Date: Mon May 04 2009 - 23:53:42 EDT
Paranoid Authorities Wouldn't Let My Plane Fly Over U.S. Territory -- Was
It Something I Wrote?
By Hernando Calvo Ospina , Progreso-Weekly
Posted on May 4, 2009, Printed on May 4, 2009
Air France Flight 438, from Paris, was to land at Mexico City at 6 p.m. on
Saturday, April 18. Five hours before landing, the captain's voice
announced that U.S. authorities had prohibited the plane from flying over
U.S. territory. The explanation: among the passengers aboard was a person
who was not welcome in the United States for reasons of national security.
A few minutes later, the same voice told the startled passengers that the
plane was heading for Fort-de-France, Martinique, because the detour the
plan needed to take to reach its destination was too long and the fuel was
The stopover in that French territory in the Caribbean would be only to
refuel the plane. Exhaustion was becoming an issue among the passengers.
But the central question, spoken in undertones, was the identity of the
"terrorist" passenger, because if the "gringos" say it, "it must be because
he must be a terrorist."
Looking at those of us sitting in the back of the plane, two passengers
said no terrorist could be there because "nobody there looks like a
Again in the air, and preparing for another four hours of travel, a man who
identified himself as the copilot came to me. Trying to look discreet, he
asked if I was "Mr. Calvo Ospina." I told him yes.
"The captain wants to sleep, that's why I came here," he said, and he
invited me to accompany him to the back of the plane. There, he told me
that I was the person "responsible" for the detour. I was astonished.
My first reaction was to ask him: "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" He said
no, that's the reason I'm telling you this. He also assured me that it was
strange that this was the first time it happened on an Air France plane.
Shortly before we landed in Martinique, a stewardess had told me that, in
her 11-year career, nothing like that had ever happened to her.
Finally, the copilot asked me not to tell anybody, including the rest of
the crew. I assured him that I hadn't the slightest intention of doing so.
I returned to my seat. Perhaps through nervousness, I began to notice that
the members of the crew walked by me more frequently, looking at me with
After landing, before the plane even reached the airport building, a
woman's voice asked for "Mr. Calvo Ospina" to meet with a member of the
crew as soon as the plane stopped. I did so. The young man picked up a
phone and called someone. After hanging up, he told me I was no longer
needed and could debark. He told me he knew about my problem and wished me
In an instant, on two pieces of paper I ripped from a newspaper, I wrote
the telephone number of my home and gave them to two passengers with whom I
had chatted, telling them I was "the problem guy." They assured me they
would phone my home, but didn't -- or they couldn't read my numbers.
A few yards from the plane, at the entrance to the terminal, we were
awaited by several civilians who asked for our documents. My throat was
drying up, due to nerves. I submitted my passport and was allowed to enter.
While I waited on line at the immigration desk, I saw several men looking
for someone. They stood behind a glass partition, a few steps away from the
immigration agents but at a higher level.
The line moved slowly. I was moving, without any choice, to where I felt
the worst might happen. But what could I do? The scandal of a man
designated as "a terrorist" by the United States could not gain me any
supporters. I had to go on. Nothing weighed on my conscience; nothing
Then I saw that the three or four men behind the glass partition had
identified me. They looked at a computer screen and then at me. I feigned
indifference. The man who looked like (and was) the leader, went down to
the main floor to talk to the immigration agents. He pretended not to
assume that I was "the culprit" but clearly he thought so. And the
immigration agents looked into my eyes, unable to conceal that they knew I
was the man they were waiting for.
My turn came. I greeted the man politely and he responded in like manner.
He looked at the computer, wrote something and told me to wait a minute,
said he needed to "verify" something in my passport. He asked me to follow
him. I did. He led me to a room next to the glass-enclosed one. A uniformed
agent was sitting next to the door, writing something. As soon as I put
down my two valises, I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. He pointed
me in its direction. I walked through two large semi dark rooms; I saw two
people sleeping on the floor, on mats. The bathroom lights didn't work. I
urinated without worrying if I hit the toilet seat or not. I couldn't see a
I returned and sat down. I fumbled for a book, displaying tranquility, but
my throat remained dry. A few minutes later, the same man who watched me
from the glass enclosure returned and politely asked me to follow him. We
walked into the glass-enclosed room, he sat behind a desk and asked me to
sit in one of two chairs. As I did, I noticed that a man was standing
behind me, to my left. A woman checked a computer and documents, paying no
attention to us.
The first thing the man told me was that I shouldn't worry, that they only
wanted to verify a few things. He said that "five information sources" in
data bases had shown some information about me. He said they "simply"
needed to make a "summary." He showed me a package that contained about 200
sheets of paper, stapled together in five booklets.
I calmed down, forgot about my dry throat and told him: "Ask whatever you
want. I have nothing to hide." He repeated that it was a simple, brief
matter and that I could leave later. Knowing the police, I had my doubts.
I asked him if those many sheets of paper said that I was guilty of
something. The man who was standing answered that I was there at the
request of U.S. authorities. He said I should know that, after Sept. 11,
2001, the Americans had stepped up their "cooperation" work.
Then I asked them: "So, am I to blame for the plane's rerouting?" They said
no, they understood it had been a mere technical stopover. I told them they
knew it wasn't so, that the plane's captain had told everyone that the
stopover was due to a passenger. They smiled, looked at each other, and
resumed the questions. They asked me for my name, date of birth, residence,
etc. Nothing special, nothing that wasn't already in my documents. The
seated officer kept repeating that I could leave without any problem in a
few minutes. The standing officer posed the more "remarkable" questions.
"Are you a Catholic?" he asked. I answered no, but I am not a Muslim
either, knowing how "dangerous" this religious belief has become to certain
"Do you know how to handle firearms?" I told him that the only time I held
one I was very young; it was a shotgun and I was knocked down by the
recoil. I never even went through military service, I said. In fact, I
added, "my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American
government, whom I consider terrorist."
They looked at each other, and the seated man said something I already
knew: "That weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs."
They asked me why I was traveling to Nicaragua the following day, and I
explained that I had to write a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. They asked
me for my personal address, as well as the home phone and cell phone
numbers, which I gave them without hesitation. They asked me if I had
children. A girl and a boy, I answered. The standing man, who by then had
sat down next to me, said calmly: "How nice that you have a boy-and-girl
couple. That's nice." He sounded almost sincere.
That was basically the interrogation, which seemed more like a chat. The
notes made by the seated man did not fill a page. The notes made by the
other man did not fill a notepad page. It seemed to me that the latter
worked for a more specialized intelligence agency. At no time did either
official speak aggressively or threateningly. They were very courteous and
Finally, they returned my identification papers after photocopying them.
And we parted with a handshake. It was almost 2 a.m., Sunday, April 19,
2009. At 10:30 a.m. I boarded a plane for Managua without any difficulty.
But I still think that it was a dream bordering on a nightmare. I still
don't believe that I was "guilty of detouring an Air France 747 because of
the 'fears' of U.S. authorities."
How much did it all cost? Only Air France knows. It had to pay for hotel
rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their
connections. I witnessed the other passengers' exhaustion, especially the
children, some of whom began to vomit, fearing that among them was a
"terrorist." I also saw the tranquility of the crew members in my presence.
Later I learned that all of them were aware of the situation, but it didn't
seem to me that they believed I was guilty of a crime.
How far will the U.S. authorities' paranoia go? And why do Air France and
the French authorities continue to keep silent about it all?
Hernando Calvo Ospina, a Colombian journalist and writer, lives in France.
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View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/139606/