The people who walk in darkness

A superficial tour of the abyss

One evening in 1992, I went to supper in Bogota with a photojournalist named Tim Ross, and admired a photograph on his wall. It showed a boy with a flat Indian face smeared with terror, crouching at the booted feet of two policemen who had their guns out. They had already beaten him up, and one had shot him through the hand. Now he had realised what would happen next. “They were going to take him up the hill to kill him”, said Tim, “but they didn’t want to finish it while I was there.”

The boy was a street robber who had mugged a whore because he didn’t realise her husband was a policemen; not just any policeman, but one who already had two official investigations against him for shooting civilians in unexplained circumstances. So he had called on his uniformed buddies to track and kill the witnesses to the event as well. Do a favour, get a favour. That’s the way it works.

Ross told the story well. He even offered to take me to see one of the witnesses later and in the meantime we ate a delicious supper prepared by his wife. Within the flat, everything was peace and order.  He lived on the 26th floor of the Phoenician Towers, a gated and guarded tower block towards the edge of the city. Beyond the ring road, a shanty town straggled up the mountain. The traffic noise was distant but occasional gunshots came through to us very clearly and Tim Ross would identify each by its calibre and so whether it was a police weapon or not.

The Colombian police, he explained,  made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in precision. He had actually once been invited to a death squad killing, by one of his policeman friends, but arranged instead to come by a few minutes later. There was a photograph of the aftermath on the wall.

Brutal methods were not confined to the police: the anti-drug militias of the Medellin barrios had cleaned the place up to the extent that, he said, that it was now possible for a tourist without a word of Spanish to walk round anywhere in complete safety: the last time he had been there, he had been interviewing one of the organisers at night, when the man said: "excuse me, I have to go and do a job now." The next morning, five drug dealers, all women, were found shot dead on the outskirts of town. Ross was invited to make pictures at one of the funerals. To “make pictures” is a phrase that news photographers use to show that they are trying to make art out of chaos, and not just to record it. 

Underneath the bravado there was a quiet despair and a deep love for the country and its tortured people. He tried to explain how completely dysfunctional the justice system was: A former Minister of Justice used to hold drug parties in jail while under arrest. Jorge Luís Ochoa, one of the founders of the Medellin cartel, was also in jail at the time, and from there  had had 27 people killed —  probably more but Ross had stopped keeping count.

The going rate for an assassination, he explained, was about $70 to $80 for a trouble-free job — the official minimum wage was then $100 a month. Rates went up for skilled work. Ross had been present at a discussion about someone in Miami who needed to be done, but might have had bodyguards who would also need killing, and so on. So the budget under discussion was complicated: there would be the airfare, and then a week in a hotel, and the car hire, to watch the victim and plan it out, and then, on top of that $1200 to the man who did the job.

At the low end of the business, he had once met a man who had just come out from two years in a French jail —  probably gangbanged by Algerians, he added as a footnote, because Colombian drug runners were unpopular abroad — who had came back to Colombia with nothing but the cheap and nasty suit he wore. Nobody wanted to know him.  "I'm good at blood jobs." he had said to Ross. He wanted to find his feet in society again: "I'll give you the first one for free, just to show you what I can do."

But when he talked about the atrocities of the guerrillas and the drug gangs his voice took on a note of controlled hysteria is if the studied cool of his other stories had finally cracked.

The FARC, he reckoned, was by then probably the second-biggest drug-producing organisation in the country, after the Cali cartel, but ahead of the Medellin cartel, which had moved into Brazil. He rattled off a list of FARC "fronts", each with their areas of drug control. Tolima province, where I had just visited the back country, was the scene of two rival fronts trying to muscle in on the heroin business — “old-line fifties Stalinists”, he said: much given to shooting each other thirty at a time, in order to enforce loyalty. Their allies in the ELN were more into cocaine, he said, and “quite mad and nasty”. They had blown up a chemical pipeline to spite the government, which left 10,000 fishing families to starve.

The spread of the drug business had brought with it a new performative brutality: he talked about priests with their arms hacked off and their dicks shoved into their mouths, and how the man who did that had been feted by his masters. Three hundred bodies had been found floating down the Cauca river the other month, with stones in their bellies and their fingers either smashed or hacked off to preclude identification.

The army was very much better armed than the drug guerrillas . With American encouragement it was fighting “The War on Drugs” like a war. The army helicopters used a tactic on suspected guerrillas called “reconnaissance by fire”. He had been on one of these flights when someone fired a shotgun at the helicopter from under cover. The chopper emptied its cannon at the hillside and then landed to investigate.  They could find nothing at all case in the wreckage of the forest to indicate that anything had ever been alive in the target area except a single shotgun cartridge.

I had come to his flat in a taxi, of course, but Ross offered to walk me back to my hotel.

As soon as we reached the street his manner changed entirely. Gone was the languid and cynical manner of his safe apartment, that fitted so well with the book-lined walls and the Leica gear.  Now his walk changed: he bounced on the balls of his feet, waved his hips a little, kept his head forwards like a boxer, and talked a lot with his shoulders high and hands low. He wore a short and vicious knife sewn into the lower back of his denim jacket, and kept a swiss army knife in his hip pocket.

Almost at once we were in a shanty town. The lights were sparse and the streets had no names. After a while Ross turned off  and we scrambled over the ten foot wall, into an indescribable stink and mess of rubbish where once a house had stood. Up at the end he gave a welcoming hiss outside one stinking hole. No reply. So we climbed over the next wall, into an area even smellier and more rubbish-strewn. One wall  had something quite like a screen in front of it, made from polythene sheeting and shreds of cloth, so far as I could tell in the moonlight. We pushed through that: the smell was even worse. I noticed a pair of child's spectacle frames among the rubble. Tim spoke through a further door at the far end, then motioned me in ahead of him. There was no room for him to come further, and the smell in there was even worse, a mixture of cocaine fumes and dirt and body odour, though without the pronounced accent of shit which gave the open air its distinctive quality. The light was so steady that I wondered for a while whether it was not stolen electricity. But it was a candle, burning in a space where there had not been a draught of fresh air for several years.

This was the home of a young man called Limping Joe — he limped because of the bullets in his leg from a robbery that had gone wrong.  That wasn’t why he was afraid of the police. His problem was more personal. He had been one of the witnesses to the preliminary pistol-whipping and shooting of the boy who’d then been murdered for robbing a policeman’s wife and this was known.

It took some time to get the story out, for first he had to reassemble the pipe he had hidden when he heard us arrive and then he had to get it going, and then he had to have a few good  blasts, I stood uneasily in the slipstream and inhaled rather more than I meant to so that the rest of the evening comes back to me bright coloured, hard edged, and with an echoing acoustic of rustling polythene.

Joe made tiny leather jackets and equally kitschy little pendants for sale on the streets, though the ones he showed us had already fallen to bits because he could not afford the glue to hold them together. Mostly, he was a professional thief and hustler.

Ross explained how that worked: the basic technique was a flat out charge on Seventh Avenue: get close enough to your victim — accelerate, tear off the briefcase or gold chain or whatever as you go past, keep on accelerating, and run for the alleys. Once there, you're safe.

After we had left the foetid shack, Ross explained the complex relationships between police and thieves in the shanty towns. Friday night is an especially bad night to go wondering round in, he said, because everyone got paid that day, then went out to spend the money in whorehouses. There could be 2,000 girls working one block. This was good for the thieves. But the police also liked to go out on the razzle, so they financed their  own weekend binges by shaking down the thieves, and woe betide the thief who was arrested with nothing valuable on him on a Friday night: the cops could simply send him out again to steal a wristwatch or a gold chain. A really good thief could make $80 a day, most of which would go on drugs.

We left the compound and came to a better lit area. This was the red light district; at that time the fawn coloured concrete street was largely empty. People seemed no more than stirrings in the shadowed niches. Ross knew many of them. We talked to a girl in a red dress with large, shining eyes. She was, he said, 17, and got 2000 pesos, or two pounds, a trick — enough for ten hits of bazuco. Her husband beat her if she didn’t split the money.

The economics of prostitution in Bogotà were very grim. Ross told me of an afternoon he had spent in a brothel, talking to the madam and watching a tall 19-year old girl turn 18 tricks in two hours. But she was in her prime. Older whores could only charge 1500 pesos, and 900 of that went on the hire of a room. I’d imagine that “older” meant anything over about 21.

But after we emerged from the red light district Ross ran across the street to meet and talk with another girl. This one was eighteen. He father, he said, was upstairs, drunk while her mother was out on the streets dealing marijuana and trying not to get arrested. But the girl herself was going secondary school in evening classes and trying to get to university. She even spoke a little English.

The last part of our walk, through the respectable centre of town, took us through an ornamental park.  On one of the paths, at quarter to midnight, a young man walked back and forth clutching a large book, all alone. He moved to one side as we approached, and we kept a respectful distance away. I asked Tim what he might be: he said probably a plainclothes policeman fresh from the provinces, put on mugging duty in his first year: just stuck out there until he got mugged. Or he might be a mugger, a dope dealer, on a gay assignation. He could have been anything out there at that time of night except innocent.

When we reached the hotel, I thanked him insufficiently for such a wonderful evening. "If you shook hands with any of my friends, you'd better wash your hands with carbolic soap once you're inside", he said.

I found the diary fragment on which this is based when I was looking through my files this spring. The original 4,500 word version was typed up in my hotel room that night, with my head still ringing from the fumes of Limping Joe’s bazuco pipe. That was the closest I ever came to snorting cocaine. After what I had seen in Colombia I understood it as an entirely evil drug.

When I returned to London the paper I then worked for was completely uninterested in a story about another journalist. I lacked the wit to sell it anywhere else. But when I had reread the original diary this year I wanted to know what had happened to Tim Ross. I’d admired him then and I admire him still more now.

He had given up photojournalism, retrained as a paramedic, and set up a charity to rescue the victims of the sex trade. He was a damn good journalist and an unforgettable photographer, but it’s hard not to believe that he is doing more good now for the victims of the city than all but the very luckiest photographer or writer— and the luck of distribution is almost entirely independent of artistic merit. We fool ourselves sometimes that journalism can change the world. But it can only illuminate at best; it can’t make people see.