Thursday, June 28, 2012

Investigative Techniques 2.0: Piecing the Puzzle

It was a particularly steamy Miami evening. I'd been invited to a farewell party for a neighbor, a Special Forces sergeant stationed in Miami with the United States Armed Services Southern Command (SouthCom), now reassigned to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. With three international intrigue novels set in Southern Command's Latin America theater of operations, I'd developed a reasonable fan club among SouthCom personnel. Which in turn had spawned advance copy readers and technical advisers all the way up to an intelligence-branch brigadier general still useful in my current research.

The sergeant's wife was the only other female present in this bastion of testosterone, muscled frames, flowing liquor and loud-cracking jokes. When a tall newcomer entered with stride and body language exuding command presence, I didn't need to be told this wasn't just another of the guys. My host waved me over. "Captain So-and-so, this is Jeanette Windle, the author you've been hearing about."

My host then turned to me. "Jeanette, I'd like to introduce my commanding officer. He just got in from two weeks TDY (temporary duty) down south."

Craning my head far back to permit my five foot, one inch frame to look comfortably into a shrewdly penetrating gaze, I commented without the slightest forethought, "So how did you find Saravena?"

You'd have thought I'd been caught red-handed with the original Declaration of Independence. All conversation (and drinking) halted as the commanding officer exploded, a G-rated, sanitized summary of his tirade as follows: "Who let that author woman in here? How could she possibly know where I spent the last two weeks in the eastern guerrilla zones of Colombia? When I find out who's been talking out of turn, heads will roll!"

My host simply grinned. "I told you she knows more about what we're doing down there than we do."

Not the kind of reassurance one likes to hear from the military intelligence assigned to keep one's birth country safe. Since my SouthCom contacts were as tight-lipped a bunch as they were trained to be, I had not picked up any usable intel from them. So how could I know the classified location of a Special Forces temporary duty operation? In actuality, it was simple enough, as I explained to the commanding officer (an explanation he grudgingly accepted, though like Queen Victoria, he was not amused!). Here's how it all came together:

The US military has long had fingers in Latin America's counternarcotics war. But with the post 9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, Congress had recently expanded SouthCom's mission to include training Colombian troops in counterterrorism techniques against leftist guerrillas infesting their jungles. Miami TV news coverage had made mention that the expanded operation would be delayed until Colombia could supply an adequately fortified operating base to house American Special Operations troops.

The exact location of said op was classified. However, American intel restrictions couldn't keep local photojournalists in the eastern guerrilla zones of Colombia from capturing on film the newly reinforced walls and sandbag barricades of a small military base outside the jungle town of Saravena, its reconstruction rumored to be paid for by the Americans.

Then came a casual mention in the Miami Herald that SouthCom troops could heading to Colombia within the month, pending approval of the new facility by US Special Forces command. Again no details. However, just a few days later, the front page of eastern Colombia's regional newspaper boasted a large photo of an American military jet disgorging a dozen US soldiers in camouflage fatigues onto the single airstrip of Saravena's tiny airport. The caption underneath proclaimed, "Southern Command officers arrive from Miami to inspect the future home of their soldiers."

SO when a SouthCom Special Forces captain walks in the door a few days later from 'two weeks TDY down south', where else but Saravena, Colombia, is he likely to have been spending his time?

You (like that Special Forces captain) may be asking just why I'd coincidentally been checking out local Spanish newspapers from a Colombian guerrilla stronghold? That is even simpler. I'd spent my adolescence in Saravena, and I just happened to keep a Google alert for any news from the zone.

Which all goes to show that investigation is basically a matter of:

 1) Putting puzzle pieces together.

2) More importantly, being in the right place and time to uncover those particular puzzle pieces.

I've mentioned in previous postings my upbringing as daughter of American missionaries among the jungles, rivers, Andes mountain trails of the Colombian Amazon. If the guerrillas were back then just unorganized, roving bandits, it was an adventurous environment for an expatriate family, far more so for my parents than for their five offspring, to whom it was simply home. As a child, I really did believe "Yanqui, Go Jom" [Yankee Go Home], scrawled on the whitewash of our perimeter wall, was a normal decoration of any expatriate home. I was barely a teenager the first time I was accused of being a CIA agent; my smart-alecky reply that I was still too young to be recruited.

Today virtually every place I lived as a child remains under guerrilla control. Saravena, a small homesteading town in Colombia's eastern plains, was in my teen years a Wild West stereotype of cantinas, unpaved streets, cowboys galloping into town shooting pistols into the air for weekend drinking sprees, and one tiny thatched evangelical church where my father preached. It was in fact the blueprint for the fictional town in The DMZ, my second adult novel set in the Colombian guerrilla zones.

The discover of oil in the region brought in electricity and pavement, followed by bombs and guerrilla attacks that left much of the town in rubble. But I could still recognize in news photos the vegetation-shaded airstrip where my siblings and I would jog. And the dusty playing field and rusted hoops at the tiny military base on the outskirts of town where as teens we squared off at volleyball and basketball with conscripts little older. Are local youth still allowed through those massive new gates and security barriers to play sports with American Special Ops? Somehow I doubt it.

Since Saravena, I've currently lived in six countries and traveled for ministry in more than thirty on five continents. I raised my own expatriate family in Bolivia, one of the world’s top-five most corrupt countries, where I had the dubious pleasure of a front-row seat to the development of one of the planet's first narco-states, which birthed my first adult novel, CrossFire..
If not a typical North American lifestyle—and certainly not always comfortable—it is a lifestyle with which other members of ICFW can identify. I'm sure those members would agree that there is no better training for an investigative writer. I learned to be wary, observant, always looking over my shoulder and asking who, what, when, why. where, and how. Why is that man across the street looking at me? What is he reaching for in the small of his back? How I can get out of this alley without being backed into a no-exit corner?

How many contradictions did that Customs Officer just make? Why is he patting that over-sized pocket on his padded vest? What size of bribe am I supposed to be slipping in there? When did those two armed guards move in on either side of the exit?

Why did that pickup and white Toyota Corolla just pull up on the shoulder of the road? Who is getting out of the pickup and walking toward the Corolla? Why is he reaching into the trunk to pull out that briefcase instead of speaking to the driver? Where are they speeding off to in opposite directions? How can I discreetly duck out of sight before they notice I’m walking by?

In short, sheer nosy curiosity is not only a survival instinct, but the underlying base of any effective investigative technique.

Now, how to go about applying the above to ferreting out your own puzzle pieces and putting them together? In that long ago past when I was regularly contributing to this blog, I actually gave some practical tips on just that. If you're interested, here is the post: CIA 101: Investigative Techniques from the Trenches


  1. Wow, Jeantte. If you can figure out the location of the Saravena base so easily, what makes them think the narcos can't? BTW, I am in the middle of Crossfire right now, and loving it (when I'm not so angry at the corruption that I want to through my e-reader across the room).

  2. Jeanette, what a fascinating life you have led! And how well you're making use of your experiences. I absolutely loved Crossfire and am right now immersed in the sequel, Firestorm. You are to blame for more than one restless night as I've battled drug cartels in the dead of night. Keep writing - and try to keep out of jail!
    Blessings from South Africa!

  3. What stories you investigative reporters must have up your sleeves! So, it does help to be nosy. Congrats Jeanette, most impressive!!!