for cocaine trafficking.
R: You should be a journalist <laughter>.
R: She's done her research.
K: When I grow up. But -
R: <Laughter> Yeah, so Thomas was, as you said, he was an African born English drug trafficker, caught with 5kg, couldn't speak the language and you have to have a job in this prison, it's pretty bizarre. We can go into the prison system in a second, but he invited us in, gates slammed behind us. We did a one-hour tour, our group was about 15 people and then after that he said goodbye to everyone at the gate and he invited Simone, me and one of the - one other backpacker back to his prison cell and we started talking, just hearing his amazing stories. The bell went, the visitors' bell, it was 5pm, time for visitors to go home. We didn't want to go, we were having so much fun. And he said, oh if you give another $5 each and you can stay the night, I'm like, wow, what? And I, of course, went yeah that sounds like fun. I went oh, girlfriend <laughter>.
K: What was her attitude to that?
R: She was encouraging it. She was pretty daring herself. I wasn't worried for myself, I was worried for her. She's an attractive 24 year old girl, who doesn't speak the language, we're in a male prison, I didn't even know whether there was going to be bathrooms for women, but woman and children - the convicted inmates can bring their wives, girlfriends, children, pets into the prison to stay. So the presence of women and children was certainly a civilising influence inside the prison. And it means also that the male prisoners are extremely protective of women and children and if anyone touches a woman or a child in there they really get punished pretty severely.
K: So why did Thomas pick out you and Simone and this other guy to hang back?
R: That's a question you're probably better off asking him, but he said to me afterwards, he said, oh you're just super friendly and the - we were pretty social people in general, smiley. He had a policy against Americans. He claimed not to be a racist but it was because he was really - he'd seen a lot of drugs, he was really paranoid about the DEA because he always felt he'd been set up by the Americans. It was in Bolivia and throughout South America, the war on drugs is very much seen as an American war on drugs so they're paying to train and equip the local police and anti-narcotics teams, they're paying for the helicopters to conduct fumigation, they're paying for Latin American soldiers and police to do training with the US government in order to interdict drugs.
And so prisoners, rightly or wrongly in their twisted mentality who have been caught for drug trafficking offences tend to go, I shouldn't be here. If it wasn't for the Americans I wouldn't be here. And because he was doing these tours and he hated America - well he hated the DEA, he decided no US citizens were allowed in his room.
K: And, I was going to say, we'll come to the Colombiano bit, but you ended up working for the US Government.
K: How did he feel about that?
R: Yeah, he's now on the straight and narrow so I think his - maybe your values change according to your behaviour rather than the other way around. So he's - he was shocked, I didn't tell him, I didn't tell anyone, I told him years later and he just couldn't believe it. If he'd known at the time - this is after the book, sorry.
K: That's all right, this is the second book.
R: He probably would have detected me, he was very good at reading people so he would have worked me out, I reckon.
K: And the in-house hospitality at San Pedro prison involved lots of cocaine, but that was on offer the night that he invited you to stick around as well. What did you think when this is all of a sudden been laid out, do you think where's the hidden camera or?
R: Yeah, exactly, that was pretty much - I refused at first. In law there's a principle called entrapment so if the police offer you drugs and they encourage you to do it you can't get busted. And I was, this is entrapment. Is a SWAT team going to bust the door down, I'm no way and he goes, what are you talking about, this is the safest place in the world to do cocaine.
K: This is why you get the law degree.
R: And he goes, and if they bust you what are they going to do, put you in prison? You're already here. So I didn't yet fully understand the dynamic but because he was bringing so much money in, he didn't own the guards but he could always deal with the guards, it was always just a matter of money if someone ever got in trouble and they knew what people were doing, yeah. They see people go in and then come out an hour later clearly under the effects of drugs. But the police were absolutely cognisant of what was going on and they were undoubtedly involved in the trafficking, or at least taking a cut because cocaine - they were actually manufacturing it in small labs inside.
Cocaine requires one kilogram of cocaine which is about the size of an old VHS video cassette. It takes - it requires about a tonne of leaves. So what they were doing, they were bringing it down to the paste level. There's two stages in cocaine manufacture, you take the leaves, you leach out the alkaloid, put in the petrol, add sulphuric acid and then you get a gluggy paste. They dry that out and then that gets refined and it's the second part of the process that's a bit more difficult. So the first part's usually done in the jungle by peasant farmers or just - even kids with gumboots and barrels and the next part's a bit more - requires a little bit more scientific experience. So they'd bring the paste in but how do you get drugs through the prison walls, there was no holes and no helicopters, there was just a gate and there were sniffer dogs. So the fact that this prison was awash with cocaine pretty much indicates what was going on, the police were definitely involved.
K: And it was unsupervised inside, it was only really the perimeter that was supervised -
K: - then.
R: The inmates claimed that the police were too scared to go inside, I don't know whether that was actually their motivation but yeah they would come in once a day to mark the role in the morning and just make sure everyone was there and that was it. Other than that they spent their time on the outside. The inmates, as a result of that, gradually developed their own political system whereby they'd have a section delegate, so the leader for each of the suburbs, let's call them, and also a financial treasurer. When you go into the prison you don't get given a cell, you have to buy a cell so you choose which section you want to live in and they're all different and they all have different - a star rating. So some of the sections had six stars, that was for the politicians and the high level drug traffickers and the one star and there was even a zero star section where your three or four inmates were staying in one little tiny box.
K: And Thomas was in four?
R: Thomas was in the four star section where - and I stayed with him for four months there. So yeah so I've lost my track of thought.
K: No, that's okay. So everyone who wants to write is always looking for a cracking good -
K: - the cracking good story. How soon after you arrived there with Simone that very first time, because you came back to Australia before you went back and embarked on the actual writing process.
K: But how long after you met him there did you think this is my cracking good story?
R: Oh, look, as soon as I went there I thought this is just going to be an amazing email, I was like to everyone. And we snuck a camera in and so I was this is going to be a really cool - look at venture, tourism. And I think Thomas was aware of that, every tourist that went in there went, this is the coolest place ever, this is just so much fun, there's kids and dogs and cocaine.
And it's sponsored by Coca Cola, they've actually got no Pepsi in the prison so they've paid Coca Cola - the Coca Cola - I'd better get this right for legal reasons, the South American bottler of Coca Cola paid for an exclusive deal - contract with the inmates for the wellbeing of the inmates and they gave refrigerators, plastic tables and chairs and there's big Coca Cola signs up on the walls.
K: I guess on the scale of bad for your health, Coke's probably not at the top of the tree there.
R: Well, and ironically of course, Coca Cola is still - still has traces of coca leaf extract. I'm not saying that - some people say it's got cocaine in it, no. There are two - the traffic of coca leaf is illegal throughout the world except for two purposes; one is for a company in the US that uses it to make anaesthetics, liquid anaesthetic so they use it for rhinoplastic because they don't want to leave scars, and the second is Coca Cola and they - well I think they have a licence to export something like four tonnes of leaves. So that wouldn't actually make that much cocaine but they're very, very hush hush about it and it's called merchandise number five, if you want to look that up on the internet. They've never given an admission of that, that's - it's manufactured in a different part of the United States.
And at one point in the mid-'80s just after Nancy Reagan declared, just say no, and there was a spate of overdoses and I think one of the comedians in the US called Richard Prior set his hair on fire on the smoking crack. Then Coca Cola decided it was just politically incorrect to keep this extract - this coca extra in Coca Cola and they took it out. And that was when Pepsi started going up. Then they actually re‑released it and you may remember this, it was around - I think it was around 1985 as Classic Coke, you remember the little - remember when it went from the red and then it went to the white one, that was when they decided to put the coca leaf extract back in Coca Cola and regain their market shares, so who knows. Maybe that's the secret.
R: MSG and traces of cocaine.
K: Did you speak Spanish before you went travelling?
R: I did about 10 hours of classes before and I took a dictionary and just - you learn pretty quickly. Pick up the soap.
K: Right, and when did you - how did you work out with Thomas that you were then going to write his story, basically?
R: Simone came - my then girlfriend actually was the one. She didn't actually make the final cut of the book, she's very angry about that. It was too confusing because we actually spent two days and two nights in there and she convinced Thomas that I was a really good writer, I'd won a few literary awards at university and she convinced Thomas, when I was sleeping actually, that I was a really good writer and I would write his book. And so I woke up groggily, a bit of a hangover and he's like, good, you're writing my book. I was excited because I thought, oh, you know, it's going to take a week or so of research and of course a week dragged out into two, into three and then I ended up staying there for four months.
It was not my plan, I'd never do it again but in some ways I think that was probably one of the strengths of the research in the book, was it seemed like a holiday camp, it's kind of funny, all these things, and ironical, these things I'm describing but when you're living there after a while you realise it is a prison and it's dangerous and there is a whole flipside to it and I wouldn't have seen that but for staying in there for that length of time.
K: Yeah, I was interested in whether you ended up with Stockholm syndrome, whether you ended up normalising so much that you didn't feel like it was as bad or dramatic anymore.
R: Yeah, look firstly, I wasn't a prisoner so I don't think I ever really fully entered into that mentality of oh my God, I'm really stuck here. Secondly, I did have an apartment on the outside so I was free to go even out - if we ever had an argument or I needed to - I wasn't a prisoner, I could just go out and come back and pay them again. So there were - it's still taxing, it's a cramped environment, it's over-populated and more than anything forget the danger, it's just boring, really boring being stuck in any room. It could have been a fun park and you'd eventually get bored.
I don't think that I ever really suffered any trauma or anything, I was pretty lucky. I had a lot of fun. There was a point where I was just like, come on, let's get on with it. I could probably interview someone about their life story in a week or two but he kept dragging it out. And the other thing was, because he needed money and I didn't have - I wasn't going to pay him for this book, we were just doing it as friends, he had to continue earning his keep by doing - running his tours. So we'd start an interview and then every half an hour there'd be a call, there'd be another tourist come in and go on a tour so it really dragged out by virtue of the fact that he had to keep running his tours while we were doing the research and the interviews.
K: And did he end up getting a cut of the profits from the book?
R: Legally, criminals are not allowed to receive any parts of any profits from their -
K: Yeah, proceeds of crime.
R: - proceeds of a crime act, yeah, so that's it.
K: Right, got you. Be that as it may. And so the proceeds of collecting this information, he's obviously a beguiling character. It was a little bit frustrating but how much of it is - has ended up being in his own words, how much is he the colourful character and how much have you had to fill in some gaps?
R: Yeah, look, a lot of the - this was the difficulty, it was trying to write it as objective, non-objective, non-fiction, more like journalistic stuff and cross-checking sources that come from the criminal underworld. The main difficulty - the main storyline that was the most difficult to validate was his story about this corrupt colonel whom he paid to let him through and then that same colonel then turned on him and was the one that put him in prison.
Though I had the court documents with the guy's name, but if I go and ask him in an interview, but I'm just here doing a book and I'm living in the prison, would you mind telling me how you corruptly received this bribe and then - you're not going to get that. So the documentary evidence was limited, there was a lot down to trust but there were some amazing things where you just - they told me, for example, the thing about the Coca Cola, I was like that's not true. There's no contract, it can't actually be a contracting, maybe there's a handshake under the contract.
And eventually he - I think he paid someone to break into the office and brought out this eight-page contract in Spanish and it's just so legally written and it's got stamps and signatures and dates. I was like wow. And the other thing is this, the prison property system, they actually receive a property deed and that gets stamped by multiple witnesses, by the finance secretary of each section and you have to pay a transfer fee so it's a lot like land tax in Australia. That absolutely astounded me that this - all these stories, the things that I just doubted he came up with a lot of evidence for. And of course I did interview lots of other people inside the prison and newspaper clippings.
So I gathered as much documentary evidence as I could and I also filmed in there, we did a piece with ABC's foreign correspondent in 2002. Because I was really worried as to what people were going to think, you went in there, you did a line of Coke on the first page -
K: You made it all up.
R: You write a really good book which is not really non-fiction is it, Rusty.
K: Right. So you were covering yourself with -
R: Yeah and I was waiting for journalists to come at me and go, yeah, bullshit. Sorry, is this being recorded? One or two have and they've gone, right, and I've gone, actually this is really good and I pulled out my documents and scanned them and sent them to them and they went actually that's reasonable research. I can't swear on my life that all the stuff that he said before I got there that you can't - it's difficult when you're doing narrative non-fiction, narrative non-fiction is recreating a scene and doing dialogue.
K: Storytelling, yeah.
R: Storytelling effectively, and that's what gives fiction in particular its immediacy and that real sense of you've been there and that's what I was trying to do in this book. But if I asked you what you were wearing two years ago and the exact words that you spoke to your best friend when you had coffee and what the name of the café was, are you going to remember all those details? So of course there's a degree of - not embellishment but a degree of filling in some gaps that are perhaps not important but the essential storyline is definitely true.
K: So four months of research there and then did you come back and write it in Australia?
R: No, so we go out - at the very end of the book, I found out that he - one of the reasons he was stalling me and it was always like, you've got to do this story tomorrow, tomorrow, was that in the - between me meeting him and then going back to write the book it was a six-month gap where I went - came back to Australia and worked as a lawyer to save money. In that time he'd been charged with drug trafficking within the prison. Now he was a drug trafficker, he was selling cocaine to tourists so was he - when he said to me, oh I'm not guilty of this particular incident it didn't really matter that much. But what did matter is that he was facing another 10 years, it was the second offence - second charges on the same -
K: So an extension of his -
R: Extension of his sentence and it would have been - he was just about to go free and that was why I had to get back there before he went free to live in the prison with him and then halfway through he goes, oh by the way, I've got to go to court. What for? I've been charged with trying to sell cocaine in the prison. He said, I've been set up. And he would have been facing another 10 years.
When I was there, one of his best friends was threatening to expose the police. They would take this guy, it was a Brazilian guy called Samir, and they would take him out of the prison, because he was an expert car thief, and they would take him at 2:00 in the morning, steal some cars, give him $100 per car and then put him back in there and the police were selling off these stolen cars. So he - one day they just stopped paying him for some reason which was pretty crazy, he was a drug addict and they just tortured him to death and they hung him in his cell and made it look like suicide. That was the point where I was ethically I could not have written this book or published this book at least if Thomas had still been in prison. So I really - there was a degree of yeah, mate I'll get you out and there was also a degree of shit, I've spent four months doing research and if I don't get you out there's no book because I wouldn't risk his life.
K: Yeah, because you were worried the same thing would happen.
R: Yeah, so there was a degree of - in some ways people go, oh you're brave to do that. There was a degree of self-interest there as well, it was like I've put all my eggs in one basket, quit my job, spent all my money, lived in this prison and now I'm facing the possibility of not being able to publish this book.
K: So you wrote it, you did - he got out -
K: You wrote it, you published it.
R: He bribed the judges, they asked for $8,000, I said I'm going give them $2,000. It's new concept here because basically in Bolivia you pay the whole amount and trust them and they go, nah. So I said, this is the lay-by bribe, like Kmart and Target. You go in and you put 50 percent down, you get your prisoner.
K: I'll give you the rest later.
R: Yeah and then we didn't, we just ran away to Colombia so we had to leave the country.
K: Right, this is where the cliché honour among thieves come in here probably.
R: It was complete dishonour, Karen.
K: So you can't go back there ever.
R: I did go back there, actually, I went back at the - actually I've been back twice. I went back with Channel 7's Sunday night with Denham Hitchcock, if anyone saw that episode. That was really nerve wracking because I hadn't been there for years and the book had taken off, right. When we were - as soon as we went back in - we had to bribe our way back in, I was just worried that they were going to - they'd realise as soon as I entered the country because of passports and stuff but Bolivia's still a little bit behind the technology and there was no flags went up or anything. But as soon as we were inside the prison they went, Rusty, hey. Oh my God, gosh. And unfortunately all the fun people, low level drug traffickers had been released because it had been, what, 15 years and the people who remained still recognised me with the murderers because they were in there for - been there for 30 years. Hey, Rusty, remember me? I'm like, yeah, okay.
K: So the result was an international bestseller.
K: Which set you up to be able to write for a profession and not have to worry about that silly business, the law anymore.
R: Yeah, exactly.
K: How then do you get to Colombia and what you've now produced which I gather took you many years to write.
R: Yeah, the first one took probably about a year, a year and a half, let's say four months of research, a year and a bit to do the first draft and then let's say another six months to edit and then six months' lead time for the publisher. So all in all from the first day to the last it was maybe two and a half years. So that was - it's really quite a short time for a book to get out. This one has taken 12 years from go to work, and it's fiction so it's like why does it take so long.
K: And was a strange experience shifting to fiction or?
R: Absolutely, Yeah, absolutely. And I think - I didn't realise, I just thought if you can write you can write. Obviously I could write but I found out that I couldn't necessarily write fiction. Fiction is a really different beast, I think it's a lot more - requires a lot - this is no disrespect to any non-fiction writers or journalists in the room but it does actually strike - fiction is a lot harder, I think. Non-fiction people, readers and critics don't necessarily judge you so much on your writing style but more on the content of what you're writing.
So if you're doing a good expose or if it's just an interesting subject matter that's enough and people don't expect you to be a literary prize winner for non-fiction. Fiction you're competing against a book of prize winners and it doesn’t matter that you're 25 years old or 60 years old, a book is a book as far as a reader is concerned. They don't go, oh this is a good book for a 21 year old, they go this is a good book, period. And so I really found that I had to re-learn a whole - or learn a whole lot of skills that I didn't really credit fiction writers with having; story arc, character development, theme, plot.
K: And did you go to Colombia looking for the next cracking good story?
R: So I went there basically because we needed somewhere to live. Thomas was on parole, we skedaddled from Bolivia and I heard that there were - I'd been to Colombia before and I knew that there were jobs going there. There were very few tourists there so you could get a job quite easily as an English teacher without qualifications so just by virtue of being a native speaker.
K: And you had a taste for South America.
R: Yeah, I loved South America and I also knew that if I'd come back to Sydney I would have gone, okay, I need a job, I'll just get a job in law and then I'll do this on the weekends. I would have lost my passion, so it was good to stay there and to have Thomas there and basically I'd write chapters, read them out and he would go - give me corrections. So I wrote every word but Thomas was very much a collaborator in this book.
K: In the Colombiano book?
R: No, in the - sorry, in the first one, so Marching Powder was written in Colombia and then I came back, published it and went, right, what am I going to do, I've now been living in Colombia for three years, love it, had a girlfriend there, just had the time of my life. And I was like, I want to go back to Colombia and write a book about Colombia.
On the plane on the way back into Colombia after the launch of Marching Powder here and in the UK, I was going through Miami airport and I met a suspicious-looking character in his late 40s and we got chatting and I said, what are you doing in Bogata, and he said, I'm in construction. I'm really, construction, there's not much construction going on there. And he was a lovely guy, really nice, friendly guy who shall remain nameless and he just said, and what are you doing. I was, I'm an English teacher. He was, how much money do you earn as an English teacher? I was like, not a lot. I think I was earning about a thousand dollars a month so $12,000 a year. It's actually a decent amount of money in Colombia but as someone with a commerce law degree when your friends are making lots of money. By that - at this stage of the book, I didn't know whether the book was selling or not, it takes a while for books to take off.
So as far as I was concerned I achieved my mission and I just wanted to keep writing, wanted to write my next book. Then he offered me a job and he in fact worked for the US Government and he said, why don't you take a job with us, we'll pay you this much and I was, doing what, why me, I'm a lawyer.
K: Why did he pick you?
R: Look, I think the honest response is, at that time, this is early - January 2004, the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars were really kicking off and they were paying a lot of money, so all the really - let's say the top level contractors in these positions were being drawn to Iraq and Afghanistan and yet these guys are earning $1,200 US a day tax free. So it's huge money if you go into a war zone as a contract and this is the big debate that we always - we should be having more of is, outsourcing of government wars to private military industry.
K: Mercenaries effectively or, you know.
R: Potentially. The training side, I actually understand it makes sense to get specialised people in who - civilians who have the skills but yeah part of it is also see no evil, hear no evil and if something happens to - also it allows them quite cynically to not include civilian contractors who are killed for whatever reason in the line of fight within their - the number of - American casualties. So in the Iraq war, they're like, oh. I think a million Iraqis were killed or maybe more, and the American death toll officially was something - only in the thousands, or up to 700, 800, but it was likely a lot more when you consider the number of private PMCs, they're called, private military contractors.
K: And he was engaged in all - the people he was working with or engaged in training the local military.
K: And this is where the kidnapping issue and the child soldiers issue come in, but tell us about the kidnapping statistics in Colombia because kidnapping was a huge trade and they were essentially trying to combat that, were they not?
R: So they - the fight guerrilla - I have to go back a little bit in time, the fight guerrilla began in the mid-'60s and it's a communist insurgency. They were fighting against corrupt central - what they perceived to be a corrupt central government that had neglected rural subsistence farmers. Colombia's a very wealthy nation in terms of resources, natural resources. They've got coal, oil, they export bananas, flowers, palm oil. It's a really wealthy agricultural country.
So they aimed to topple the central government and it's still communism, but they needed to finance themselves. So by about the '80s and '90s they believe that their numbers were up to - between 17,000 and 20,000, that's a massive army, it was the biggest in insurgency army in the western hemisphere. So it cost millions of dollars to run an army; uniforms, food, weapons, bullets, bribes. So they had money. So their main sources of income initially were the extortion of wealthy landowners and businesses. They actually - they declared a 10 percent tax on anyone who had a million dollars and if people didn't pay they would kidnap them and sell them back to their family, and it was a really, really cynical horrific crime.
K: And how often did they kill them if they didn't get what they wanted?
R: They were pretty good because obviously - they were actually reasonably good at returning people because obviously it was a certain - it's their market credibility, if you like, it's a horrible thing to think about but it's - if enough people pay them and their loves one was killed then the next person's not going to pay. So they pretty much did return the hostages when they were paid, it was a question of how much they asked for. They would find out your bank accounts and hold you for months and then investigate your family, find out who you uncle was and then bankrupt the whole family effectively. And that proved to be extremely unpopular with the locals, the Colombians, because they were supposedly fighting for the people, right, and it's such a horrific crime.
Then they started using cocaine trafficking. But going back to the kidnapping, it was the country with the highest rate of kidnapping in the world. There were between 3,000 and 4,000 kidnap victims per year, that's reported kidnaps. So probably the actual number was a lot higher because the first thing kidnappers do is say don't call the authorities. If you don't tell the authorities and you keep it quiet, you pay a lesser amount, get it done privately. And so it really was a dangerous country to be in to - it's talking on average nine to 10 people per day being taken, usually in the country, often on the roads. So Colombians were - you'd never drive at night-time, you'd get everything done during the day and there'd be a mad scramble before dark. The government army didn't control the roads outside of the capitals, major cities like Bogata, Medellín and Cali, it was basically, you would not drive at night-time. People were paranoid, people were really scared.
So when the US Government started putting funds into counter-terrorism around the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia. Philippines also has a kidnap problem. The focus in Colombia was on anti-kidnapping so basically kidnap rescue and kidnap prevention so as soon as someone's taken call, bang, send the helicopters out, send out the teams, surround them, block them off, give the hostage back and stopping extortions. So basically if someone's been extorted previously they're like basically if you don't pay us we'll blow up your building with a bomb, we'll kidnap your son. So now if you call the police now in Colombia and you say, I'm being extorted, the police will come along and grab the kidnapper and then grab their commanders and stuff so it really turned the whole country and not this - I'm not claiming that the program I was involved in turned the country, it was a national effort from the army, just a whole change of attitude. It was rather than pacifying the insurgence, it was, right, we're sick of this, let's fight.
K: And was this a clandestine program the Americans were in, was this a secret -
R: No, it was all part of a bigger inter-country agreement called Plan Colombia and it was worth $4.3 billion. I think the US put in $1.3 billion in the first trunch of money and the European Union put in $3 billion. And it was combined with their anti‑narcotics efforts. So this particular program was just one of many programs that was part of Plan Colombia which - unfortunately it was mainly military aid.
They probably didn't spend enough on social programs, education, all the - maybe it was two or three percent was for positive social programs but the rest was in military - contracting military skills. It did need it, Colombia had fewer police and army per capita than Canada which was at peace. So it really was under resourced and that really turned around with the government around 2002. Oh well actually it had been - Plan Colombia came in under Clinton in the late '90s but the real funding came in around 2001, 2002, building bases, training locals and then - and right now they've just basically forced the insurgence back into the mountains and they've finally after 50 years said okay, and they signed a peace pact.
So this is one example. I'm sure a lot of people - a lot of Australians in particular are very cynical about the US meddling in affairs of developing nations around the world but this, to my mind at least, was a success - one of their success stories. And they haven't really done a great job of banging their drum about it saying this is a success story. But Colombia, after - at the end of this period had the third fastest growing economy in the world and before that it was in depression, they hadn't had an economic growth, they didn't have a middle class, the government was falling apart, it was, yeah.
K: So were you involved in this at time Ingrid Betancourt went missing?
R: Yeah, so she was -
K: Who's the Greens.
R: Yeah I was there and she was - I was in the country when she was kidnapped and I was there when she was rescued, that was the 2 July 2008, along with - so, yeah, the danger - your question before was this clandestine? No, it wasn't. Did I tell anyone? No, I would rock around looking - wearing jeans and long hair and unshaven and just - what do you do, I'm in construction. I had a bullet-proof car. It was a good story, the construction story.
K: And what were you doing there?
R: I didn't even know how to lay a brick, to be honest.
K: Were you doing logistics or?
R: Yeah so I wasn't part of the frontline troops running, I'd never fired a weapon, I was around weapons. We'd constructed a base so there was some construction, it was just a military base in what's called a shoot house. A shoot house is a mock house where you go and you do kidnap rescues so you bash the door in, blow it up, it's called breaching. Explosives, water charges, DET cord and then you go and fire live rounds. So the basic -
K: Anyone who saw 60 Minutes on Sunday night would have seen a bit of that.
R: It's still on. If you didn't catch 60 Minutes it's up there on the web, you can watch that program. But it's got live - in the shoot house firing live rounds and they're bouncing off the walls and stuff. So the shoot house, the shooting range, pistol range. We gave them weapons so the weapons had to be imported on planes. We had to sign the weapons over because they were really mindful of the weapons being diverted. Bullets, they needed grenades, uniforms. Food while they're training, bringing in the instructors. Accommodation, so the whole logistical and financial side.
K: You're a one-man kill of brown root -
R: No I wasn't a one man, I was one of many. It was managed from Washington and I reported back to them, but yeah it was just something that you wouldn't go around advertising because it would pretty quickly get out. Oh, such and such is working for the US Government, and in a country where there was such high kidnapping rates and where it's a communist - the communist insurgency doing the kidnapping. If you're working for the US Government you're a target. Three guys who were subcontractors at the time in 2003/2004 got taken, captured, and they were held in the jungle for seven and a half years. Seven and a half years.
One of them had a pregnant girlfriend at the time and came out seven and a half years later and he had a seven year old kid. They were rescued on the same day as Ingrid Betancourt. There were 15 of them who had been held for years and years and years and yeah I've actually met Ingrid Betancourt and said hello to her again at the Opera House when she came and did a book signing and went hi and she's like oh <laughter>. So I was not involved in that operation, I'm not claiming that but yeah I was there at the time and that was the groups that we were working with that did kidnap rescuing.
K: So this book, which I have to say is beautifully written.
R: Thank you.
K: Is - looks at things from the perspective of some of these young people growing up in this community, exposed to the drug trade that you were talking about in relation to Bolivia that goes in Colombia obviously as well. In fact we probably know about the Colombian element of the drug trade, we hear more about it. And this pressure to go and pick the leaves and work in that trade and the pressure from these competing groups. How did you get exposed to that in order to produce the research for what became this novel?
R: So there are three primary ways I was getting access to - they were basically former child soldiers. It was - I was able to speak to adult insurgents and paramilitaries. They were still in their groups but because you could go out - the groups actually were competing with each other for publicity so if you were a journalist or claimed to be a journalist you could go out and interview them about their political causes. It was always dangerous to speak to one group and then the other so you might speak to one group in one region and then go to another region to speak to the other and publish something under a different name.
K: So were you publishing?
R: No, I wasn't publishing, this is what the typical journalists would do but I could get access in order to get my stories and I'd jut say I am a journalist and then I was doing research for my book. They would not admit that they've got child soldiers or they'd just want to - they wouldn't allow you into a camp and say, hey can I speak to a child soldier? Hey, how's it going being a child soldier. So the - all the kids that I spoke to had come out of the war, they'd either been captured or they'd been - they deserted or they had - their particular unit had handed itself in or they'd been captured because they were guarding hostages.
So they've got limited number of troops and all the hostages have to be guarded and there's several security rings of guards around them 24 hours. Whenever they move they've got to be surrounded by a squad. So typically they have used the kids because the kids weren't as valuable in battle so they would use these kids, so all these hostages would just complain about being locked in the jungle or in a rural - on a farm somewhere isolated and being surrounded by kids and kids with AK-47s talking about the oligarchy. These kids are poor, uneducated peasant farmer kids.
K: And are they passionate or are they dragged into this because they haven't got an option?
R: Unlike - most people think of child soldiers and they think of Africa; blood diamonds, obviously really brought that cause to the world attention as did the recent campaign a few years back with - I'm trying to get one of the - warlords in Africa. Most of the kids joined up voluntarily. When I say voluntarily, can children give consent and - voluntarism is a grey term as well but they were bored, they were poor, they were hungry and they would come from families where it's a Catholic country, they don't believe in contraception so they have big families, eight kids. Dad's off in the fields, mum's off cleaning her house. They're at home with their brother and sisters and the government is just not present - was not present in - probably about 30 or 40 percent of the country there's just no government infrastructure whatsoever, no police, no courthouse, no garbage collection, no electricity.
So these armed groups just took over, they take over the whole area and they were the laws so they would just come past the house and they're looking for kids, Then one day a kids gets bored, has a fight with their parents and goes, guess what, I'm bored, sick of school, I'm just going to go off on an adventure. We've all had that, I think every teenager has that moment. I had a few of them when I was, that's it, I'm running away. I'd usually get to the end of the street and, geez, it's cold, I wonder what mum's cooking. So once they join up, unfortunately they'll say, you come in, we'll look after you and once they join they can't leave and if they do they'll be executed and often there'll be reprisals against their family.
So once these kids were captured and they were in government care they would put them in foster care and you had to apply for access to speak to them and then it was a matter of earning their trust, which was quite difficult because these kids are really traumatised, they've had horrific experiences. So then often it would take a bunch of five or 10 of them out to hire a mini van and take them back out into the countryside and go swimming in the river and just be friendly, treat them like normal kids.
R: Yeah, they had missed out on their childhood. So have an adult around who - I did want something from them but who wasn't there to abuse them and wasn't there to take advantage of them. It took a while to win their trust and they started telling - opening up and telling me their stories and I was like, wow.
K: So I want to give people a chance to ask you questions -
K: - and I'm mindful of the time but I just want to quickly ask you before I do that the character, Pedro, in here who's a 15 year old boy and this book starts with him being drawn into this world out of revenge effectively.
K: A friend who was inclined to the glamorous life and not much reason to stick around, I'm going to go and run off with them.
K: And then eventually he joins in because of a desire for revenge.
R: Revenge, yeah.
K: Is he based on a real person -
K: - or is amalgam of -
R: So, yes, so basically Pedro is a composite character. Pretty much all the main characters in there, all the child soldiers were based around one of the stronger interview subjects I spoke to. The trouble was, that all these kids that I interviewed - I probably interviewed, I'm guessing about 40 or 50, some of them on the record with tape, some of them refused, I'd take notes. Some of them would never let me take notes. Many of them wouldn't let me even know their names until a later point, or when I did find their names out they said, I don't want my name on my photo anywhere.
So their stories, they often had really fascinating stories about how they joined or why they joined and then others had fascinating stories about a battle that they'd been in. Others had a fascinating story about cocaine or a commander. So all these stories were fascinating, it was like how do you put them into one. So I guess I've - took the best of all these stories and gave them to Pedro but there was a Pedro who witnesses his father's execution and that was when he joined up. And then his story wasn't as exciting as the rest of this Pedro story. So it's a - everything is a blend of fact and fiction. The historical setting is accurate, the training and all the things that go on in the story in the background are all accurate but the story line is fiction.
K: Well congratulations on it, it's beautiful but gruesome.
R: Thank you, Karen.
K: It's worth reading. Can you join me in thanking Rusty Young and then I'm going to invite - or we're going to invite you to ask questions.
A: Look, what a wonderful discussion about the amazing stories in your book there, it made me think I should write a book about the National - working at the National Library <laughter>. Come on, I got a paper cut last week. Look, we've got a few minutes for questions. We do have a mic so if you do want to ask Rusty a question please put your hand up and we'll bring the mic around, just so it can make the recording as well.
R: And silent waiver.
R: Great, thanks.
K: I didn't ask you where Rusty comes from, is that short for something?
R: I was Christened Russell and then I just got Rusty for -
K: Right, and it stuck.
R: It stuck, I much prefer it. It's a better name for the cover, isn't it.
K: Well now it's on the cover of two books, you're okay to it. There was a question over there, I think.
Audience: Rusty, thank you very much for your presentation. Very, very interesting.
R: Thank you. Thanks for coming.
Audience: And I'm looking forward to reading your book. Talking about the child soldiers in Colombia, where they all male or were they females in there and what was the gendered roles of the females and men?
R: Yes, good question. So we didn't mention that. So surprisingly, shockingly, I'd say 35 percent of the - just in general in these groups were between 30 and 35 percent were female and 35 percent girl child soldiers. The girl - the female child soldiers tended to have abusive backgrounds; physical abuse or sexual abuse so they were really running away from that. Surprisingly in most cases they were treated - within these groups they'd statute to protect women's rights so it really sounds like it - it sounds like they're really progressive but of course they're not. But kids, young girls would join up because they'd been abused and there's a lot of sexual abuse in the countryside in Colombia, there's no authorities.
Big families, sometimes the girls would go to their mother and the mother would either say I don't believe you or she would know and she would make a decision not to do anything about it because they were so poor, needed the husband's income, seven kids. What were roles within the groups? They were treated as - again this was put as a progressive - posited as a progressive policy that women are equal to me, so it just meant they had to carry the same amount of weight, fire the same rifles, be in the same frontline. The horrific thing was in terms of the difference, the way women were treated and men were treated because there was basically two, sometimes three to one ratio of men to women.
These are kids, they've got lots of hormones and in Colombia and Latin American countries and poorer nations in general they don't have the same social mores about age differences in romantic and sexual partners. So often the commanders would choose the best looking girl, she might just be - might just have turned 12 or 13 and go, you're going to be my partner, give them some privileges in order to win her over. Then the young girl felt more protected.
So there was real sexual competition amongst the teenagers. If you were a teenage boy wanting to have a romantic liaison with someone of your own age, you had to actually go and ask permission of the commanders, right, so the commanders go, no we don't approve of that because I like her. So really horrific, as soon as they - in the Farc anyway, because they can't afford to have babies and infants you'd lose a family - you'd lose a combatant and you'd have a baby that could give - needs and requires a lot of attention and also makes noise and difficult to carry around when you're having battles.
So it was illegal under their statutes to get pregnant and so as soon as a girl's got their first period they were injected - forcibly injected with contraceptive injections, even if they weren't sexually active it was - the assumption was, guess what, you're not sexually active but you soon will be, so really. And love was forbidden as well, that was - often that - because obviously the revolution was first, so if people fell in love they would be separated so you were allowed to what they called partners but not lovers. You weren't allowed to actually get too close and they'd separate you because if you got too close and particularly if you got too close and became pregnant people would run away and go, look, I don't believe in this revolution anymore, I've found something far better. Good question.
A: We've got more time so any more questions?
Audience: Nice to meet you, Rusty.
R: Hi Bro.
Audience: I'm really looking forward to reading your new book
R: Thank you.
Audience: Obviously Colombia's been in the news a lot lately with Cassie Sainsbury and what she's found herself in. What do you think about her situation and what do you think conditions will be like for her in Colombia?
R: Yeah, I get asked that question probably about five times a day from the media <laughter>. What do I think of her situation, I think obviously we can't comment - speculate on her innocence or guilt. Certainly there's been highly inconsistent stories coming out of - from her mouth and from her family's mouth, her lawyer's mouth. It started out with buying headphones for a wedding to I've been tricked to I thought I was laundering money to - because I was under death threats, all sorts of inconsistencies.
I can say in general without commenting specifically because I think it's irresponsible to condemn her publicly when she hasn't had a fair trial. And the only competent authority to make that decision is the Colombian Justice System. So we've - but we've really given her a trial by media in a way that would not be done in Australia because it's illegal for journalists to start calling someone guilty, but if it's happening overseas then they give themselves carte blanche to say what they want.
There's no Colombians involved there in that case. Cartels don't run drug mules. If you have a thousand tonnes of cocaine, you're going to run 200 mules with 5kg or you're going to run a tonne out in a containership. No cartels there, it's not - they're not Colombians behind that one. It's so unsophisticated, she's not in any danger in the prison, they look after foreigners in particular. Colombians don't take cocaine in general.
Most Colombians I met had never even seen cocaine, they hate it, it's been a scar on their country. They look at it in the same way as we look at heroin and ice as a dirty, dirty drug, it's just for people who are dropouts, whereas we see it, well not everyone, but a lot of people in Australia see it as a glamorous drug, because of its price they - it's seen to be something which is a luxury. It's not for Colombians, they're sick of it and they're sick of being blamed for essentially the western demand. Yes the Colombians totally - they're going to go, yeah we've got a problem with lawlessness and obviously drugs is a really obvious way to make money but they see that the demand is what's driving the - feeling the violence and the corruption in Colombia. And now they're coming out of the peace process they're really trying to attract tourists so this is another - one more negative news story that the Colombians don't want to hear about. So they want this to be over with.
K: And you've got a view about the 'ethics' of participating in that, as a user of cocaine in Australia, haven't you, enabling that.
R: Yeah, look, I don't want to be hypocritical because I have taken cocaine in my life so it would be hypocritical of me to stand up on my soap box and go, don't do it, but there is definitely a link, and I think part of my wanting to write this was - because it's like to educate people that western drug habits, when you take a drug on a Friday night and you think it's fun in Australia, you don't see the consequences of that and where that money's flowing - where the cocaine's coming from and where the money's going back into. And without cocaine I guarantee this war in Colombia and all these child soldiers, that would have ended decades ago.
Think about communism, really began to break apart at the international level. The Berlin Wall fell in '89, the USSR collapsed shortly thereafter and yet there are still communists in 2017 - or up to this year, 2017, they were still pushing for communism. But how did they survive? Well cocaine trafficking, at least taxing it, so it's a shame that - As a society we need to make a choice, which is worse, terrorism or drugs because when drugs are illegal the profits are really high and unless you can stem the demand, all you do is when you're busting drugs is actually decreasing supply which increases profits and it makes it more attractive and more lucrative for terrorist organisations; the Taliban funded by poppies.
There were two - three - they were the three - at one stage they were the three wealthiest terrorist organisations, they were called FTOs; Foreign Terrorist Organisations, were the Taliban, the Colombian Farc and the Colombian paramilitaries, all of whom were financed by heroin and cocaine. So take away - either legalise it or take away the demand somehow and it'll be the magical thing as everyone stopped doing it voluntarily or if somehow we could educate people into take more ethical decisions and then suddenly you've lost all the - not all, but you've lost a lot of the financing from criminal gangs.
Look at what's happening in Mexico now. They've got Colombia under control. I think in four years 150,000 people were killed along the Mexican border. And then look at the number of people who die - actually die per year of cocaine overdoses, it's in the low thousands, which is still a horrific way to go, it's still something that is worth society trying to clamp down on drug use, drug consumption, it does destroy lives but the question is, has the current policy worked or has it been counterproductive and actually resolved in - and if you're looking at human lives, far more people die from the fight in the war on the drugs than from the drugs themselves.
A: Thanks very much. Well, look, unless we've got any further questions. Rusty, that was such an eye-opening bunch of really, really fascinating stories but also some interesting insights into part of the world I certainly don't know as much about as I should. So I'm looking forward to reading your books, so thanks very much.
R: Thank you very much for hosting it and thank you everyone for coming, I really enjoyed the questions and everyone was very attentive, so thanks again.
A: Look, I would like to invite you all downstairs to the foyer for some refreshments. Rusty has kindly agreed to sign some books which are available at a 10 percent discount in our bookshop and also have another look around as well. We've always got some interesting events here at the National Library and I'm not allowed out of the room until I've spruiked these events. I'd firstly like to thank Penguin Random House for making it possible for Rusty to come along tonight. The next Wednesday at six o'clock, Genevieve Jacobs from ABC talks with David Haskell, author of Songs of Trees. David is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and brings some observations on the biological networks that surround all species including humans. Look, thanks again, Rusty, for coming along this evening and please join me downstairs.
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