Omerta and violence. The cost of merely peeking into Colombia's doping trade.

Publishing this interview is not something I take lightly, for reasons that will become obvious as readers make their way through this post. Additionally, I'm the type of person who actively steers clear of drama (in today's youthful parlance) in his personal life. Within the realm of cycling, this usually means that I have limited interest in certain subjects, and writing about them. But when mere whispers become constant, deafening screams, they are difficult to ignore. This applies to several topics and occurrences, one of which is highlighted in the interview below.

Not long ago, I became aware of a Colombian writer who had tried to look into the sale of doping products, in an effort to write a story about it. But as you'll read below, this person only made it to the very first step in his investigation. What follows is a conversation about that event, with an individual who for the purposes of this post has chosen to remain anonymous. As stated earlier, I don't take this story, or publishing the interview lightly. As such, I've looked into the matter, asked for many other details which are not published here, and checked on facts and details with third parties whenever possible. 

In the end, it also pains me to publish this, because of the deep love I have for my country, Colombia. This blog was started in great part as a vehicle for me to share the positive and beautiful aspects of a country that is so often maligned by the press. I hope that this post doesn't change the (hopefully) positive view that readers have of a country that is full of hardworking and amazing people. One that can't be judged by the action of a tiny minority.

Furthermore, one must seriously ask: Is Colombia the only place in the world where the events that you're going to read about (or different ones that are still intended to intimidate) could have taken place? Also, is Colombia the only place where business dealings around these products happen so casually? In my opinion, you'd have to be naive to believe that's the case. 

In the end, this is not a Colombian problem. It's a world cycling problem. So don't read this and merely say, "oh that's Colombia". No. Read this and realize that this is cycling. 

When did you first decide to look into the sale of doping products in Colombia, and why?

Well, it was by mere chance really. Some years ago, and without much thought, I started a blog about cycling, with a Twitter account to go with it. This past year, as Colombia experienced a bit of a cycling boom, the blog and Twitter account began to grow almost overnight.

From spending time writing about cycling, I quickly fell into the vortex that is doping. I guess it’s an inevitable subject. Soon after, I was covering the Vuelta a Colombia on the road, and I became friendly with riders and others around the sport. They started to tell me how it all goes down, where they get these substances and that sort of thing. It’s an open secret here.

So I started to echo the sentiments of those who are advocates of clean cycling, and it was then that I decided to take a step further, and see with my own eyes if it was really as easy as I’d been told to get doping products here. 

So your original plan was to write and publish something on the matter?

Yes, and until a few days ago, that was the plan. I wanted to write a series on the blog explaining how the doping issue operates, how it’s hidden, how it’s sold and marketed. I was hoping that the issue would get enough attention that I would be able to show the links it has to parts of the media, and to those who profit from and help conceal that underworld. In my eyes, it’s clear that enforcement agencies should also come forward to explain acts of negligence or outright corruption around the topic. Now, after this attack, and a couple of conversations with Colombian cyclists who are abroad, I decided that this is definitely dangerous, and it’s generally not worth getting involved in something that is, in essence, a lost cause.

So let’s talk about specifics. How did you find out where to go in order to buy doping products? Was it easy to find out?

It was almost frighteningly easy actually. I mentioned my interest about this subject to a good friend, who is an amateur cyclist. He offered to show me a place where they sell “recovery aids.” That term is a euphemism for the sale of products ranging from dietary supplements to GW1516, which is the poison of choice these days [you can read more about GW1516 and AICAR use in cycling here, and here]. I also found out about delivery services, and massage therapists and team directors who offer these products at local stage races. It’s an established market, which everyone knows about.

And where did he tell you these products could be purchased?

A bike shop.

Clearly a good place to sell these products, but it’s sort of amazing that it's not in some hidden, out-of-the-way spot, but rather a business out in the open. Did that surprise you?

A bit. When I was first told about where these products could be purchased, I didn’t fully believe it. I thought the person who told me was exaggerating to get my attention. But yes, it’s indeed that simple.

In essence, the sale of these products is almost done openly. These are substances that are really only controlled in sporting environments. By this I mean that it’s not heroin or cocaine, which are illegal substances, and that merely having them on you will get you jail time. So in legal terms, I suppose buying EPO is similar to buying an aspirin.

Once you found out where the products are sold, how did you decide to actually go and have a look?

To be honest, I thought about it for a long time. Motivated by idealism, I told myself: I simply must do this. In retrospect, it was impulsive, and a bit naive of me.

Tell me about your experience that day, of going and asking for these products?

First, I went with this person, by bike, and went by the shop. I didn’t go in. It’s in [redacted], in Bogota. This person pointed out the place he knew sold these products as we went by, and we kept on riding.

Two or three days later, I went back to the shop. This time I went alone. My “informant," let’s call him, didn’t come with me. He didn’t want anything to do with that shop, or what they sell. He explained to me that I should first ask for dietary supplements. So the back story I invented with his help was that I was an amateur mountain biker, but that I wanted to start racing, but that I had tried my first race, and I had done very poorly.

So that’s what I did. I told them my story, and they quickly offered me protein in powder form, amino acid pills and things like that, the standard products. I explained that to the person at the shop that I was already using these supplements, and that I wanted to try other ones. I was immediately offered a service whereby they would inject me with “vitamins," and a spray that, I was told, “helps a lot” [it’s worth mentioning here that in Colombia legitimate pharmacists will often inject medicines into patients, and pharmacies also sell ampules of medicine, which patients can inject themselves, as a whole Colombia is less needle-averse].

So I asked about the spray, telling them that the shots seemed dangerous to me. At that point, I was shown a small container, which was clearly marked as GW1516. The information I had was correct, so I already knew how much they were going to ask me for the spray. So they said 400,000 Colombian Pesos [about $200 US dollars]. At that point, I said what I had planned all along to get out of the situation. That it was too much money for me. Without saying much more, I said “thank you”, and left the shop. 

This all happened in front of other customers at the shop? I mean, on the sales floor, or was this in a back room or corner within the store?

In the shop itself with others customers around. A couple was asking about a kid's bike. Keep in mind that this is a noisy part of the city. Lots of businesses around, a large street nearby, with traffic and noise. So that unless someone was standing next to me, they wouldn’t have heard or understood what was being talked about. And again, this is not a purely illegal product in the strictest sense of the word, so the dealings around it happen very naturally.

So you just walked out, and thought that was it?

Yes, I said goodbye like any other customer would. I remember that on my way out, I asked about the price of a Look frame that they had, and that was all. It felt very simple, very normal.

So you leave the shop, and what happens?

I leave the shop, and walk a couple of blocks, to where I had parked my car. I drove away, and went the opposite direction. I was slowing down as I arrived to a stoplight, and a man in a motorcycle approached my car. The windows in my car, which is an all wheel drive, off road vehicle, are always closed. This is merely something that many of us who live in Bogota do, as a result of petty crime that often happens in the streets. 

The guy starts calling me a “sapo” [which literally translates to “toad”, but is the Colombian term for "nosy", someone who sticks their nose in someone else’s business], and then starts calling me every name in the book, and screaming obscenities. This all happened in a very short amount of time, and immediately he started smashing the windows in my car. I tried to get around him, to get away, which I eventually did a few seconds after. The guy also got away, as I sped away myself. That’s where things ended. The whole thing took maybe fifteen seconds in all.

Did you get a look at the person who did it, or would you know who it was?

No, he never took off his motorcycle helmet.

During the attack, were there people around who saw this and tried to help? Did anyone say anything?

No one. And in the end, this is Colombia. In this country, sadly, things like this happen from time to time, which means that there’s an attitude of “if it doesn’t concern me, I won’t get involved”. The only help I received, if you can call it that, was a bus driver who made room for my car, to allow me to get away more easily.

Did you think he was going to attack you, not just your car?

Of course. At every moment during the attack. When you’ve been raised in Colombia, you learn that to some, life is meaningless, and you could get killed for any stupid thing.

Google Streetview image of the intersection where the attack took place. I've chosen to pan the view down a bit, to somewhat obscure the exact location, though I suspect some real Bogotanos may know where this is.

Google Streetview image of the intersection where the attack took place. I've chosen to pan the view down a bit, to somewhat obscure the exact location, though I suspect some real Bogotanos may know where this is.

What did he use to smash your windows?

He used a motorcycle helmet. Here, many motorcyclists carry an extra helmet around their arm. It was with that.

Once this happened, where did you go? Where you able to drive with your windows all smashed?

Fortunately, the windshield was only smashed on one side. Again, in Colombia we are somewhat accustomed to this type of thing, and many of us have a low-level armored glass on our cars, to avoid theft. That low-level armored glass kept the windows from completely collapsing, and I was able to get to a safe place.

Why do you think this attack happened. I mean, how did they know that you were not a "legitimate" client, but rather someone that wanted to see how these products are being sold?

My theory is that the person who told me where they are sold probably told someone—in a completely innocent way—that I was thinking of going there over the next few days. Something along those lines, and they were simply waiting for me, and for this to happen.

Now that a bit of time has passed, what do you think about the whole event?

What does it tell you about the state of doping in Colombia?

I told just a few people about the incident, mostly people in cycling. Strange as it may sound, the person who told me where to go does not know that this happened. I’ve talked to a lot to people, asked questions, and came to realize that the business of doping is a profitable one. Lots of cash is exchanging hands, and some people are making good money, at least by Colombian standards, where the minimum salary is about $300 US dollars per month. So the profits don’t come close to what they would be for illicit drugs—of course not. But it’s a lucrative business, and one that they’ll never get jail time for. But it’s dangerous to talk about the subject.

Someone from outside Colombia will surely ask or wonder if you went to the police.

I went to the police, but I did nothing beyond filing a simple report, which I did only for insurance reasons.

Why did you not publish an account of this when it happened, and why have you chosen to speak out now?

At first, I thought I would write about it immediately. In fact, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this in passing on Twitter. But as the hours went by, I thought about it some more. I’m in the world of journalism, I guess you could say, by mere chance. This all came about due to my love for the bike. What I love to do is ride my bike, and I have deep admiration for those who do so competitively. I grew up watching Lucho and Fabio Parra win in Europe. Those are my fondest memories from childhood.

But my income is not dependent on cycling. My family, my business, my professional career, or my happiness are not tied into, nor dependent on cycling, or the structures around it…much less the mafia-like aspects that surround it. So I chose, as anyone who grew up in a place where differences of opinion can lead to gunfire, that it was not worth trying to change a cause that is not really mine.

In that process of analysis, sadly, I ended up realizing that even those who are not actively in the world of doping, are also involved in it. So in a very Colombian way, I guess I decided to save my own ass, and leave it at that.

But why talk about it now, and on this blog?

My decision to not speak about this openly on my blog stands. It's only been after some private conversations about what happened, and after the opportunity to speak with your blog—which is in another language, has a foreign readership, and gives me the ability to remain anonymous—came up that I finally decided to speak about this. I do it in order for people to know the details, and for them to know how these things are being handled here.

Are you afraid that talking about this can cause further problems for you?

I hope it doesn’t. But at any rate, this is the country of the Sacred Heart, no?