2 Israeli backpackers abducted by drugs cartel in Colombian jungle

Held for seven hours, the pair were released after their guide convinced the kidnappers that with $85 in their pockets, they could not meet a $1.7 million ransom demand

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Omer Yefet, one of two Israelis held by a Colombian drug cartel for several hours while touring the South American country, talks to Channel 10 about his ordeal, May 23, 2018. (Channel 10 screenshot)
Omer Yefet, one of two Israelis held by a Colombian drug cartel for several hours while touring the South American country, talks to Channel 10 about his ordeal, May 23, 2018. (Channel 10 screenshot)

Two Israeli backpackers on a post-army trip to Colombia were kidnapped and held for several hours by a drug cartel before being released because with only $85 in their pockets they could not meet the $1.7 million ransom.

Omer Yefet and Gal-El Yaakov, both 22, had just finished an organized tour of legal marijuana fields in a jungle near the city of Cali when they were snatched and held for seven hours by 15 men, most of them armed with Israeli-made weapons.

The guide remained in detention and the two have been unable to ascertain her whereabouts.

“It was like a scene from the [American crime] TV series ‘Narcos,'” Yefet told  Channel 10 News, speaking from Colombia. “I haven’t internalized it yet, it’s such a crazy story. But it happened. Just like in the movies.”

Asked about the worst moment of the ordeal, Yefet said that shortly before their release, “we all sat together in a vehicle, and one of the armed militiamen came towards us with an Uzi machine gun around his neck. He said, “Get out [of the vehicle] and come with me,” and put me, by myself, into the big boss’s car. At that moment, the scenario that went through my mind was that they’d just take me and free everyone else.

“I sat there for about seven minutes and didn’t know what was happening.”

The two Israelis — who met for the first time on the tour — were freed, thanks to the intervention of their tour guide, Monica, who told the kidnappers that the boys were young and had no money.

Marijuana fields in Colombia. (YouTube screenshot)

The cartel chief, according to Yefet, wanted 500 million pesos ($17 million), which he claimed was owed to him by the tour company that employed Monica.

“Monica said it wasn’t even worth offering him the 300 pesos ($85) dollars that we had,” Yefet said.

“Monica did everything she could to make sure we were OK and defended us throughout. I don’t know what happened to her, to my regret. I tried to check with the tour company.

“It’s not a situation where you can ask for something, after you’ve been held for seven hours. We just left and Monica said to me with a smile, calmly, ‘I know people who can get me out of here, everything is fine.'”

The two tourists were unharmed. “They didn’t aim at us, or take anything from us.”

Yefet, who wrote a full account of his ordeal in a Facebook post, and emphasized that he himself does not smoke marijuana, is continuing to travel in South America and plans to return to Israel in around two months.

“Maybe I’ll leave Colombia a bit earlier than planned,” he said. “There are other dangerous places where people travel. I will certainly be more careful. It can happen in any place. You need a lot of luck.”

This file photo taken on September 26, 2016, shows Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, looking on as the leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londono — better known by his nom de guerre, Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez — stands up and gestures during the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Cartagena, Colombia. (Luis Acosta/AFP)

Colombia has become a popular destination for discharged Israeli soldiers since Marxist guerrillas laid down their weapons and signed a peace deal with the government in Bogota and since the country both legalized medical cannabis cultivation and decriminalized small-scale personal cultivation and recreational use of the drug.

But a few gangs are still active in certain areas, among them the mountains around Cali, living off money taken from businessmen and foreigners, including tourists.

In his Facebook post, Yefet wrote that he had learned two lessons — to go with larger groups on such tours and to check out tour agencies more carefully. “Always be careful and aware,” he wrote.

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