Terrorism and Counterterrorism - Kidnapped

On 9 September 1969 a small team comprised of members of two leftist urban guerrilla organizations—the October 8 Revolutionary Movement and Action for National Liberation—kidnapped Charles Burke Elbrick, the recently arrived U.S. ambassador to Brazil, the first of many kidnappings of diplomats. They selected him as their target because, in their words, "If we had selected the Turkish ambassador, nobody would have paid any attention." The kidnappers' communiqué gave more details. "Mr. Elbrick represents in our country the interests of imperialism, which … maintain the regime of oppression and exploitation." Elbrick's kidnappers never told him that in return for his safe release they had demanded the release of fifteen prisoners, mostly student and labor leaders, one old Communist Party leader, and several of those allegedly involved in the earlier assassination of American diplomat. It was a deliberately mixed group chosen to inspire unity among Brazil's revolutionaries.

The United States urged the government of Brazil to do everything necessary to ensure the ambassador's release. In fact, the triumvirate of military officers ruling Brazil during the president's illness had already decided to meet the kidnappers' demands, not because of U.S. pressure, but because they saw it as an opportunity to make a humanitarian gesture and give Brazil the chance to disprove accusations of widespread torture. This line of reasoning did not win unanimous approval through the Brazilian armed forces, and one local commander briefly ordered his forces to surround the airport where the prisoners had been assembled to be flown to political exile in Mexico, but higher-ranking officers intervened and the exchange plan proceeded.

Once the prisoners arrived in Mexico, Elbrick was released in good condition. His captors had washed and pressed his bloodstained shirt and tie (he had been hit on the head with a pistol during the abduction), and they gave him a copy of a book on revolution by Ho Chi Minh, in which they had inscribed, "To our first political prisoner, with the expression of our respect for his calm behavior in action."

In the following months the guerrillas kidnapped the Japanese consul general in Sao Paulo and the ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland. In each case the government freed prisoners in exchange for release of the diplomats but subsequently cracked down hard and brutally, ultimately destroying the urban guerrilla groups. But the tactic of kidnapping diplomats spread to other countries. Local governments and the governments of the diplomatic representatives became increasingly resistant to meeting the demands of those holding hostages. The term "terrorist" increasingly replaced the more neutral term "urban guerrilla."

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