Confronted with my own mortality, in the form of a silver revolver held fifteen inches from my face, the world around me came to a quiet standstill. Instinct took over. There was no time to think. There were no options to consider. I did what I had to do, and I did it without delay.
On March 5, 2011, Freddie, a twenty-something UK man was riding in a friend’s car in the Belen neighborhood of Medellin. At a stoplight, two men tried to rob him of a gold chain. According to reports, he resisted, and was shot fatally in the chest.
When I read the news on Colombia Reports earlier in the year, it sent chills down my spine. Belen is a large, working class neighborhood on the Western side of the city. I lived there for five weeks in 2010, and visited monthly to extend my tourist visa in Colombia.
The story reiterated my conviction that if I was ever robbed in South America, whether the assailant was visibly armed or not, I would hand over whatever was in my possession.
June 15 started like any other day. I roused myself out of bed around 9 AM, and opened the blinds to expose the western mountains of Medellin, as well as my view toward barrio Belen. I’d been back in Colombia four months, and was due to extend my tourist visa for another 30 days. After three years in the country, the process was second nature to me.
June 15 also happens to be payday in Colombia, which means more people are visiting ATM’s to withdraw cash, and more thieves are on the prowl to take advantage.
I showered, dressed, and walked out the door with 150,000 pesos ($40) cash. Half this sum would go toward the 72,350 peso deposit required to extend my visa. The other half would help pay for taxis to and from the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) office.
In addition, I was carrying my four year old passport, the one I’d taken around the world with me to more than 22 countries since 2007. In my front left jean pocket was my Blackberry. In my back left pocket was a pack of gum, and in my back right pocket, my Virginia driver’s license and a few business cards. Aside from the passport, these were the things I normally carried around with me.
Leaving my apartment complex, I walked ten minutes north, through discoteca-laden barrio Colombia, to the Premium Plaza mall. I stepped inside the cool, air-conditioned Banco Davivienda and waited in line for a teller. I deposited the pesos, and collected my bank receipt to take to DAS.
Outside Premium Plaza, I walked to the first yellow taxi in a long line, got in the front seat, and instructed the driver. Both of the front windows were down, as is often the case during the day given Medellin’s amicable climate.
It was 11:15 AM as we pulled into traffic. I was fiddling with my Blackberry — checking Twitter no doubt. In the past, I’ve had the occasional taxi driver warn me to keep my phone away from the open window, as to prevent theft. Usually that’s not an issue, as I use my phone more for messaging and internet access than talking to people.
We crossed Rio Medellin, the river that bisects the city from north to south, and were heading west on Calle 33, a main thoroughfare known for its nightlife on the weekends. The taxi came to a halt at a traffic light. We were close to a large intersection, but there were cars in front of us, to the right, and possibly to the left as well.
From my peripheral vision, I noticed a dark shape moving up the right side of the taxi toward my window. Thinking it was a beggar, street performer, or vendor selling something, I instinctively moved my Blackberry toward the center of the car. There was no thought involved. I was operating on some primal intuition that a threat was approaching.
When I looked back to the right, the man had stopped in front of the window, blocking my entire view in that direction. At eye level, I was looking straight at a dull, silver revolver being held flush against his stomach, pointing toward the front of the car. He was holding it in his left hand, which I imagine was on purpose to leave his dominant right hand free to collect my belongings. The gun looked cheap and old.
He was wearing a helmet, and I don’t recall if he said anything, but when I saw the gun, words weren’t necessary. My number was up, I was being robbed in South America. As quickly as I’d moved my Blackberry away from the window, I swung it back to him without hesitation.
I reached into my front right pocket and pulled out the 75,000 or so pesos ($40) still on me. I gave that to him too, and then he reached into the car and felt my pocket to see if I was holding out on him. It was then that I was most scared, because I was acutely aware that if he perceived any resistance on my part, he could decide to shoot me.
I pulled out my passport, while at the same time saying “solo pasaporte” to in some way indicate that there would be no value of that item to him, only frustration for me should I lose it. Either I was wrong, or in that moment he didn’t care what I was giving him, so as long as it was everything. As soon as he grabbed the passport, he was gone.
I sat buckled in my seat, stunned at what had just happened.
The light changed green within seconds, and traffic began to move. The whole interaction didn’t last more than 30 – 60 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
I didn’t think to look backwards to try and get the motorbike’s license plate (an accomplice was driving it), nor did I see which direction they sped off (but I believe it was to the right of us…not in front).
The taxi driver, a middle-aged man, said and did nothing during the interaction. If ever there was a picture of calm and collected, it was this man to my left. And while some may consider him complicit, as far as I’m concerned, when a gun is involved, it’s in everyone’s best interest to stay out of it.
My initial response was anger. Anger that I was holding my Blackberry out in plain view, albeit in my lap. “Estupido” I proclaimed, (wrongly) blaming myself for inviting the theft.
I asked, rhetorically, why he would want my passport? Maybe he could sell it to counterfeiters, but it was just as likely to end up in a trash bin when he realized there was no immediate value to it. Meanwhile, I would have to take time away from work, and incur the travel expenses to Bogota, and the administrative expenses of obtaining an emergency, and later regular, passport.
I felt bitter that a city I was trying to help would repay me with such a terrifying experience.
I felt sad that this experience only served to justify other people’s preconceived notions about the safety of Medellin and Colombia.
The taxi driver said little, nor did he offer to call the police at any point. But I wasn’t going to let my only witness go without giving an official account.
Arriving at DAS
Upon reaching DAS, he parked his car, and came to the entrance with me, where he relayed the robbery in Spanish to the female guard. She took his name and license plate, and asked that he wait for us to return.
Inside the DAS office, which was all but empty, the guard relayed the story to a man with a shiny silver badge hanging from his neck. He immediately called the local police. We walked back outside to the sidewalk, and within a few minutes, a motorbike arrived with two young police officers.
One of the officers immediately began to reassure me, and then we both walked over to the taxi driver who gave his best account of what happened, including a limited description of the perpetrator. As he was wearing a helmet, and possibly sunglasses, I knew the chances of catching him were slim to none. But I also knew it was important to get these details for an official police report.
As the taxi driver was giving his account, a police car arrived. When he was finished, he reached into his taxi and gave me a business card. His parting words, “not all Colombians are bad.”
I climbed in the back seat of the air-conditioned cop car. Two men got in the front and drove us to the nearby Belen police station. The one in the passenger seat made small talk, asking me where I was from and what I thought of the city.
I imagine that’s something they teach in the emergency services. A kind of redirection of thought for those who’ve just experienced a traumatic event. Either that or it’s simply human nature.
Despite being surrounded by police, I was on edge. Hyper-sensitive to everything going on around me.
Belen Police Station
As we entered the police station, a Volkswagen minivan was filling up with police and heading out. I wondered if VW had won a recent contract with the city’s police force to supply new vehicles.
Inside the station, I was introduced to an officer who spoke a little English. Two months worth to be exact, but I was happy to have his assistance.
I was brought to another room where I had to wait for a woman to finish her business with a large man who appeared to be a senior level officer. Jefe, he was called by the others.
The small talk continued, and the translator asked my thoughts of the police station. I had already taken note that it was a handsome building, with exposed concrete walls giving both a sense of strength and austerity. I asked if it was new, and he said yes. I responded that it was nice.
When the woman had completed her report with el jefe, I switched seats, and recounted the story, including the items stolen from me.
The chief was annoyed with the slowness of his computer, but after ten minutes, an official one page report was printed off. I was given a copy, which would be required to explain my loss at the US Embassy in Bogota, as well as the DAS office when I returned to get my visa extended.
If I had travel insurance, I would’ve used it to file a claim as well. Unfortunately, a lot of insurance policies do not cover Colombia because it is on the US State Department travel warning list (along with other popular destinations such as Mexico, Israel, and Kenya).
Two new police officers were tasked with driving me home in another of the new VW minivans. More small talk ensued.
What did I think of the city? Did I have a girlfriend? Aren’t the women in Medellin beautiful?
Home, Sweet Home
When we reached my apartment, I climbed out of the van. The officer in the passenger seat did as well, taking a moment to write his name and phone number on a piece of paper, should I need anything.
Later that night, I mentioned the theft to my new Colombian roommate. He asked if I would be leaving the country.
No, I responded, I would stay until early August as planned.
Travel is my life now, and I’ve worked too hard to give that up out of fear alone.