Letter Re: How I Survived an Attempted Murder

Hi James,
In reference to A.’s recent article “How I Survived an Attempted Murder”, we lived in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the early 1990s. I taught at the American School in Guayaquil called The International Academy. We bought an Isuzu Trooper and drove over 20,000 miles during our stay there. We visited many areas on the frontier with Columbia and Peru that were described to us a bandit country, often drove out into the mountains to distant villages that seemed to have hardly had any contact with Europeans or Americans. Several times drove all the way east of Quito over the backbone of the Andes out across the foothills and into the Amazon jungle.
 
Shortly after arriving in Ecuador, I let it be know that I was in the market for a pistol. A member of our school board who was the manager of a gold mine contacted me shortly thereafter. He had purchased Smith & Wesson semi-auto pistols to replace the S&W .38 Special revolvers that his guards carried.
He had three of the .38 Specials left to sell. My cost was $500 for a revolver, holster and one box of cartridges. We purchased one. It had a four-digit serial number.
It is noteworthy that having one of these guns was illegal, especially for foreigners.
 
Later roaming in a market place I entered a hardware store. I noticed that they had a selection of single shot .410 shotguns and single shot pistols for sale. I bought a .410 pistol and a box of shells. These were available to the public to buy.
 
It’s construction was crude and the fitting of the hinge and breech face lacked tight tolerance. I secured this single-shot .410 to a tree for a test firing, and attached a small rope to the trigger. I stood back and fired it. Bang! It did not fall apart or separate into pieces. It was obvious from the powder marks that if fired in a bare hand you were going to get some powder residue burns on your skin. I always kept a pair of leather gloves handy if I had to fire it.
 
From then on, I was armed with two pistols. I could intimidate with the .410 and if I had to, produce the 38 Special in a flash. Never had to use either of them in a confrontational situation.
 
During our travels we often encountered police roadblocks. Producing a business card with my school name and the moniker of “professor of science” gave me status. Never did we have to endure a search of our vehicle. I have even produced the 38 Special and showed it to local police when away from the large urban areas.
They would point down the road and say, “bandito”… I just laughed and pointed my gun saying bang, bang, bang. They would laugh to and wave us on.
 
Arriving once in Agri Lagria out near the Napo Neuve river some 80 or 90 miles east of Quito. Found the town laid out in a central downtown square. A policeman was setting along one walkway. He watched us as we drove around. We were the only Anglo people there. On the second trip around the square I dismounted the vehicle.
Approached the police officer producing one of my business cards. Raised my shirt to reveal the pistol. He just read the card and waved us on.
 
Near this town we encountered a modern looking American style motel with six units each having four sets of rooms. A large swimming pool with slide and pool side cabana.
A restaurant and a walled in area that looked to be 5 acres with paths and plantings. It had high security and a safe parking area.
 
We inquired about staying. The young desk clerk was somewhat flustered and said, “you are our first guests.” I did not understand this. This motel was not newly-built but it was not old either. I asked, “What do you mean?”. He said the US Air Force just left. That day was January 1st when we were there. This motel complex had been built for those manning the US Air Force interdiction flights looking for drug running activities. The only guests for several years had been the US Air Force. They had vacated it in the days just before Christmas. We were their first commercial guests. We found out later that they had contracted with the Air Force and built this motel just for them.
 
Later while bird watching on the roads east of town we found the airport. It was new. Looked to be the standard 8,000 foot long runways and parking areas that the US Air Force builds. A new control tower gleamed in the sun. I, being retired US Air Force and having been involved in building and maintaining fake airports for bombing targets at Smoky Hill Weapons Range, Salina, Kansas recognized the layout.
 
We loved Ecuador. But we were not stupid enough to travel without weapons. In addition, you need to carry the business cards that attach you to some commercial institution that has some clout. As you travel you ingratiate yourself to the locals by buying the kid’s food. Carrying  two coolers jammed with ice cold soda and candy bars. Also found that giving out the JFK quarters in pristine condition were good. That is what we used in the Peace Corps when I was in West Africa.
 
Shortly before we left the country, I approached the owner of a sporting goods shop in Guayaquil. He was very interested in buying my revolver, regardless of its legality. He wanted it. He offered me $400. At that time Ecuador and Peru had recently been engaged in military fighting over border areas. The US government had restricted all importation of commercial weapons into Ecuador. A well-dressed gentleman in the store was watching and listening. When I left he followed me out to the parking lot and offered to buy the pistol. I told him he could have it right then for $600. He never flinched. He took me to an ATM and withdrew 16,500,000 Sucres which was the equivalent to about $600 at the time. It took a while since the machine would only dispense 400,000 at a time. I should mention that he was driving a very tricked-out 4 wheel drive Chevrolet pickup that reeked of money. His purchase financed our eight-day trip to the Galapagos Islands, just before we left.
 
The jungle of the intermountain areas at 7,000 to 8,000 feet is a near constant temperature of 70 to 85 degrees year round. It has 100 shades of green and very hard to describe. A wonderful place to live when it is peaceful and quiet. But when the local people string tires across the highways and burn them in rebellion to the government, they get mean and nasty. But they never gave us any trouble we were passed around and treated nicely.
 
Up in the higher altitudes the real native people live in stone houses. The children will string flower/vegetation ropes across the highway. Holding both ends trying to get you to stop. They are beggars. But we always gunned the engine and accelerated not knowing whether they were shilling for adults that would come out of the ditch or nearby vegetation.
They would drop the vegetation ropes as we sped by. We often tossed some candy bars out the window as we passed by. But we did stop several times where we could see there was no place for adults to hide. The children were in very cold conditions with snow on the ground in places and in bare feet. They were a dismal grubby-looking lot. We gave them candy bars, but we kept the door locked. And those stops were always with one hand on a gun, the vehicle in gear, engine running ready to leave in a hurry.
 
We practiced extreme caution in Ecuador and immediately got ourselves armed. Because of this, we came home safe and sound.
 
At the school the Ecuadorians often were aghast at our stories of where we had traveled. Saying to us, “We were born here and we never go to those places because it is not safe.” They were constrained by their own fear of the unknown. Class distinctions and fear permeate the country.
 
I found A’s story entirely believable. But he was very situationally unaware not security-minded. Yes, he’s right: He’s very fortunate because he should be dead. – Joe C.

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