The Great Colombian Morse Code Song
by Paul Dancstep • February 8, 2017
On February 16 the Exploratorium will be hosting "In My Solitude:The Detrimental Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Brain," a panel discussion about the legal and neurological issues surrounding solitary confinement. In keeping with this program's theme, we present another story about confinement and resilience.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were a communist military group operating from the rural areas of Colombia until a ceasefire signed last year. In over 50 years of civil war, the FARC engaged in a variety guerilla tactics including the kidnapping of thousands of people, both for ransom and for negotiating leverage. These "exchangables" were held deep in the jungle, kept in chains and barbed wire enclosures, some for more than a decade. While armed guards kept watch over the hostages the jungle itself formed a prison of its own; even if the captives were able to escape they would likely perish in the wild.
In 2010, the Colombian army was preparing a rescue mission for 16 soldiers being held by the FARC. The mission faced a grim difficulty: at the first sign of a raid, FARC guerrillas were known to immediately slaughter all of their hostages. In sieging the compound, commandos might just as easily get the captives killed as rescued. In order for the mission to succeed the army needed to find a way to warn the prisoners that a raid was imminent, that they should be alert and ready to fight back or flee into the jungle. But how could they get this message to the hostages without tipping off the FARC guerillas?
Some of the captive soldiers the Colombian army hoped to rescue
Listening to the radio was one of the few luxuries afforded to FARC prisoners, at least according to the accounts of former hostages. Colonel Jose Espejo, who was heading up the rescue mission, wondered if there was any way to broadcast a message over the radio that only the soldiers would understand. He needed to create an audio Trojan Horse, something that seemed like a normal broadcast but which was in fact a vehicle for delivering a covert message.
Working with a small recording studio Espejo helped create a pop song, something engineered to sound like any other earworm in the "Lista 40". But hidden within the song's melody was a message, a Morse Code signal, the dots and dashes timed to the song's rhythm, camouflaged as just another instrument.
Because the Colombian government owns many of the country's radio stations, Espejo's team was able to get this song played throughout FARC territory in rural Colombia, where it was heard by an estimated 3 million people. Many of the soldiers would have learned Morse Code as part of their basic training, while the guerillas were unlikely to be familiar with it. Espejo's hope was that among those millions of listeners would be one of the 16 prisoners, and that they would hear this secret message and tell the others.
A clip from the song "Better Days."
In a sense, the Colombian army was doing the same thing as POW Jeremiah Denton, using Morse Code to communicate past the captors without their knowledge. And it appears they were successful. The hostages were rescued and referred to the song in their psychological evaluations, as quoted from this excellent article in the Verge, "...the soldier spoke of hearing 'the code hidden in the song,' and revealed how the message was passed from soldier to soldier. The song was even enjoyed by the FARC, who were oblivious to its secret message."
The full song can be heard here.
(Editor's note: I am not fluent in Morse Code. I've done my best in the above video to match the sounds of the song to the purported message, but things get a little murky in the "you're next" section. If there are any Morse Code operators out there who can help us interpret these dots and dashes better, please get in touch! Write to email@example.com)