A Pop Song Carries a Hidden Message to Hostages in Colombia

To secretly reach their hostages, Alfonso Diaz devised a plan to embed a message in Morse Code within a song.

In 2010, the Colombian Army faced a grave crisis as several groups of kidnapped soldiers were held captive by the armed guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.

Colonel Jose Espejo, a no-nonsense military man with 22 years of service, received a grainy footage from the FARC. The footage showed that some of the hostages had been held captive for more than a decade and were suffering from flesh-eating diseases transmitted by insect bites.

Espejo couldn’t bear the thought of retiring with his men still in captivity.

So he contacted Juan Carlos Ortiz, a Colombian advertising legend who had previously helped him with his problems. Ortiz had gained fame for his anti-drug advertising campaigns in Colombia and had won a Gold Lion at Cannes for his efforts.

The FARC had threatened Ortiz in the past, as drug trafficking was a significant part of their operation. So Ortiz had moved to New York with his family.

When Colonel Espejo called, Ortiz was eager to help. He assembled a team of Colombian advertisers, and together with Espejo and other military officials, they brainstormed how to get a message to the hostages.

Ortiz’s Previous Anti-FARC Campaigns

Ortiz had previously designed irregular advertising and outreach campaigns aimed at the FARC. In one instance, the army air-dropped seven million pacifiers into the jungle, accompanied by a message to female guerrillas to defect for their children’s sake and return to civilization. For another campaign, the army illuminated giant Christmas trees in the jungle during the holiday period to remind the guerrillas what they were missing.

They also wrote messages of peace on soccer balls and floated them down the river to be found by the insurgents.

But this time, the advertising campaign had to be more complex.

How to Send a Message Without Alerting the Captors?

The critical question was how to send a message without arousing suspicion and risking the lives of the hostages. Colonel Espejo knew that the FARC allowed hostages to have radios, which helped them distract their minds and pass the time during long hikes from one base to another. They even had a radio show called “Voices of Kidnapping” for communicating with the hostages.

Ortiz and his team decided to embed a message in Morse Code within a pop song and played it repeatedly on the radio show. The captors would not suspect anything since they heard the same song repeatedly.

Eventually, the hostages heard the message and were ready to move when Colombian troops arrived. Thanks to Ortiz’s ingenuity, all 15 hostages were rescued.

Caracol Radio in Bogota provided a platform for families of kidnapped people to send messages to their loved ones via special call-ins. Ortiz, who considered hiding a message in a radio commercial, was convinced by advertiser Alfonso Diaz to use Morse code instead. The team experimented with percussion instruments and a keyboard in a recording studio to find the optimum amount of words to go unnoticed but also be clear enough to hear. A 19-word message was eventually hidden in the chorus of the song “Better Days” with the help of a military policeman skilled in Morse code. The song was played over 130 small radio stations and heard by 3 million people, becoming a big hit in the jungle areas heavily populated by the FARC. The song helped give countless amounts of hostages the signal to move and escape when soldiers were nearby, in tandem with an ongoing Commando operation, Operation Chameleon.

The program called “Better Days” was aiding people in escaping from captivity in various parts of Colombia. Many hostages were able to flee and aid others in doing so. After the success of Operation Chameleon and “Better Days,” Colonel Ortiz retired from the military, became a journalist, and stayed in contact with the program. “The Code” Operation was declassified by the Colombian Army in 2011, allowing the song to be submitted and win the Golden Lion at that year’s Cannes Lions awards. Ortiz had previously won an award for his anti-cocaine ad in 2000, but it only brought him and his family death threats. However, he was able to take pride in the success of “Better Days” and its recognition at the Cannes Lions.


1. What is the message hidden in the pop song?

The message hidden in the pop song is a plea for help from a group of Colombian hostages who were being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The song, called “Valiente,” was written and performed by a Colombian musician named Juanes and released in 2008. The lyrics of the song were carefully crafted to include hidden messages, including the names of the hostages and a plea for their release.

2. How did the hostages’ families and the Colombian government respond to the song?

The song was met with mixed reactions from the hostages’ families and the Colombian government. Some saw it as a powerful tool to raise awareness about the hostages’ plight and put pressure on the FARC to release them. Others criticized it as a publicity stunt by Juanes. The Colombian government initially expressed support for the song, but later distanced itself from it over concerns that it could be seen as negotiating with terrorists.

3. Was the song successful in helping to secure the hostages’ release?

The song did not directly lead to the release of the hostages, but it did help to raise awareness about their situation and put pressure on the FARC to negotiate their release. In 2009, after six years in captivity, some of the hostages were released in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. However, others remained captive for several more years before being released or escaping.

4. Has the use of music as a political tool been effective in other contexts?

Music has been used as a political tool in many contexts throughout history, and has often been effective in raising awareness, galvanizing support, and inspiring change. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” became anthems for the movement and helped to mobilize and inspire activists. Similarly, during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, songs like “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) and “Free Nelson Mandela” became symbols of resistance and solidarity.

5. Are there any risks associated with using music as a political tool?

There are certainly risks associated with using music as a political tool. For one, it can be seen as a form of propaganda or manipulation, and may not be effective in convincing people who do not already share your views. Additionally, music can be polarizing, and may alienate people who do not like or agree with the message being conveyed. Finally, using music in a political context can also be dangerous, especially in countries where freedom of expression is limited or dissent is not tolerated.

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