Explosive climbing, bags filled with millions of dollars and a very slow, painful murder. The story of Alberto "Chispitas" Duarte

Alberto Duarte receives a trophy for winning the Vuelta de la Juventud (Photo: Historia Del Ciclismo Santandereano)

In the late 1960, as Colombia's interest in cycling grew exponentially, so too did the number of races throughout the country. One such race was the Vuelta al Sur (the Tour of the South), which despite it's name, never really ventured much into Colombia's southern territories. In the Vuelta al Sur's 1968 edition, an unknown rider from the city of Bucaramanga was seven minutes down in the general classification going into the last stage. That last stage would take the riders from Honda (a small, warm-climate town mostly known as a popular vacation spot), to the capital city of Bogota.

As with most bike races in Colombia, the last stage in the Vuelta al Sur passed through several completely different climate zones, from Honda's infernal humid heat, to the fog-filled chilly peaks of the Andes, and eventually into Bogota's rainy and often chilly afternoons. The most decisive climb was to be the Alto de Boqueron, a relatively short climb that hangs precariously from the side of the mountain, and features one memorable landmark roughly half way up the climb: The Devil's Nose.

La Nariz Del Diablo (The Devil's Nose) is this stubborn rock formation that failed to fall into the cliff to the right, when dynamite was originally used to build this road. When passing by, trucks and large buses come precariously close to crashing into it. For those of us who grew up in Bogota, and often took family road trips that went by this unusual landmark, it was almost law that if you fell asleep in the car, your parents would have to wake you up before going under, so you could see it up close, always a freightening ordeal at highway speeds on this winding road.

Despite the ominous nature of the last climb that day, the stage was considered a formality. The general classification, it was thought, had been settled. But to everyone's surprise, by the time the peloton passed under the Devil's Nose, the race had already been turned upside down. The unknown rider from the city of Bucaramanga, the one who was seven minutes down on the general classification had attacked at the base of the climb. He had done so in such an explosive manner, that he quickly gained an advantage, and held his 7+ minute lead all the way into Bogota. His solo victory was unbelievable, in part because hardly anyone knew who he was. Journalists and broadcasters began to think of possible nicknames for the rider, but in true Colombian style, he already had one. He was Alberto "Chispitas" Duarte. Chispitas meaning "little sparks". As it turned out, Duarte had had the nickname from the time he was an altar boy. It was then, that the priest he assisted noted his upbeat demeanor, and unbelievable wit. He gave him the nickname. As a rider, the nickname stuck due to Duarte's powerful, and explosive climbing abilities. When he attacked, sparks flew.

A reception in honor of Duarte's victory in the Vuelta a Guatemala. He's in the center, in a white suit. (Photo: Historia Del Ciclismo Santandereano)

Over the next few years, Chispitas would go on to win the presstigious Vuelta de la Juventud, he was the best young rider at the Vuelta a Colombia and was the king of the mountains at the Vuelta a Guatemala in 1972. He became one of the best Colombian climbers, as he raced with the Nectar-Cundinamarca team. But as with all cyclists, his career came to an end. Colombian cyclists would not be allowed to really race professionally until 1984, so in the late 1970s, Duarte decided to hang up his bike in order to earn a living wage. He began working as a customs agent at Bogota's El Dorado airport, eventually managing the warehouse that held international packages coming in and out of the country. Friends said that Duarte had some association with Pablo Escobar and his brother (likely as a result of their involvement in the sport), and over time, Chispitas began to look the other way as packages came through the warehouse he managed. But as was often the case with such matters, saying "yes" to men like Pablo Escobar once, could often lead to other offers. Duarte's case was no different.

Duarte's team returns to Bucaramanga after he won the Vuelta de la Juventud. Duarte is fourth from the left, wearing a dark jacket and holding a trophy in each hand. 

As far back as the early 1980s, drug traffickers had a problem. Millions and millions of dollars in cash from drug sales sat in the United States, waiting to be returned to Colombia. Large shipments were often distributed by Colombian middlemen in the U.S., who were paid for in cash. Eventually, safe houses all over Florida and Texas were literally filled with cash. Unable to deposit or launder such large amounts of money in the United States, traffickers like Escobar began to pay mules, not to take drugs into the United States and Europe, but instead to bring cash back to Colombia. This, by the way, was before Escobar devised an ingenious plan.

In the late 80s, Pablo Escobar began buying exotic animals in the United States for his large country estate. Tigers, lions, zebras and countless other animals were transported by plane in large cages, which had false bottoms. Underneath the animals, as well as pounds of their excrement and urine were millions and millions of dollars. As one might expect, no customs agent was willing to get into a cage with a lion or tiger in order to push its feces aside, allowing him to take a closer look at it's cage. Escobar's plan worked, and he was soon charging other traffickers a fee to bring their money back to Colombia.

But before Escobar thought to use animal cages to transport cash back, the operation was done much more simply, by men and women who flew out with empty suitcases, and came back with unbelievable amounts of cash, or simply moved that money around to other countries. One of Escobar's most trusted men, Jaime Gaviria (his first cousin) would routinely bring back as many as 50 million dollars a month back into Colombia for him. Going unnoticed was difficult since a million dollars in $100 bills can weigh close to 25 pounds (11kg), and takes up a bit of space. Throw in smaller bills, as was often the case, and the problem grows exponentially. It was in this business, transporting massive amounts of cash, that Chispitas Duarte became involved in during the 1980s.

An elephant at Escobar's estate lifts up John Henry Millan, one of the most ruthless killers in Escobar's inner circle. Today, Millan is a born-again Christian, and a pastor. You can see his website here

Little is known about Duarte's time shuttling money from the United States back into Colombia. In fact, almost nothing would be known of it, were it not for the fact that an old friend and fellow rider named Climaco Guzman ran into Duarte, by mere chance, on a flight to Panama. Guzman (who remains involved in the sport, and currently coaches his department's track team) noticed an unusual detail about his run-in with Duarte. In the book Kings of The Mountains, he told Matt Rendel that Duarte was "traveling with a large suitcase" and that when he opened it, to put a stolen airplane blanket inside, Guzman could see that the luggage was empty. Guzman went on to say that Duarte "spent a few days in Panama, before taking an onward flight to the United States." Once in Houston, Texas, Duarte was detained, after he could not explain the massive amounts of cash in his possession. US authorities investigated the matter, and kept him in captivity for fifteen months, but eventually freed him. Some time later, he went on to be detained in Costa Rica for similar reasons, but it was what happened while he was detained for fifteen months that would go on to change his life. It was a strange and grim tale, which he spoke about upon returning to Colombia.

According to Duarte, during his time in custody, his captors had restrained him, and injected him with blood that was HIV positive. According to Chispitas, and as reported in Rendell's book, the men who injected him with the blood told him to "Go to Colombia and die".

With that, Duarte became a ticking time bomb of sorts, knowing all too well the fate that awaited him. His would be, to use Garcia Marquez's words, the chronicle of a death foretold. A slow and agonizing murder.

In 1989, at only five months old, Duarte's son died of an unreported illness.

On December 28, 1990, Alberto "Chispitas" Duarte Bernal died of AIDS. He was only 38 years old.

In 1992, his widow also succumbed to AIDS.

Bucaramanga is the capital of the department of Santander. Jose Serpa Perez, who recently announced his signing with Lampre, is from this city of 1.2 million. So was Tour d'lAvenir winner Alfonso Florez

The circumstances under which Duarte died were both ghastly and bizarre, even by Colombia's hardened standards of the day. Perhaps because of this, the article about Duarte's death in the El Tiempo newspaper was unusually vague. It stated that Duarte had died of "an embarrassing/shameful illness that kept him bedridden for the last year." and that he had come back to city of Bucaramanga two years prior, after "having lived in Central America and the United States."

Duarte's story is a difficult one to tell, particularly for someone like me, who often tries to convey the numerous positive aspects of a place like Colombia. Having said that, such stories should be told because they show that consumption of any kind has endless effects that often affect others far, far away. These stories should also be told because they show just how much things have changed throughout Colombia, and in turn prove the strength of the Colombian spirit.

In the end, Duarte's story, like so many others in Colombian cycling, illustrate exactly why fiction, as a literary genre, is so unpopular in Colombia when compared to other countries.

With realities like this, why bother with fiction?


As of yesterday, Cycling Inquisition, has now entered its fourth year. As was the case when I started the blog, I'm still unsure as to where this thing is going. It could keep going for a long time, but it could also end tomorrow. We'll see. Either way, thank you for reading, for your orders, emails and for leaving comments.