Chapter One: The Great Asparagus Caper
The year was 1985. Ronald Reagan had just begun his second presidential term, and Americans in general were feeling pretty good about themselves and about the world at large.
Terrorism on the scale of 9/11 was still unimaginable. Indeed, most of what passed for terrorism in those days was perpetrated by leftist groups with ties to the Soviet Bloc. Most were subnational, as opposed to transnational, but several Palestinian Marxist groups had begun to operate across international boundaries, in several cases attacking commercial aviation. Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia extremist movement, had burst onto the scene two years earlier with a suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, but its first transnational operation, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome, was still months away.
I was summoned to the headquarters of a major US food processor. The corporate security director, a former special agent of the FBI, had managed to convince senior managers that they would benefit from hearing my views on a prospective overseas investment. The security director was quite surprised and delighted by management's decision to invite me to the meeting, since it was rare in those days to grant security a place at the august table at which a new investment was being considered.
The corporate security director had been successful in getting me entree, I learned during that initial conversation, because the prospective investment target was Colombia. Leftist insurgents had staged several highly publicized kidnappings of American managers in that country in the preceding two or three years.
The matter at hand was the wisdom of a substantial investment in Colombia's agricultural sector, specifically in the fertile Cauca Valley, where the country's senior guerrilla movement, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, normally known by the Spanish acronym FARC, was known to be operating. I was being asked to assess risks from FARC and estimate how much it would cost to protect the technical personnel who would need to visit production sites, if, indeed, special protection measures were warranted.
The meeting was held in what clearly was a high-rent conference room and was chaired by the senior vice president, international. First up was the marketing vice president; he made the case that we would see in the coming years a substantial increase in world demand for asparagus, which, I learned for the first time, was the product under consideration. The SVP reinforced his case with a series of charts supporting the proposition that as people around the world became more affluent, their taste for asparagus would grow proportionally. Perhaps more than proportionally! Who knew?