NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – He was a congressman, a two-term governor of New Mexico, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But there is a side of Bill Richardson that you might not know about. These days, he spends his time helping rescue Americans who are in deep trouble overseas.
He’s met face-to-face with some of the world’s most brutal dictators. “I’ve met with Saddam Hussein. I’ve met with Fidel Castro. You know, all sorts of the bad guys,” Richardson said. “North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, Iran…countries that take Americans hostages as bargaining chips.”
All governments the U.S. has strained relationships with and refuses to bargain with. “So as a policy, the U.S. government has not done prisoner swaps because in the past. If you have prisoner swaps, the government feels that more Americans will be detained,” Richardson said.
That’s when desperate families call on the Richardson Center based in Santa Fe to help. “I talked to Reed and his family and they thanked me. That’s worth everything to me,” Richardson said.
His latest rescue was marine veteran Trevor Reed. Russian authorities arrest him in 2019. Richardson spent two years working closely with Reed’s parents. In a secret mission this last February, the governor landed in Moscow the day before Russia invaded Ukraine. “We were only there about a day and a half and then we heard there might be an invasion. There was, so we left. I had a private plane,” Richardson said.
In a rare move, the Biden administration agreed to a prisoner swap. “But it’s always a negotiation, not just with a foreign government, but also with your U.S. government to persuade them, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get this done. Let’s bring this American home back to their families.'”
Richardson is currently trying to work out a deal with Russie to release basketball star Brittney Griner who was arrested in February and corporate security director Paul Whelan who has been in prison there for five years. In November, he came to the rescue of journalist Danny Fenster in Myanmar.
Richardson sat down with General Min Aung Hlaing, the army general who recently seized power in a military coup. “I said to him, you know, things are not going to be good for you but I think if you want to build trust with the American people, release this guy. He’s, he didn’t do anything. He said, ‘Well he was covering… he was a journalist, so he didn’t treat me well.’ I said well that’s democracy. just let him go. It’ll be good for you and he looked at me and he said, ‘Okay.'”
The former UN ambassador has been hostage negotiating since the mid-90s. He says the seed was planted when he was a congressman for northern New Mexico. “If you look at northern New Mexico, it’s very diverse. There are a lot of specific interests. You got energy, Native Americans, water issues, Hispanic communities, and sometimes there are little conflicts. I would try to resolve that and it got into my blood,” Richardson said.
So how does he do it? “First you got to show respect. Secondly, you’ve got to sort of get into their heads in a positive way. Third, you got to share the credit. Fourth, I think it’s important that you find ways to just keep moving forward, not just instantaneous success, but build a personal trust.”
Richardson has negotiated dozens of high-profile prisoner releases, but things don’t always work out. There have been rejections, like this time in 2011 when Richardson tried to cut a deal with Cuba for the release of a government contractor.
“And instead of shutting up, there were all these cameras there waiting. ‘Did you succeed?’ and instead of shutting up and I went out there and said, no, I thought we had a deal. The Cubans didn’t do it. Stupid, and so I didn’t get the deal and they kind of shut me out for several years,” Richardson said.
President Clinton once told the press he sent Richardson on these missions because those bad guys liked him. “Everything today is social media. It is Facebook, the internet. For me, it’s personal relationships. looking somebody in the eye building trust, even if they’re bad people.”
He vows to keep using those personal relationships to free Americans around the world. Richardson says he is also currently working on several other releases around the world including six Americans in Venenzuela.