Morse code — that series of dots and dashes — can be useful in the strangest situations. As a kid I remember an original Star Trek episode where an injured [Christopher Pike] could only blink a light once for yes and twice for no. Even as a kid, I remember thinking, “Too bad they didn’t think to teach him Morse code.” Of course odd uses of Morse aren’t just for TV and Movies. Perhaps the strangest real-life use was the case of the Colombian government hiding code in pop music to send messages to hostages.
In 2010, [Jose Espejo] was close to retirement from the Colombian army. But he was bothered by the fact that some of his comrades were hostages of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; the anti-government guerrillas), some for as many as ten years. There was a massive effort to free hostages underway, and they wanted them to know both to boost morale and so they’d be ready to escape. But how do you send a message to people in captivity without alerting their captors?
[Espejo] enlisted an expatriate advertising executive, [Juan Carlos Ortiz], to devise a way to deliver the message. [Oritz] had left Colombia because his anti-drug advertising led to death threats from FARC. Living in the United States, he was no fan of FARC and was happy to lend a hand to his native country.
PsyOps Mad Men Style
This would not be the first time [Ortiz] had used his advertising skills against FARC. Using everything from air-dropped pacifiers to floating soccer balls, [Ortiz] had been behind efforts to encourage FARC soldiers to desert before. But those messages were meant to be read by the FARC soldiers. This new message had to be covert.
It was well-known that hostages usually had access to radio. In fact, there was a radio program that allowed families of hostages to leave 30-second messages for their loved ones. That seemed like an obvious way to send the message, but how to conceal it? The answer was Morse code.
This seemed logical because many soldiers knew the code but the FARC rebels were not likely to be trained. Of course, there was still the question of how to conceal the code. Obviously, if the captors heard it as code, they could find someone to decode it even if they didn’t understand it themselves. They needed some form of steganography to hide the code in plain sight — well, perhaps earshot is a better word.
Got a Beat
The answer was to embed the code in a song. The government controlled the local radio stations, so getting air time would not be a problem. The song — Mejores Dias or Better Days, in English — is in the video below. With some experimentation, they found they could fit about 20 words in the chorus without being obvious. That also allowed the code to repeat making it easier to copy.
The message reads:
19 LIBERADOS. SIGUEN USTEDES. ANIMO
(19 people rescued. You are next. Cheer up)
The song, itself, has lyrics as though it is about someone being held hostage and even has a line before the code starts, “Escucha este mensaje, hermano ” which is “Listen to this message, brother.” If you are curious and your high school Spanish isn’t up to snuff, Google Translate can show you the lyrics in Spanish and English.
The song became a hit in rural areas where FARC operated. Apparently, some hostages did decode the message. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would have. Perhaps my ears are too old.
Come to think of it, Morse code isn’t a stranger to hostage situations, either. [Admiral Jerimiah Denton] blinked out TORTURE with his eyelids during his televised confession while he was a prisoner of war. Tales of prisoners from Alcatraz to Iran using Morse code to communicate is common, as well.
You never know what you are missing if you can’t read Morse code. Did you know the famous Capitol Records building has an aircraft beacon that spells out HOLLYWOOD in Morse code? They occasionally change the message like they did in 2013 to promote Katy Perry’s new album release. Apparently, virtually no one noticed.
What’s the oddest use of Morse code you’ve seen? Can you hear the code in Better Days? Let us know in the comments.