We stayed longer than we should have. It was always like that with Carlos Villalon. That’s what he does. He stays longer than anybody should.
On that occasion, back in 2005, we were in Putumayo with guerrillas from the 45th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) along the Ecuadorean border.
Carlos and I were doing work for the Miami Herald. We had traveled there with our colleague Karl Penhaul, who was working with CNN at the time, to see how the FARC was responding to an army offensive in what was, at the time, Colombia’s largest coca-producing department.
The army had established its base in a small village. On the other side of the river Rumiyaco, across a wooden footbridge, the rebels had been holding them at bay. We had crossed the river a couple of days before and spent time with the guerrillas as they maneuvered in area responsible for the production of nearly a third of Colombia’s cocaine.
They were well equipped with grenade launchers and plenty of munitions. But they were no match for Black Hawk helicopters, and when the military started its offensive to retake the area, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the bridge.
The guerrillas scrambled, and initially, we scrambled with them. As they began retreating towards the border with Ecuador, through the thick Putumayo brush, Carlos, Karl and I started a conversation (in English): Do we go into Ecuador with them? What if the helicopters start strafing this column? How can we get back across that bridge without getting shot?
I remember that it was getting dark. When it gets dark in the jungle, you cannot see the hand in front of your face much less what is front of your feet. The rebel walking in front of me -- a female soldier who may have reached the height of my shoulder -- was moving at a furious clip, and I was tripping as my shins were slamming into the high roots of the increasingly invisible trees. I had it easy. Carlos, who just ahead of me, was lugging all his cameras and film. Karl had video equipment.
At a certain point, after going back and forth among ourselves about staying or leaving the FARC, we decided it was safer to try to return to the military side before dark. We bid the rebels farewell. By the time we made it back to the bridge, helicopters were flying overhead towards where we’d left the guerrillas. Heavy fighting hadn’t yet begun, but we could see the army positioned on the other side of the river.
To figure out who would go first, we used the same system any three friends would: rock, paper, scissors. The odd person would take the lead. Karl lost. He removed his white T-shirt and began swinging it over his head as he walked slowly across the bridge yelling “periodista!” (journalist). Carlos and I followed, swinging our shirts and yelling “periodistas.” The army held its fire.
That was not an unusual trip with Carlos. He and I went to numerous places in Colombia together. We also traveled together to Haiti, where once more than a few men turned their guns and machetes towards us.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
In all of these trips, Carlos stayed, perhaps a little longer than he should, but he stayed. It is one of the things that makes him such an incredible photographer. But it isn't the only thing.
Carlos has the ability to make you forget he is holding his camera, even when he is pointing it right at your face or running through the dark jungle. He has a hard exterior and an expressionless face that reminds many of the actor Antonio Banderas, but he softens with his subjects, and they relax. Then he shoots -- softly, subtly.
As is evident in this short collection about coca and cocaine that he hopes to publish in a book, the images are timeless depictions of life on the edge, along the most infamous value chain in the world.
Carlos spent nearly two decades chronicling this market, from the coca growers to the traffickers to the users. It moves us beyond the numbers, the policies, the wargames, the posturing, the chemicals, the private contractors and the activists, and gets us to where it matters the most: the humans whose lives hang in the balance because of this illicit trade.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m objective. Carlos is a friend and longtime colleague, who has dragged me in and out of conflict zones on more than one occasion. But I am a journalist who has seen what this illegal market has wrought. And Carlos has been right there with me, and well beyond, staying way too long.
*Support Carlos Villalon’s Kickstarter campaign to publish his book here.