The police officer looked apologetic.
“It’s no longer here,” she said quietly.
The room was suddenly very still.
“The pigeon,” she repeated, raising a sorrowful smile.
“We don’t have it any more.”
She was referring to a young homing pigeon, used by enterprising criminals trying to smuggle 40g of marijuana (and five grams of cocaine) over the walls of Bucaramanga jail.
Unable to fly with the package strapped to its wings, the bird had merely flapped helplessly against the prison walls until confused by-standers called the cops.
Police apprehended the pigeon, removed its illicit bundle and dispatched it to an aviary for life – amid fears it would return to its nest and attempt the trafficking again.
You can see why the photographer and I left our cosy lives in Bogota and embarked on an 18-hour roadtrip – navigating mountains, canyons and jungle – to meet this bird.
You can also imagine our concern at its lack of availability.
Still, the morning passed pleasantly enough for me. I interviewed various police officers, had a nose around the station, drank a nice cup of coffee, gawped at some poor folk in handcuffs and admired a suitcase full of drugs.
But I felt sorry for the photographer. He’d driven a long way to stand around in a police station courtyard.
When I finished my work, I wandered over to where he stood, chatting to some of the officers.
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” I heard him say.
“What won’t be necessary?” I interjected.
“Actual drugs,” he replied.
I opened my mouth. Then I closed it again.
“Are they offering us drugs?” I whispered.
“No,” the photographer replied patiently.
“The thing is, they’re, erm, they’re going to catch us another pigeon for the photograph.
“They’re going to sellotape a package on its back – exactly like the other one – and they were just asking if we wanted to put real drugs inside, to make it more realistic.”
I was lost for words.
Just as I was about to splutter “You’re kidding me” a police officer appeared, leading a pigeon on a piece of string.
“I caught it outside,” he said happily.
I couldn’t look at the photographer and besides, he was too busy arranging the pigeon for its picture.
Feathers were flying everywhere because, strangely, the bird didn’t seem to like standing with a parcel strapped to its back.
After an agonising ten minutes – in which the stand-in bird made five ill-fated escape attempts – it was relieved of its duties and returned to the free world, unlike its predecessor.
“Do you think that was a poor use of police time?” the photographer asked me later, as we loaded the car.
“Not at all,” I grinned, relieved I could finally laugh without appearing unprofessional.
“It’s good that they didn’t have anything better to do.”