Ni Plata, Ni Plomo: Adventures In Photojournalism

It’s not often that an amateur photographer with a lousy camera gets to cover a worldwide scoop. But it happened to me, courtesy of Pablo Escobar.

The year was 1985, and I had spent the last eighteen months living in Bogota, Colombia. Working for the French Embassy, my job was to produce a series of educational television programs to teach French to Colombian students.

Landing the job had been a godsend. This ‘voluntary’ community service could be done in lieu of the regular military service — still mandatory in France for all young men my age — for which I had been enlisted. Producing videos in an exotic locale appeared a whole lot more enticing than spending a year in barracks with only men, no freedom and bad food. So, it did not take me a long time to sign up (enthusiastically) for the job. I couldn’t have known that during my stint in Bogota, I would see more military action than if I had completed the regular military service.

I arrived in Bogota, purposely not having learned much about Colombia. I wanted to see my next home with virgin eyes, without having any clichés obfuscating the reality. I wanted my sight unobscured — to see Colombia through a perfectly clean lens. I had no idea what to expect, and that was fine with me.

But travel in Colombia, I did — and extensively! Over the next year and a half, I discovered a land of intoxicating beauty, home to a proud and warm, passionate people. Colombians are natural-born storytellers with a singular relationship to Death. It took me some time to read through the complexity and subtleties of the Colombian psyche. But by November 1985, the endemic violence, the crazy parties, the wild characters, this Andean art de vivre all seemed natural and familiar to me.

Was it because on the very first day on the job the Embassy was attacked by a group of bearded guerrilleros, regular Che Guevara wannabes, who asked for political asylum in France, brandishing guns, threatening to blow up the Embassy, shouting hysterically? Even with their guns pointed at us through the armored glass, they did not really seem dangerous, more like a poor man’s sequel to Woody Allen’s Bananas.

Was it because even though I was living in a city whose crime rate was seventeen times that of New York City, I had escaped a few bullets of my own and had come to internalize this as a part of local life?

To be sure, Colombia was going through a very difficult time. By the mid-1980s, the country had been torn apart by decades of civil war, known simply as La Violencia. It had claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths all across the country, had pitted family against family, village against village. Ultimately, it proved to be a very fertile ground for the uninhibited ambition of Pablo Escobar Gaviria, a small hoodlum with a four-digit IQ and a thirst for violence never seen before — even in Colombia.

When faced with an obstacle (whether in the form of a law enforcement official, a competitor or a judge) he had one simple rule, he offered ‘plata o plomo’ (silver or lead): the target either accepted bribery or was eliminated. It turned out to be a very efficient modus operandi. In a very short order, Pablo Escobar blazed for himself a trail of money and influence that brought him to the very pinnacle of power and turned him into one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.

After years of painstaking surveillance and intelligence work, the Colombian military, with the help of the United States’ DEA, had gathered some evidence on Pablo Escobar’s criminal activity. In October 1985, these documents were sent to the seat of Colombia’s judicial system — the Palacio de Justicia, in Bogota. These documents, if ever made available to the U.S., could bolster the case for the extradition of Escobar.

And extradition to the United States was the one thing Pablo Escobar feared. He was not about to let it happen.

***

My time in Bogota was ending, and the Embassy had found a replacement for me to continue the production of these educational videos. We had decided that a month of overlap would allow me to pass the baton and make sure the transition would be smooth. Eric Julien, my successor, had arrived in Bogota a few weeks earlier.

We immediately hit it off. He was bristling with enthusiasm and ideas. He had an air of adventure and a glint in his eyes that made him a fun companion. And, because he understood everything quickly, we ended up having some free time on our hands, which I used as much as possible to educate him on the delicate subject the Colombian idiosyncrasies.

On November 6, 1985, we had planned to have lunch in la Candelaria, the colonial part of Bogota where I was living. I had left the office earlier to get the prints I had ordered from the photo store. I wanted to see how the photos I had taken with my new Canon camera with a 200mm zoom lens turned out.

As I walked into the photo store, the owner was rolling down the metal protection, obviously closing the store.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” he said. “The M-19 have just taken the Palace of Justice. We’re closing!”

The Palace of Justice was just across the street.

“OK, I just want my photos, and give me five rolls of film.” I said, going for my wallet.

Assuaged by the prospect of a quick sale, he obliged. He gave me the developed photos and the five rolls of film. I paid and left.

I walked to the restaurant where I met Eric. By the end of our lunch, the talk on the radio and from everybody around us was this takeover by the M19 Guerrilla group of the Palace of Justice — less than two kilometers away.

“I have two cameras at home,” I told Eric. “Let’s go see if we can’t take some pictures.”

“Why not?” he agreed. “Let’s go.”

And off we went. First we stopped to grab my two cameras. Along with the rolls of film (all five of them) that I just purchased, we started descending on foot toward the Plaza de Bolivar, where the Justice Palace was located.

Coming onto Calle Once, which was the street leading to Plaza de Bolivar, we heard a very loud rumbling noise. Soon we saw the cause of this imposing noise — a column of six Cascavel armored cars rolling down the street, headed for the city’s main square, three blocks away on our right.

I did not think about it — and, in fact, reason would have told me not to do it — but I started running on the sidewalk alongside the tanks as they headed toward the Palace of Justice. Eric followed suit, and we were soon running faster than the tanks were advancing. We bypassed them and we ended up on the Plaza de Bolivar before the tanks.

As we crossed the Carrera 7, the Palace of Justice was on our right, and the tanks were on our left. Facing the Plaza, the tanks stopped, presumably waiting for further orders. We had no idea what to do, what would happen next, but the intensity of the moment was palpable in the air.

We took a position away from the soldiers and members of the Military Police attempting to enter the Palace of Justice through its main gate. An imposing building, it stood a few meters above the Plaza de Bolivar, and the only way to enter the Palace of Justice through the main gate was to go through the terrace, accessible through wide beige marble stairs.

Ten minutes passed, maybe fifteen. One helicopter hovered above, followed by another.

We heard a loud noise from our left. The tank heading the column left the rest and advanced alone on the Plaza de Bolivar.

It turned around, with its gun turret now rotated to face the Palace of Justice, and stopped. We were gasping. What was it gonna do?

It was on the move again and advanced further still, toward the Palace of Justice. It zigged and zagged as it climbed the marble stairs. Finally reaching the terrace at the top of the stairs, it faced the imposing metal gate.

Was a military tank seriously going to open fire on the Palace of Justice? What was this? Bananas meets Rambo right in front of my eyes?

And then, at 1:55 p.m., the unthinkable happened: the Cascavel opened fire on the metal door, blowing it open in one of the loudest outbursts of noise I had ever experienced.

But I wasn’t listening — my whole body and mind were focused on getting the shots of the tank being engulfed, as if swallowed by the Justice Palace, while penetrating it, and finally disappeared out of sight.

I was tense. But, when it was over, I knew I had a series of shots that were good.

I turned around to see what else we should be photographing. What else would need to be covered? It was my first gig as a photojournalist, and I was barely an hour in it, but I tried to think like an experienced pro. Where was the killer photo, the definite shot?

“Let’s go inside the Palace,” I told Eric, motioning toward the gate. “That’s where the photos are.”

“You’re crazy!” he exclaimed, quite on the mark. “We’re going to get killed!”

That’s when I realized that adrenaline makes you do weird stuff. In one rush it makes me invincible. It makes me want to do the impossible, the hair-raising, the spine-tingling.

What else could prompt me to want to run head first into what was probably, at that moment in time, the most violent and dangerous spot on the whole planet Earth?

I was high on a substance created by my body, and it was a feeling of completeness, of purpose and focus I’d never had before.

I couldn’t bear the thought that just twenty meters away from me this intense battle was raging, and somehow I was not going to cover it. A column of tanks, an army battalion and the fiercest Colombian guerrilla forces were not going to stop me!

So I started running across the street toward the entrance to the Palace of Justice. Eric, against his own better judgement, followed suit. We got shot at from the top of the building.

Having safely reached the Palace of Justice, we leaned against the imposing marble walls, trying to recoup our breath. By then there was a sense of utter chaos around us. Military orders seemed to be given only to be retracted soon after. It was everyone for himself — and that was good thing because nobody noticed the two of us right in the middle of the action.

There was a loud kerfuffle coming from the entrance. We’d learn later that, at that very moment, the Colombian army was bearing its first fruits, and a batch of about twenty hostages were being released from the Palace of Justice — secretaries, judges, government employees, lawyers. They ran out of the building under the supervision of armed soldiers, crouching, terrified and elated. Traumatized by what they had just witnessed, they were grateful to be alive. They passed in front of us, only a couple of meters away. Eric took some great shots of them passing by.

When they were all gone, I motioned again to Eric that I wanted to get inside the building. He was having none of it. (Dare I now say he was right?) But our argument was cut short when a Colombian army officer walked toward us, scowling somberly.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“We’re photographers,” I said, somewhat proudly and pointing at my camera.

“You’re civilians?” he asked, incredulous.

“Yes,” I said, trying to sound very natural — as if I casually spent my free time documenting scenes of urban warfare.

“Get out of here!” he shouted menacingly. “I can’t have you here!” He was clearly furious. “Don’t you see this is a war zone? Leave! Now!”

“But, sir… we’ll get killed. Snipers were shooting at us on the way in!”

“I don’t care!” he erupted. “You can’t be here! Leave now!”

His hand was going for his gun. The guy meant business. I understood the party was over.

We ran back to our starting point, zigzagging to evade the bullets shot at us from the roof and through the windows of the upper floors of the palace.

We made it safely across the street — short of breath and incredibly excited, but safe.

It was now mid-afternoon and Eric and I brainstormed. By then all the streets leading to the Plaza de Bolivar were cordoned off. From where we came in originally, we could see hundreds of people, a growing crowd of photographers and journalists wanting to get a piece of the action. If we left, we’d never be able to get back.

But because we did not see any other photographers earlier, and because our location was the best one to cover the event, we assumed that the photos we had might be the best ones taken that day — or among the best. We really couldn’t tell at that point, but we thought we might have a scoop in our hands, a worldwide scoop!

And if we had any chance to get the photos out, we needed to get them printed first. We decided to leave the Plaza de Bolivar. We grabbed my car and drove off to the north of the city where I knew a one-hour photo shop that did good work.

While the photos were being printed, we went for coffee, and the ever-resourceful Eric phoned a friend in Paris who gave him the name and telephone number of Agence France Presse in Bogota.

The AFP answered that they were on strike that day and wished us luck. Surely, no self-respecting French company could forego the pleasure of going on strike, even if it dealt with the tyrannical immediacy of the world’s nonstop news cycle.

With Agence France Presse dutifully on strike, we had no other option but to turn to the other news organization with a bureau in Bogota open for business — Reuters.

The representative received us in his nondescript office and looked at the photos we showed him appreciatively. Flipping through the dozens of photos, he nodded in pleasure. When he was done, he looked back at us.

“They’re good!” he smiled at us.

“We’ll take this one,” he said, showing one of the shots of the tank entering the Palace of Justice. “We’ll buy the black and white rights, worldwide.”

Great! Eric and I thought.

“One hundred dollars,” he said.

That seemed awfully low, and we looked at each other. We tried to get him to up the offer.

“This is Colombia. Nobody cares about Colombia,” he said. Then he added, “I’m buying the photo because it’s good, but I don’t think we’ll have many buyers.”

This was the biggest event in Colombia in years and he still thought it wouldn’t matter. Maybe he was trying to lowball us, but he was quite adamant. It was one hundred dollars or nothing.

So we reluctantly accepted, and he gave us cash.

As we left his office, he added, “You know… I’ve seen all the shots that were taken today, and yours are clearly the best ones. You should go to El Tiempo. They’ll probably want them.”

El Tiempo is the country’s newspaper of reference. Getting our photo there — and why not on the front page? — would be the consecration of our nascent photojournalism careers.

We arrived at the headquarters of El Tiempo at night. It was pitch-black in the parking lot where we left the car.

“What do you want?” the guard asked us as we walked in.

“We’re here to see Enrique Santos,” I told him. Santos was the newspapers’ editor. “We have the photo for the front page,” I added, showing him the photo Reuters had chosen to license.

He looked at the photo and frowned. He looked at me. “Wait here,” he said, pointing to a row of chairs. A few minutes later, he walked back and motioned for us to follow him.

He led us to a big room where a sense of excitement and chaos reigned. They were finishing the day’s edition. It had to be one of the most difficult editions they had ever put together. Enrique Santos shook my hand.

“So, you have a photo that can be of interest?” he said. “It better be very good because we’re done with tomorrow’s edition. We’re not changing it.”

He walked us to a big table where the newspaper mock-up edition was laid out. “See?” he said, showing us.

I looked at it and said, “No, here’s the photo for your front page.” I put my photo atop the one they had selected.

He looked at the photo intensely. I saw he liked it. Then he looked at Eric and me, shaking his head. He looked at the photo editor, still not believing what he was about to say. He looked again at the photo, and then looked at me.

“You’re right. This is a better photo.” He ordered the designer to change the layout of the newspaper to include this photo on the front page of the next day’s edition.

We shook hands, and, walking on a little cloud, Eric and I left the building.

I drove Eric home and then went to bed. By now, the Palace of Justice was in flames, spewing acrid smoke and lighting the Bogota sky with an orange tinge. Many people disappeared that day, some still unaccounted for and under circumstances that remain mysterious and highly contentious.

The morning of November 6, 1985, I had woken up a nobody. The next day, my name would be printed on all the major publications in the world, including the New York Times and Newsweek.

In the end, for Eric and me, it was ni plata ni plomo. We hardly made any money. But — unlike the more than one hundred people who died in the Palace of Justice inferno — we did not get killed.

And Pablo Escobar never got extradited.

Jean-Noel Frydman