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The true story of one man's selfless effort to bring freedom to a nation, and of the price he was willing to pay.
Six Minutes to Freedom is the gripping true story of a real-life hero at the center of an international crisis and of the US Army’s elite Delta Force team who saved his life.
Kurt Muse and his band of heroes began to defy the ruthless dictator of Panama by going on the air with an underground radio station encouraging civil resistance. Six Minutes to Freedom is Kurt Muse’s remarkable story, from his eventual arrest by Noriega’s brutal henchmen and his months of imprisonment, to the squalid conditions he faced in Panama’s infamous Modelo Prison, from his eyewitness accounts of his fellow inmates’ torture to the plight of his own family as they fled for their lives. And it reveals, for the first time, the astonishing details of the day he became the only American civilian ever rescued by the elite U.S. Army’s Delta Force. A highly personal narrative that reads like a story ripped from the pages of a well-crafted thriller. Six Minutes to Freedom is the story of a courageous American on foreign soil, who risked his life for the country and people he loved.
The American Airlines jet banked hard to the left, revealing the lush jungle landscape below. Still too high to make out individual people on the ground, Kurt Muse could nonetheless make out the major landmarks of the Panamanian countryside. Over there, the island of Taboga rose out of the murky waters of the Pacific. If he squinted and used a little imagination, he thought he could see the ranch his father had cut by hand from the dense tangle of undergrowth. That body of water he could see beyond the island--actually, it looked more like an extension of the overcast sky, but Kurt knew it was there--was the Atlantic Ocean. It was the rare visitor to his adopted home who didn’t find it thrilling to swim in two oceans on a single afternoon.
The floorboards rumbled as the pilot lowered flaps and slats, marking the beginning of their final approach to Omar Torrijos International Airport. Kurt looked away from the window and scanned the faces around him. He’d made this trip dozens of times, and over the past couple of years, it seemed that each approach brought a deepening sense of dread among the passengers. What little conversation existed on the flight--one never knew the true identity of one’s seat mate--all but ceased.
The flight had originated in Miami, the home of shopping malls and the kind of freedom once known in Panama. Ahead lay a regime of daily oppression and humiliation. Yet, here they all were, drawn back to misery by the simple pull of home.
Kurt had lived in Panama since he was five, the son of Charlie and Peggy Muse, whose pioneer spirit had brought Kurt and his brother and sister to Central America in pursuit of a simpler lifestyle and warmer climate. They’d found all of that, plus remarkable success in business. It helped, Kurt supposed, that the country teemed with Americans, thanks to the Canal Zone, but Charlie Muse had wanted more for his kids than a little slice of the United States relocated a thousand miles to the south. Whereas the Canal Zone kids kept mostly with other Americans and attended American schools staffed by American teachers, the Muses had always lived on the local economy. Kurt and his siblings spent their childhoods in Panamanian classrooms, learning and playing Panamanian games with Panamanian children, easily identified in any crowd as the only fair-haired Gringos in a sea of brunettes. Now, at age thirty-eight, Kurt’s towering frame made him easily identifiable from a hundred yards away.
Kurt so wished that he could spin the clock back to those simpler times, back to the days before Noriega’s rise to power; back to the days when you could say what was on your mind without fear of arrest and torture. Back to the days when people who killed others were few, and those who dared to do so were punished for their crimes. Panamanians were by nature so non-aggressive and polite that they made easy pickings for a brutal dictator’s rise to power.
Here on his return flight, with feet dry on Panamanian soil, the PDF sapos no longer needed to keep their profiles low. Even without the uniform, you could tell who they were the instant they stood from their seats, strutting like thugs, pushing their way down the aisles while the other passengers hurried to get out of the way. The passengers’ fearful deference reminded Kurt of little kids in the playground. Bullies versus victims, with no referees.
In a month, Kurt thought, it would all be over. In just over thirty days, the people of Panama would go to the polls, and when that time came, Kurt and his La Voz de la Libertad--Voice of Liberty--would be ready for them. The transmitters were in place--cold ones, tuned to frequencies they’d never used--and poised override the commercial stations with messages from Guillermo Ford and Roderick Esquivel and Bosco Vallarino, reassuring the people that their leaders were ready to lead again. Caught flat-footed, there was no way that the regime would be able to stop the broadcast in time. With that kind of encouragement, maybe the population would flood to the polls. If they did, there could be no stopping the results. The PDF could intimidate a hundred people, or maybe a thousand, but if ten thousand, fifty thousand citizens stormed each polling place, the military and the police would be neutered.
And once the people had spoken, the United States would have no choice but to protect the voters from Noriega’s retribution.
Kurt’s dreams harbored fantasies of La Piña--the Pineapple, so named for his acne-cratered complexion--being strung up by his heels and ravaged in the manner of Il Duce in the waning days of the Second World War. If the citizens could cut his flesh just one time for every murder he’d committed and every life he’d ruined, even the bones would be gone by the time it was all done.
Kurt waited for the aisle to clear before he stood. Ten rows ahead, he saw his friend Tomás Roque self consciously avoiding his gaze. They were too close to the finish line to blow the race now through some stupid security breach. In a perfect world, they would even have taken different flights; but a perfect world would have provided more than one flight a day from Miami to Panama City.
It was nearly eight o’clock, and Kurt was anxious to get home. He’d left his wife, Annie back in West Palm, caring for her cancer-riddled grandmother, which meant that their fifteen year old daughter, Kimberly, was home by herself, no doubt celebrating the absence of little brother Erik, who was spending the week with his best friend. Kurt made a mental note to give her a call as soon as he got through Immigration, before he headed for the car.
If he ever cleared immigration. With three flights arriving all at the same time, the three customs booths were completely swamped. The lines looked more like a crowd, a group of strangers awaiting their turn under the not-so-watchful eyes of a dozen machine-gun-toting PDF guards in olive drab fatigues. Most kept their M-16s slung on their shoulders, but a few held them locked and loaded at a loose port arms.
Be it ever so humble.
Kurt tried to spot Tomás again, but the crowd had swallowed him.
Something jumped in his gut. It was the proximity of their final goal, he was sure. After being so clandestine for such a long period, it was hard not to worry about anything that seemed even slightly out of the ordinary. Noriega had to know that the elections were their final prize, and now was the time when he would sell his soul to stop them.
Tomás was fine, Kurt told himself. Even if something went terribly wrong, he’d be fine. Tomás was nothing if not a survivor.
Kurt’s mind drifted back to the ominous conversation he’d had the night before with Richard Dotson. A lifer with the State Department, Richard had been carrying Kurt’s flag through every corridor in Foggy Bottom, and now that they were getting down to the wire, Richard was getting jumpy, too.
Last night, in the safety of Richard’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home, the two men had tipped a few drinks and settled into the ritual of self-congratulation. They were this close to winning. Everything was in place. The old inter-agency rivalries had dried up in the face of a clear directive from the Oval Office that Noriega was no longer a friend to the United States, and it looked for all the world that a home-grown coup was about to topple one of the world’s most brutal dictators.
As the two old friends stood outside in the April chill last night, sipping scotch and smoking an early victory cigar, Kurt had asked, a propos of nothing, “So what happens if things go badly and we’re discovered?” He’d meant the question as a throw-away, a rhetorical musing fueled by a swelled head and a loosened tongue. He’d expected to hear Richard scoff and say that it was nothing to worry about; that things were too far advanced for that to be even a remote concern.
What he got instead was an unsettling downshift in mood. “If that happens,” Richard said, “you’re on your own.”
It was all about politics. The Voice of Liberty had originated in Kurt’s head, not in the halls of any U.S. agency, and no one in power wanted any confusion on that point. The money and equipment Kurt had received from Uncle Sam was all off the books, and they’d accomplished more with it as amateurs than anyone had a right to expect. Uncle was pleased, but he was not responsible. That’s what “on your own” meant, and Kurt was sorry he asked the question. They’d always been on their own, for God’s sake. Why would it be any different now?
Kurt shook the fearful thoughts away. Of all the complications inherent to a conspirator’s life, paranoia could be the most crippling if you didn’t keep it under control. Kurt longed for the day when he could stop living the charade and return to a normal life. He was tired of driving circuitous routes to make sure that he wasn’t being followed--lessons in tradecraft learned by watching James Bond films. He was tired of fearing the day when the PDF would crash his front door and brutalize his family.
More than that, he longed to be released from the burden of living so many lies simultaneously, constantly second-guessing every comment to make sure it was consistent with last week’s cover story. It was the stuff of ulcers.
Most hurtful were the lies he’d told to his family. He told himself that the lies were for their benefit--to keep them out of harm’s way if things went wrong--but even he knew that it was empty rationalization. Truth was, his father (who was also his boss and the old-school family patriarch) never would have approved of La Voz de la Libertad, and by keeping him out of the loop, Kurt simply made his own difficult life a little easier. In his father’s mind, the Muses were guests in a foreign land; internal Panamanian politics were none of their concern. What were their concern, he believed, were the livelihoods of the forty-two employees who depended on the Muses for their income. For Kurt to risk any of that on a naive patriotic whim would have been unconscionable.
Annie knew the truth, of course, and Kimberly probably suspected something (you don’t come home from school to find the exiled vice-president of Panama hiding in your living room and not suspect something), but they were fine with it. Kimberly knew not to ask, and Annie knew how to help.
At last, Kurt found himself at the head of the immigration line. He cast his gaze down, avoiding eye contact like a good Panamanian, and prepared himself to answer the questions he’d been asked a thousand times. The trip was personal in nature, to visit his wife’s sick grandmother. No, he had nothing to declare.
Two men occupied the cramped immigration booth. The first man, from the Immigration Bureau, took care of the basic paperwork, which he then handed to the second, a soldier who matched the passport against a thick dot matrix printout of undesirables.
Kurt craned his neck in one last futile search for Tomás, and the instant he looked back, he knew that something had gone terribly wrong. It was the way the immigration guy was holding the passport. Rather than the cursory glance followed by the whack of the entry stamp, he held the little book in both hands, vertically, as if it were a Playboy centerfold. He seemed to be studying it. And then he smiled.
As he handed the tiny book back to the soldier, Kurt followed the clerk’s gaze to a piece of paper someone had taped to the reinforced glass of his partition. At first, Kurt was confused.
Then his guts dissolved. The sign was hand-written in Spanish. He had to read it backwards:
His life was over.