I Was Kidnapped by a Colombian Guerilla Army
Journalists go deep. Sometimes they go so deep into a story they lose track of where the story ends and their private life begins. Correspondent Confidential is a series of illustrated documentary shorts narrated by award-winning journalists. Newspaper reporters, documentary filmmakers, radio producers, and journalists tell personal stories about the harrowing—and hilarious—experiences they’ve had on the job while reporting on some of the world’s most high-profile issues and events.
Reporter T. Christian Miller was based in Colombia during the height of the US government’s war on drugs. As the US began to pour money into fighting the cocaine trade in Colombia, it inevitably spilled over into fighting the rebel groups that controlled—and “taxed”—the areas where coca plants were grown. When Miller went into the jungle to report on a government helicopter that was shot down during a mission to spray coca plants, he and his assistant were kidnapped by the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla army.
Unaccompanied Miners: Down the Shaft with Bolivia’s Child Laborers
In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. “The place is like… my own mental picture of hell,” he wrote of the experience. “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” Orwell was a lanky guy, 6’3” or 6’2”, and I am too. So I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn’t have turned around—or turned back—even if I’d wanted to.
Orwell wasn’t the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tio, or “the Uncle,” to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I’d offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he’d disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn’t reply, my photographer Jackson turned to me and coughed. “I’m freaking out,” he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani’s path through the hot, sulfur-stinking tunnel.
The Last-Ever Interview with the Leaders of Peru’s Shining Path Guerrilla Army
This August, newspapers in Peru splashed headlines across their front pages about the huge blow the government had dealt to what is left of the infamous Shining Path—a brutal Maoist guerrilla group who have spent the last 20 years hanging out in the jungle slaughtering peasants and smuggling coke. The headlines announced to the world thatComrade Alipio, the group’s military leader, had been killed.
Alipio’s death was as cartoonish as it was emphatic. A cocaine trafficker who had links to the Shining Path, but who’d turned informant for the police, lured an armed column of rebels towards a hut that he owned. Most of the fighters stayed outside, guarding the building while Comrade Alipio and two other Shining Path bigwigs, Comrades Gabriel and Alfonso, went into what was meant to be a safe house, expecting to meet some ladies of the night that the drug trafficker had organized for them.
Crucially, what Alipio and company didn’t know was that the army had rigged the house with ANFO explosives. As soon as the three rebels had made themselves comfortable, the whole hut went up in one big blast. The charred bodies had to be identified through DNA tests.
As soon as news of the killing came out, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing: I have the arguable privilege of being the only journalist to have met Comrade Alipio, and the local media were desperate for a soundbite.
Back in September 2010, I received a call on behalf of the leadership of the Shining Path, who had agreed to meet me if I travelled, unaccompanied, to Peru’s Valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers, known by the acronym VRAEM. It’s a jungle region that routinely serves as the battleground between armed forces and drug lords. The Shining Path contacted me after I sent them a message while I was reporting in the area, tailing some anti-narcotics police patrols a few months prior.
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
Tim Page’s Vietnam War
Tim Page is a photojournalist of the old school. He arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1965, when he was 20 years old. Over the next few years, Tim saw enough Agent Orange and Viet Cong to last anyone a lifetime, but he didn’t stop going to dangerous places and taking incredible photos.
After Vietnam, Tim freelanced for Rolling Stone while travelling the world, with stopovers in Laos, Cambodia, Bosnia, and elsewhere. In 2009 he was a UN Photographic Peace Ambassador in Afghanistan. He has set up charity organizations like the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation, which honors the legacy of journalists who died covering wars in that region through workshops and tutoring programs, and mentored young photographers throughout Southeast Asia. Oh, and he’s the author of nine books, including the widely acclaimed Requiem, a collection of pictures from photographers who died in the Vietnam War.
I recently got the chance to share a joint with Tim and talk about his time in the Vietnam War, his time in the world since then, and the impending doom of photojournalism.
VICE: Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Tim Page: No, I had no idea. When I finally left Europe I was planning to be in Australia for Christmas, 1962. I got as far as Lahore in West Pakistan. After I left England for Europe, I worked at the Heineken brewery and a chewing gum factory. I worked as a chambermaid, sous-chef, and also smuggled hash from the Khyber region in Pakistan. I had 15 pounds to get to Australia when I left Europe.
Fifteen pounds of hash?!
No, 15 pounds cash. We sold blood in Greece; I was also an extra in a film in Bombay. I gradually sold off all my possessions—I was down to like two sets of clothes. I’d sold everything else: the cameras, my clothes, even our entire plastic cutlery set… I sold my Kombi van to a bunch of crooked Sikhs—that enabled me to fly to Thailand via Burma. I had a really freaky month in Burma. When I ended up getting to Thailand I sold cod liver oil pills, flashlight bulbs, cheap watches, and encyclopedias and taught English. We used to go up to Laos and buy ten cartons of French-style black tobacco cigarettes, which were about one dollar a carton, and we’d come back to Bangkok and sell them for a dollar a pack. During the second day in Laos I bumped into a few Americans that told me US Aid was hiring third-party nationals to run Lao crews.
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Correspondent Confidential: I Posed as a Prostitute in a Turkish Brothel
Scrap or Die: Metal Thieves Are Tearing Cleveland Apart Piece by Piece
One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson. Dressed like a plumber with a crumpled blue baseball cap on his head, Jay’s muscular physique belied the fact that he was once a crackhead. These days his life still revolves around illegally acquired goods, but not ones smoked, snorted, or injected: Jay makes his living stripping copper and steel from abandoned buildings like the one we were sneaking into, selling his yield by the pound to scrapyards for quick cash.
“Scrapping is just like being an entrepreneur,” he said, leading me toward a gaping hole in one of the warehouse’s walls, which we then scurried through. “It’s just a job, and you can make as much money as you put into it.”
Earlier that day, I’d used Google Street View to map out our jaunt through the epicenter of the city’s thriving scrap trade, the neighborhood known as Central (counterintuitively located on the east side of town). But the building Jay and I broke into looked completely different from what I had seen on my computer screen. The photos on Google, taken in 2009, showed a tidy vacant office building with nearly all of its windows intact and sturdy wooden boards blocking off its many entrances. But now it looked like the aftermath of a drone bombing in Afghanistan: every window was blown out, every orifice torn open. The stinking carcass of a rodent was splayed on the floor. The drop ceiling had been ripped down, revealing empty tracks where ventilation, piping, and wires once snaked through the building. I couldn’t believe that we were only a ten-minute drive from the stadiums, skyscrapers, and fine dining of downtown Cleveland.
The place may have looked like a dump to me, but to Jay it was a treasure trove of unknown proportions. “I could bring my torches in here and cut that steel box right over there,” he said, tiptoeing as he critiqued the work of the scrappers who’d already hit the spot, rattling off a litany of different ways to dissemble the building “properly.”
Anabel Hernandez Thinks the Mexican Government Is Behind the Country’s Drug War
On January 19, 2001, the head of Mexico’s largest drug cartel escaped from his maximum security prison. According to Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloas cartel, was escorted through the prison dressed as a government official—accompanied by conspiring government officers—and out to a helicopter that whisked him away to sweet, sweet freedom. The official government report, however, claims that El Chapo escaped in a laundry bin, which—given he’s only 5 foot 5 inches and looks like Super Mario—seems plausible, albeit slightly unlikely.
If what Hernandez found while researching Guzmán’s escape is true, it’s pretty much the pinnacle of the government corruption that she alleges has aided Mexico’s drug cartels throughout their long and bloody grip over the country.
Hernandez was looking into El Chapo’s escape as part of the research for her new book,Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, which investigates the Mexican government and business elite’s ties to the country’s drug cartels. In the book, she claims that ex-president Vicente Fox started the war between Mexico’s cartels, and that—since El Chapo’s release—the government has continued to conspire with the Sinaloa cartel, allowing the web of corruption that keeps Mexico’s cartels thriving to keep on growing.
We spoke to Anabel earlier this year after another discovery led to the Mexican chief of police allegedly instructing his men to make her disappear by any means necessary. Now that her book has had its English-language release, I thought I’d get in touch again to talk about the discoveries Anabel made while investigating the Mexican government’s complicity in their country’s drug trade.
Ex-Mexican president Vicente Fox. (Photo via)
VICE: Hi, Anabel. How would you describe the Mexican government’s war on drugs?
Anabel Hernandez: Ever since the 1960s in Mexico, the war on drugs has been fake—it has never existed. In the 60s, the federal government provided protection to all the cartels, letting them grow and continue their business while they paid money to the government. It wasn’t a bribe, it was like a tax; the Mexican government used that money for government projects. So, in the 80s and 90s, these medium-sized drug cartels and criminal organizations started to grow with money from cocaine. Mexico started to increase the scale of the cocaine that came from Colombia, then the Mexican cartels moved that drug into the USA.
Then what happened?
[The cartels] said, “Well, we don’t want to make an arrangement with the government—we don’t like the government telling us what we can do and what we can’t.” So, instead, they paid bribes to members of the government and the government started to lose control over the cartels. The cartels started to buy judges and congressmen, started to buy governors, police chiefs, and generals, and started to create their own world, on their terms.
Syrian Rebels Are Killing Each Other for Control
"Watch out—there are snipers on this street," warned the ISIS fighter as my driver stopped next to him and eight other heavily armed men who were preparing to head into battle. ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is an offshoot of al Qaeda currently operating on the battlegrounds of Syria.
He wouldn’t have guessed it, but we were all trying to reach the same place—the front line outside the headquarters of yet another of the militant groups fighting in Syria, Ahfad al-Rasul. This organization is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and had declared war on ISIS just a few hours earlier, for control of the provincial capital of Raqqa.
This was my third visit to the city in the four months since it had been “liberated,” as Syrians tend to refer to areas where rebels have managed to expel government troops.The battle against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Raqqa had only lasted for about a week—a sharp contrast to the fighting in Aleppo, where gunfights and shelling have continued for over a year since the conflict began.
Once rebels take control of an area, it is now standard procedure for the regime to respond by bombarding it with indiscriminate air strikes in the hope of killing swathes of anti-Assad fighters. But back in April, just weeks after the liberation, cheerful residents seemed to greet the inevitable trail of destruction as a good thing—a sign of the progress the rebels were making.
Recently, however, the tension has risen considerably in Raqqa and the atmosphere has completely changed, as the rebel resistance continues to splinter, pitting many groups who once fought side by side against Assad against each other. The original celebration of freedom has given way to fear and uncertainty.
A number of civil movements—both religious and secular—have also been trying to establish themselves in a bid to influence the future of the city and eventually the country. A group named Haqna, Arabic for “Our Right”, is one of the organizations leading the charge. Its logo, a hand making a V sign, the index finger marked with election ink, is spray-painted all over the city. Mostly made up of young local activists, Haqna is aiming to educate the population about their civil rights and the importance of elections.
Is Pauly Shore Trying to Troll VICE?
A couple of weeks ago, we ran a piece by Jonathan Daniel Brown about the time he interned for Pauly Shore. As you would expect, the article was about how Pauly is a douche and interning for him was miserable.
A couple of days after the post was published, a video called “More Disgruntled Pauly Shore Interns” was uploaded to YouTube.
The video was uploaded with this description: “Thank God finally someone let the cat out of the bag. Pauly Shore is the worst boss and I truly think he’s crazy. I am currently one of Pauly’s interns. After I post this hidden camera video of Pauly (being who he truly is) that another intern and I did I’m sure we will both be let go, which will be a relief. We are sick of his abuse! Thank you so much Jonathan for letting everybody know: Pauly Shore truly is an asshole.”