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Anyone vacationing or visiting family in Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, or Thailand in, well, numerous years over the past few decades could tell you that being considered a subversive and denied what they thought were their rights is as easy as the old saying, “If you’ve been accused of it, you might as well be doing it.” You’re only as innocent as the people with the power say you are.
Getting swept up in the political, civil, and financial turbulence of a coup d’état is no different than being in the path of a tornado. The mayhem doesn’t care who you are, but if you’re in the way, you could get injured, kidnapped, or killed. Or you could be without communications and resources indefinitely. In other words, don’t be there if you know one’s brewing and have a clear understanding on what to do if you’re in the unfortunate position of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Most will only experience a coup or large-scale civil unrest while watching movies like Missing or Argo. However, RECOIL OFFGRID knows that life doesn’t guarantee happy endings, so we’ve spoken to some individuals who have experienced coups, both as civilians and as military. We’ve also added some historical context so you have a basic idea what the warning signs are. In any case, your job or vacation plans may put you in an area where some serious trouble is on the horizon.
It’s important to differentiate a coup d’état from terms like civil war or revolution. In French, the term translates to “blow of state” or “stroke of state.” But in terms of political accuracy and terminology, there are substantial differences among events like the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chilean coup of 1973, and the Chinese Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Basically a coup is an overthrow of the government, but in terms of how all these events begin and affect society, they have similarities.
“Before the actors act, they’re looking for legitimacy,” says Dr. David DiLeo, a history professor at Saddleback College in California. “Either popular support or legitimacy from other authority structures, sometimes maybe the church, sometimes maybe a political party, or faction of a political party. Coup plotters are like any other political actors; they need political legitimacy once the action begins.”
“There’s a gray area between revolution, popular uprising, and coup d’état,” DiLeo adds. “Those terms are cousins. I wouldn’t consider the Russian or Cuban Revolution as a coup. Let’s say there’s a government with rival power structures, but the rivals are constituted authority structures or individuals. When they take power, it’s a coup. When people revolt and create a whole new philosophy of power, that’s a revolution.”
There’s no one answer to this question, but to simplify it, they can happen when people lose faith in the government to protect their interests and provide for them. “When law courts are trusted, when political processes are engaged in our interests, when normal rules of the community are followed, that’s comity — we all function as citizens with a certain amount of deference and respect to those around us,” DiLeo says.
“When you think of revolutions, the government was not providing enough service, such as in the bread riots of the French Revolution. Then there’s a lack of comity,” DiLeo adds. “At some point, someone is going to have some revolutionary ideology that people seize upon and galvanize around. During the Civil War, the argument among the Southern states that began an armed revolt against the government was that the government wasn’t protecting their interests. Then there was a breakdown of civility.”
Although not coups per se, the bombings in Brussels and Paris could serve as warnings that the potential for a domino effect of problems can happen anywhere. It’s unclear if events like these could be the prelude to, or trigger, the onset of a coup, but planning ahead is your best bet.
Although changes may start out slowly as protests, learning from those who’ve been on the front lines is sage wisdom. “I was not aware at the time, but I got all these warnings from my friends in America after Jimmy Carter was elected. I didn’t pay attention,” says Blash Momeny, who fled from his native Iran in 1979 after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. “I thought the Shah could not be touched, and he had the power. He had no support of the people and had not done a good job during his reign. He was blown away in the blink of an eye.”
Momeny finally reached a breaking point after seeing the change in popular support and political opposition began taking hold in society. Fundamentalists accosted his wife for exposing her hair. They discussed relocating, only to have their passports confiscated at the airport when trying to leave through conventional methods.
“We were sent back home, and we had no right to leave,” Momeny says. “I felt like I was living in a jail.” He and his family fled through the mountains to Pakistan, usually traveling at night and paying people who ensured his family safe passage. Eventually he reached Europe and is now an American citizen.
“We went where we felt we’d be protected, safe, and known as decent human beings with basic rights of human beings,” Momeny says. “There was no place for us to stay in Iran. It was the feeling of being stranded in a country you don’t want to stay in and not having the tools or ways of getting out. That kept bugging me and torturing me more and more, little by little, and I felt that I should escape no matter what.”
It’s impossible to predict every precursor to a governmental overthrow or cover every aspect of counter-surveillance, SERE training, or navigation while traveling abroad in a place that experiences widespread civil unrest, but we can give you the basics.
“The bottom line is to have a plan for escape and evasion, a communications plan, and medical plan. Do your homework,” says Danny Pritbor, cadre member of Firebase Combat Studies Group. Pritbor is a former active-duty Marine, law enforcement officer, DOD contractor, and protective special agent, whose company provides high-threat security consulting and training to government officials and corporate organizations. (See “The Gospel of Soft Skills” in the Loadout insert of Issue 23 of our sister publication RECOIL for Danny’s discussion of situational awareness tactics.)
While working in Haiti in 2004, a country that’s had over 30 coups, Pritbor saw the civil unrest quickly escalate when the coup to overthrow President Jean-Bertrand Aristide kicked off: “Insurgents were blowing up gas depots and high-ranking police officials began getting assassinated. There was a lot of intimidation and the murders were particularly brutal. If you’re going to travel, know where you’re going. Track any type of civil unrest.”
Stay current with the news of what’s going on at your intended destination. If it has a history of instability or current events are becoming increasingly chaotic, best to avoid it. Travel advisories for different countries are posted on the U.S. State Department website (www.state.gov), which also offers an app for your mobile device. Breaking News and apps like it can provide you with up-to-date information by typing in the location.
Relying on conventional news outlets such as CNN or MSNBC might not give you a realistic depiction of what’s going on in a foreign country. Using local media sources will likely give you more accurate real-time information. Research key areas by plotting where the closest hospitals and Red Cross stations are in relation to where you’re staying, where the embassies are located, and how far you’ll be from the borders of friendly neighboring countries if you suddenly have to flee.
Also, align yourself with services that can help you with local security alerts. Companies such as Control Risks (www.controlrisks.com) provide security consulting services for companies traveling all over the world. If you own a business, you can participate in The Overseas Security Advisory Council (www.osac.gov) free of charge.
If you’re obligated to visit a potentially volatile region, leave an itinerary of your visit with a friend or loved one detailing the places you’ll be staying, what dates you’ll be there, and the phone numbers for those locations. Check in with them every 24 hours and have an agreement that if they don’t hear from you within a certain time frame (i.e. 48 hours) to start notifying those who can help you.
Find out who the regional security officer (RSO) is for the local U.S. Embassy. The RSO is a U.S. State Department employee, and usually there’s only one per embassy. You can get his or her info off the website for the embassy; each embassy has its own website for each country. Leave the RSO’s contact info with your at-home liaison.
If you have other contacts in government, leave their numbers with those at home. “You have to have layers,” says Pritbor. “If they’re dealing with a crisis, you need to have multiple contacts to help expedite things. You can’t just rely on the embassy in a time of crisis where everything is falling apart.” Allied embassies such as Canada or the United Kingdom would also work as an option to help you in times of need if you cannot get to your native country’s embassy.
If all goes south and you’re trapped in country, having an escape and evasion plan may mean the difference between life and death. If you have friends, coworkers, or acquaintances who live in the area you’re visiting whom you can form relationships with, they may be able to give you shelter temporarily as well as communicate on your behalf. Pritbor uses a poor man’s blood chit — dollar bills that his contacts at home have a copy of. Since locals can move around easier, they could bring these dollars to an embassy or another reliable contact to indicate proof of life if standard communication is unavailable.
If you have no relationships with friendly locals, you may literally have to hide out in the bush and use desperate means not to be noticed. Avoid crowds and try to make yourself invisible if your nationality could get you killed. Local law enforcement in many third-world countries is notoriously corrupt and, while it may be something you’d do at home, trying to seek shelter at a police station is not recommended.
In the “Bound & Determined” article in the Fall 2015 Issue of RECOIL OFFGRID, we discussed methods of breaking out of restraints and SERE kits you can carry on your person if you’re captured and held unlawfully against your will. See sidebar for a list of companies who train escape and evasion tactics.
Take a look at the areas you’ll be visiting and plot a safe course to friendly bordering countries if you have to make a sudden exit. Using Google Maps is a cheap way to do this and carrying a recent map of the area with you will help you navigate easier. Determine how they can be reached (on foot, by train, car), and where you can stop along the way if necessary.
If you have a trusted source arrange ground travel for you, it would be safer than relying on taxis or buses. Have at least two or three of these escape routes in case one is compromised and leave these routes with your at-home contact so they can relay your possible whereabouts to nearby allies. Pritbor discourages using the airport as an escape option, as it’ll likely be flooded with desperate people: “When we fled Haiti, there was sort of that zombie mindset. People were ready to kill each other just to get on a flight.”
Having multiple communication methods is another great way to have a backup plan if you have no cell or web service. “Have a sat phone or an InReach system, which is a satellite texting unit that’s a fraction of cost of sat phone,” Pritbor says. “InReach links via Bluetooth to your cell phone. You can text on that; it’s all satellite based. InReach (www.inreachdelorme.com) doesn’t require a cell signal and you can send messages with your GPS location.
“I use brevities when communicating, coded language that someone at home is aware of to know what my escape plan is so it couldn’t be compromised by someone listening in,” Pritbor says. He has escape routes that can be communicated using various metaphors. Once he hits a spot on his escape route, he’ll communicate when he reaches each location so those at home know where he is. All phases of travel and brevities are listed for his at-home contacts. Pritbor also has emergency codes listed in case he is captured or injuries are sustained.
Apps such as Mil GPS work on your cell phone, even if you don’t get a signal. Redundant GPS units or watches that pull GPS signals work as effective locating beacons as well. Garmin, Spot, and Suunto are companies that provide such products. When it comes to communication, have more than one method. As the saying goes, two is one and one is none.
Don’t form routines during your stay, such as eating in the same place each day. Predictable patterns may cost you when you’re unaware that all the wrong people are watching. Pritbor also suggests not only getting first-aid training, but carrying a small individual first-aid kit (IFAK) that looks inconspicuous. “Try to avoid presenting a military IFAK. Get as commercial as possible, but have military-grade components,” Pritbor says. “You don’t want some generic kit with Band-Aids. Have materials that can stop mass hemorrhaging and deal with all the algorithms for MARCH (massive hemorrhaging, airway, respiration, circulation, and hypothermia).”
Other survival kits to keep with you are weapons or improvised weapons. If you’re not permitted to bring a concealed-carry firearm or knife into the country, consider innocuous-looking alternatives. A screwdriver, flashlight, tactical pen, or self-locking carabiner could all be used as contact-distance weapons.
Above: Innocuous-looking alternatives (such as a pen, flashlight, or carabiner) can be used as brass knuckles or striking implements.
Keep any credentials needed to get out of the country such as your passport with you at all times.
If you manage to make it out safely, you should communicate your situation to loved ones and the U.S. State Department the first opportunity you get. Documenting these sorts of events, conditions, and treatment of U.S. citizens abroad helps raise awareness for other travelers and provides the government some recourse for diplomatic relations with other countries.
“Of the political history of this country, we tend to have mechanisms that deal with popular discontent in a less violent way than other countries,” DiLeo says. “It’s not because we’re better people; we’re richer and continue to provide service and make sure the citizenry is provided for. Disagreement in America is not prohibited — we’re encouraged to do so. When we do, it’s pretty well tolerated.”
“I remember seeing an Occupy movement scene where police were casually chatting and laughing with protestors,” DiLeo adds. “That would never happen in other countries. If an asteroid hit the planet and the government couldn’t provide service, then you get these other ingredients. Who knows in that kind of dystopian atmosphere what could happen.”
As we’ve seen in our history, Americans have found reasons to fight on a massive scale. It’s not beyond our nature as human beings to believe the government is putting its own interests ahead of the people’s.
As Abraham Lincoln said, the downfall of the American people will likely be by our own hand, not a foreign entity: “From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.”
You may have to break out of handcuffs, hotwire and commandeer a car, pick locks, and learn social engineering tricks to help you survive in a foreign country that’s gone haywire. So whom do you turn to? Check out these professionals and their services for some of the best escape and evasion training available.