I came into 2019 on the Colombian/Venezuelan border with a head full of LSD in the company of a stunningly beautiful woman in a red dress. Marcela was all dressed up to go dancing, but once we started drinking, we never managed to leave the house.
She was about to break my heart for the dozenth time. It was madness.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine a more fitting entrance into a year in which half the world caught on fire.
We drank till dawn. cracking jokes and dancing on the balcony before she fell asleep in my arms.
That morning seems as if it happened years ago.
Since then I’ve seen a failed revolution, riots in four countries, the inside of a Venezuelan interrogation cell, unimaginably breath-taking beach-side sunsets, dawn in the andean mountaintops, people shot, mad-max scenes of indigenous tribes fighting police with spears in the streets of Quito, watched a friend exiled from his country, toured neighborhoods run by narcos that the Colombian police won’t enter and walked hundreds of miles with penniless refugees.
That’s just the synopsis, there’s a lot more.
I decided I was going to become a journalist in late 2018. I didn’t go to school for journalism, but I have two things a lot of people who did don’t — a broken sense of self-preservation and an inexhaustible curiosity about chaos.
People also tell me I have a sense for the dramatic, which is probably true, but all writers have that. It’s a prerequisite for the job. We chase stories. How could we do that without a radar for drama?
The tricky part is not allowing all the chaos to spill into your personal life. That’s a point of weakness for me.
Twenty-three days after I greeted 2019 drunk, hallucinating and high on love, Venezuela broke into open revolution. I had been writing about immigration for months without much success from my apartment in Cucuta, Colombia.
Suddenly editors started responding to my pitches. When the political crisis erupted, I was one of maybe ten English speakers on the entire border. Wrong place right time? Or was it right-place wrong time? I still wonder about that.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to get as close to war as I’ve ever been. The next few months would define my burgeoning journalism career and force me to rethink every political assumption I’d ever held.
I would also redefine who I am and what I want from this ephemeral, fleeting life.
I was re-forged in fire, thrown into a world I never imagined could exist outside of literature — completely shattered into a million pieces before being put back together by an amalgamation of refugee tales, violence, booze, love-notes that would never arrive to their intended recipients, riots, bombings and contraband murders.
Part One: Life on a deadly border
I had been in Cucuta for about three months when Venezuela rose up in open rebellion. Cucuta is a fascinating place; the border city is the main point of entry into Colombia for the Venezuelan exodus. As I write this, 4.5 million people have fled that collapsed country. It is the biggest mass-migration in the continents modern history.
Cucuta has a long history of cross-border trade with its Venezuelan sister-cities of San Cristobal and Urenas, both legal and contraband. Guerrillas, paramilitaries and narcos fight to control territory for the smuggling of gasoline, cocaine, food and people in a three-way shadow war.
Cucuta is a relatively safe city, but the outlying regions are hubs of violence, extortion and even bombings. Amidst this backdrop, millions flee a collapsing country, often with nothing more than blankets and backpacks.
I passed my days talking to immigrants. They told me stories of starvation, torture, hospitals without medicine or even basic sanitation, rampant corruption and violent oppression of political dissidents.
I began to hear dark stories about the Colectivos, the civilian militias who act as informal enforcers of terror for the Maduro regime, FAES, the special police forces who are little more than death-squads and torture specialists and SEBIN, the feared intelligence branch that prosecute dissidents under vague “terrorism” laws that are interpreted so broadly they allow the regime to imprison virtually anyone they want.
When Juan Gauido declared himself president of Venezuela and hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Caracas on January 23rd, there was a palpable excitement among Venezuelans around the world. A global diaspora saw the hopeful moment as a possibility to escape the iron fist of a cruel and corrupt regime that had been killing them for years. That isn’t how things turned out though.
On Feb 23rd the United States, Colombia, Chile and Brazil organized an attempt to push humanitarian aid into Colombia. The idea was to attempt to try and force mass-desertions; officials hoped that Venezuelan forces wouldn’t fire on their countrymen who were trying to deliver medicine and food. The envisioned Venezuelan National guardsmen laying down their rifles and joining the convoy.
It was an abject failure. The first of many that would occur over the next few months at the hands of an inept opposition and a bungling US State Department.
I was working with two reporters from Caracas when the plan went sideways. Maduro ordered his Colectivos to the border to reinforce the National Guard, and it turned out that they would indeed fire upon their countrymen, with vigor.
By nightfall they were using real ammunition on anyone trying to cross the border, and for days there were murders in the informal paths across the border. Anyone on the Colombian side was assumed to be a traitor, and many Venezuelans who participate in the complicated cross-border economy found themselves trapped.
That was the first time in my life I ever saw anyone shot, but in the days following the botched aid-attempt I would see many, and I would hear about even more.
The Colectivos never left the border. Instead they joined the shadow-war over the lucrative smuggling trails. It’s a story no one in the media really talks about, but gunfights and bombings are common. I saw a few, and couldn’t get the stories placed because, well, no one cares.
The walk to Bogota
In May I left the border and walked with some of the millions of Venezuelans fleeing their country. We travelled over 600 kilometers, mostly on foot. That journey was heartbreaking. Refugees were constantly asking to use my phone to send messages to loved ones.
As a result of which, my phone became a repository of their replies, which would arrive hours later, long after I had left the company of the immigrants who had briefly used my phone at a shelter or resting-point on the road.
My prince, I am glad you are well, and I am sorry about the blisters on your feet. I send you my love, you are my life. You will endure. And when you arrive in Chile, it won’t be long until I join you.
I await you, you are my life and my heart. Never forget that you go with God
Over time my phone filled up with messages of love and hope that would never reach their intended recipients; incredibly intimate insights into the lives of those fleeing a collapsed country.
I arrived in Bogota after 8 days on the road, sick and utterly exhausted. Most of our group was continuing on to other cities, to Ecuador, to Peru. I was headed to bed — preferably for a week.
The strength of the Venezuelan people is an inspiring quality to behold, I dont know how they do it. To flee on foot without a penny, often to places where they know no one, carrying their hopes in the hearts and leaving behind their country of birth and family, is a strength I’m not sure I could muster.
Part Two: The Northern Wanderings
After recovering from the journey to Bogota on foot, I headed north from Cucuta along the Venezuelan border, a trip that would have a dramatic end.
I stumbled into a human trafficking operation controlled by Colombian paramilitaries in Aguachica, saw the Atlantic coast for the first time and crawled along thousands of kilometers of Andean mountain roads before ending up in Maicao, to work on a story for Al Jazeera about contraband gasoline, a black-market empire more lucrative than cocaine production.
That’s when I got arrested by Venezuelan intelligence, who threatened to charge me with espionage and terrorism. I was lucky. My partner saved my life, and his reward for doing so was permanent exile from his country.
I was put on leave from Al Jazeera for creating problems. I wandered the coasts of Colombia for two months looking for stories, writing from a friends house on the beach and watching the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life.
I met a Venezuelan woman in Cartagena who had been arrested for letting protesters into her house in 2017, who witnessed grave physical and sexual abuse. I met a prostitute working in Santa Marta who is saving money to buy a passport and take her child to Spain.
Eventually I found work for a story in Buenaventura on the decaying peace process. Buenaventura is one of the most neglected and criminal-controlled cities in Colombia.
People in Buenaventura speak of the “invisible frontiers” of the city — sections such as Antonio Nariño and La Planta, that police cannot enter. Violence is commonplace in these lawless zones and residents keep silent due to fear of the criminal groups that have carved out private fiefdoms in the city.
I toured them with a community leader who showed me the scenes of 11 homicides that had occurred in a month.
I went to Cauca, then passed time in Cali speaking with Red Cross workers who work in the region — some of whom spend their days searching for the dead bodies of those who have dissapeared due to narco and Ex-FARC mafia conflicts in the region.
In August I went to Ecuador, to report on a land race of tens of thousands of Venezuelans racing to across Colombia to reach Ecuador before new visa rules went into effect. I saw a lot of tears, and photographed the last Venezuelan to enter Ecuador without a passport.
Part three: Latin America in flames
Half of Latin America caught fire in a wave of protests that swept the continent from Puerto Rico to Bolivia. So when an indigenous protest erupted in Ecuador over an end to gasoline subsidies in order to obtain an IMF loan, I packed my gear and headed out.
The only assignment I had was a mini-documentary for Al Jazeera, who would spike the story once protests ended. I lost lot of money on the trip to the Battle of Quito, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
For twelve days I photographed an apocalyptic brawl in the streets between indigenous protesters armed and riot police. Parque el Ejido, where the protests were concentrated, devolved into a war-zone in the fiercest riots I have ever seen in my life.
I swallowed a lot of tear-gas. And when the indigenous won, forcing the government to bend to their will, I teared up one last time without the aid of the gas I had become so accustomed to.
I wandered north again, crossing the Ecuador/Colombia border 6 times illegally in two days for another story about immigration and borders. Then it was three days on a bus as I headed back to Santa Marta, Colombia to visit a legal marijuana farm for a story that Al Jazeera has assured me for months will be coming out any day.
I had effectively been on the road 6 months scrounging for stories and work, but there would be no rest for the weary.
A National Strike in Bogota started on November 21st, as the flames of Latin America spread to the capital of Colombia. The first day was a battle in the streets as police attacked protesters without provocation. The next day I woke up under military curfew, a first for me.
The protests have since calmed down, resembling costumed dance parties more than fights in the street, and though as I write this they are on pause for the holiday season, they are sure to pick up again in January.
Shelter from the Storm
So now I wait in Bogota. I send emails in the eternal quest for work, I stress about the amount of money in my bank account and I write.
There will be no more war-zones or criminal territories for me at least until the end of January. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the pressure, all the tragedy and all the stress affected me this year. All the violence became normalized. I was taking too many risks and stopped being affected by the tragedies.
I need a month to remember and celebrate what it means to not be in danger, to not encounter overwhelming tragedy — to just live.
I want to keep telling the stories, and I will jump back into the fire. There’s no way I’m letting 2019 be my peak, no matter how dramatic it was, but we need to guard our humanity to tell the stories properly.
I’m looking forward to a few weeks without drama. I’m broke and I have no idea where the next job is coming from, but I’m still here. I’ve never been more passionate about what I do for a living. So what’s next?
I have no idea. But I do know one thing.
I will see you at the riots.
Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter.