Translation: There Are No Thieves in This Town
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Translated by Patrick Moseley
Daniel Alarcón: Did you know NPR has an app? It’s called NPR One and it offers the best from public radio and beyond. News, local stories, and your favorite podcasts. NPR One joins you this Thanksgiving while you travel or wait in line or wait for a friend. Find us on NPR One in your app store.
So, Camila, how does it all start?
Camila Segura: It starts with a call from David Roa to Álvaro Castillo. Two booksellers from Bogotá.
David Roa: I picked up the phone and called Álvaro. Álvaro answered and said “What’s up, David?” And I said, “listen Álvaro, they stole your One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Daniel: His what?
Camila: His copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Daniel: The book?
Camila: Yes. But not just any copy. It was a first edition, and worse still, one that García Márquez signed for Álvaro. And when David told him that, Álvaro…
Álvaro Castillo: I stayed silent.
David: For a minute or so.
Álvaro: For a good while.
David: Well, to me it felt like an hour
Álvaro: I told him, “I don’t want to talk right now” and I hung up.
Daniel: When did this happen?
Camila: More than a year ago, in May 2015. And I’ll explain a little: David was in charge of the Macondo stall at the Bogotá Book Fair. And Álvaro was a secondhand book collector. That was the first year the invited country was a fictional place: Macondo. García Márquez had died a year earlier, in April 2014, and this book fair was being held in his honor. And Álvaro’s book was on display along with others from his private collection, in an exhibit inside a bookstore that David was running.
Daniel: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Camila: And I’m Camila Segura. And today I want to tell you the story of that book. That robbery. And what it meant for the whole country.
Daniel: Go ahead.
Camila: Ok, so… Álvaro bought this book in 2006. He remembers it well. It was in Uruguay.
Álvaro: And in Montevideo I really like to walk down a street called Calle Tristán Narvaja, which is a street that is full of secondhand bookstores.
Camila: He went into a tiny bookstore and asked for the Latin American literature section. The shopkeeper pointed out where it was.
Álvaro: And when I turned my head and looked, I saw a first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I couldn’t believe it.
Camila: As a collector, Álvaro knew exactly what a first edition looked like. He picked up the book and looked at the price: 180 Uruguayan pesos, which at that time was about seven dollars.
Álvaro: And I said to myself “crap, what am I going to do? When I try to buy this book they’re going to realize it’s a first edition.”
Camila: He thought…
Álvaro: I’m going to ask for a discount.
Camila: So, he asked the shopkeeper…
Álvaro: If he could give me a discount. So he said “ah well, I’ll sell it to you for six dollars”.
Camila: He took out six dollars and paid the shopkeeper. But before he left he asked to use their restroom.
Álvaro: So I went to the restroom, I peed, I took a breath and wiped the sweat off my forehead.
Camila: He got out and the shopkeeper, before giving him the book…
Álvaro: He stood there looking at me and he said “Had you seen this cover before?” And I told him “no.” So I tossed it in a bag, said thank you and left. And I couldn’t believe it.
Camila: Álvaro took the book to Colombia and it ended up being part of that exhibit I mentioned before, at the Book Fair, along with 31 other books from his private collection. And David Roa was the one who asked Álvaro to loan him all of those books. David wasn’t just in charge of that bookstore, he was also the president of the Association of Independent Booksellers, the ACLI [by its initials in Spanish]. And it was the first time the ACLI was in charge of the bookstore at the fair.
Daniel: That’s a big deal. I mean, I have been to that book fair. It’s huge.
Camila: Yes, it is massive. And on top of that, the bookstore was going to be at the exit of the Macondo Pavilion, which was clearly the most important one at the fair. So everyone who went into the pavilion would see the bookstore.
David: Well, I was totally happy… And scared.
Camila: Thousands upon thousands of people were going to go through there. So, of course, the pressure for everything to be ready and go well was enormous. One day, before the start of the fair, when they were setting up the bookstore, Álvaro came with his books and arranged them himself.
Álvaro: I would rather have that responsibility and not leave other people in charge of it.
Camila: The display cases where they were being displayed had been set up by pavilion organizers. They looked like something out of the last century: there were two panes of glass —one was sliding— and they were held shut by a little lock, a keyhole with a saw-toothed shaped plate.
Álvaro: Now that I think about it, it really was a flimsy lock. But at the time no one thought it was a shoddy lock. Nobody. Not even me. No one did.
Camila: Álvaro just arranged the books and made a verbal agreement with David that Álvaro was the only person who could touch his books. They hired two security guards who were only tasked with watching the bookstore, and on top of that, they agreed that one person on their staff would be at the cases at all times. Also, Álvaro was the only person with the keys to the cases. The books on display…
Álvaro: Were only first editions by García Márquez, which made a kind of general timeline starting with his first published book to his last. I mean, it wasn’t all of the first editions because they wouldn’t all fit, but it was something representative of his work.
Camila: That first edition of One Hundred Years wasn’t the only one that Álvaro had acquired in his life. Of the presumed eight thousand first copies —presumed because back in ‘67 when it was published, records were not as precise as they are today— Álvaro has found seven. Four in Cuba, two in Colombia and this one in Uruguay. He had sold the rest, but the one at the fair was special because it had been signed by Gabo.
Álvaro: I wasn’t friends with García Márquez. I met him and he gave me the nickname “libroviejero” [man with the old books]. And later he said “no, librovejero as in ropavejero” [book peddler, as in junk peddler].
Camila: Because he got him old books. In 2007, Gabo’s secretary did Álvaro the favor of bringing the book to Mexico to be signed by García Márquez. The inscription says: “To Álvaro Castillo, the book peddler, like yesterday and as always, from your friend Gabriel”.
Álvaro’s bookstore, San Librario, also had a stand at the fair. So he had to split his time between that stand and the Macondo stand, and there he had to interact with thousands of visitors, telling them in great detail about all of the books in his collection. And that year the fair had a record number of visitors. In 14 days, 520 thousand visitors came to the fair, more than 70 thousand more than the previous year. And on Saturday, May 2nd, the day the book was stolen and just three days before the end of the fair, about 73 thousand people went to the event.
And well, now I have to introduce you to two more people.
Edgar Blanco: My name is Edgar Blanco.
Lucía Buitrago: My name is Lucía Fernanda Buitrago Montañez.
Daniel: Alright. And they are…?
Camila: The other staff at the Macondo store, the ones who were always there. So that Saturday afternoon Lucía was helping at the cash registers when a friend came to visit her and asked her who had the keys to the display cases. And she asked “why?”.
Lucía: “Something weird is going on,” he said. And I turned around and saw that the book was missing. I freaked out. I went out right away, I stood in front of the display case and shouted “Edgar!”.
Camila: Edgar was at the other end of the store and he rushed to where Lucía was.
Edgar: I got there to see what was going on. And as soon as I got there Lucía told me “we’ve been robbed”. I looked at the display case and the lock was missing. When I saw the hole, it took less than a second to look over the books and realize it was that book: it was One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Camila: Lucía was distraught.
Lucía: The first thing I thought was, “how am I going to face Álvaro when I see him?”. It was like the worst thing that could happen to me three days before the end of the fair.
Camila: Edgar thought that someone who worked there had taken it but Lucía explained that Álvaro was the only one with the key.
Edgar: I ran to the door and told the security guards that from that moment on no one could leave without being searched.
Camila: Edgar thought that not much time had passed between when they had been robbed and when they noticed. So he thought that maybe if they searched people they could find it. Edgar and the guard stood at the exit of the Pavilion and told everyone who tried to leave…
Edgar: To open their bags. If they had bags from another store, we asked them to open them.
Daniel: But it’s really hard to search that many people, isn’t it?
Camila: Very hard. Almost impossible. So they started to cause a kind of traffic jam.
Edgar: I followed people who walked past me up to the door before they could leave and I asked them to open their bags.
Camila: There were women who said “I’m no thief! What are you trying to find?”.
Edgar: And I would tell them “A first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude is missing.”
Camila: And then people would be a little more cooperative.
Daniel: Of course, everyone understands how valuable that book is.
Camila: Well, it may be a stretch to say everyone, but certainly I’m not exaggerating when I say that Gabo is one of Colombia’s cultural heroes. Perhaps the greatest.
But, getting back to the story… So the pavilion’s other security guard realized that something was happening and went over. Edgar explained what was going on and asked him to get in contact with the fair’s security immediately. So he started to call them on the radio. Meanwhile, Edgar and the other guard kept on searching everyone who tried to leave. But the guard was a little confused and at one point asked “what are we looking for, again?”.
Edgar: “Show me any old book you see.” And sometimes he would show me books and I would have to say “man, that’s a new book. It’s shrink-wrapped No, not that one. It may be from here, but I don’t really care.”
Daniel: Of course, at that moment they aren’t going to stop any petty thief who’s shoplifting new books.
Camila: No, of course not. What Edgar cared about was getting the scumbag who stole the first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Edgar: I thought a lot of people looked suspicious. I even started to be a little afraid that I would open a bag and find it. Like “great, now what? I mean what am I going to do? And you would think that a thief is ready for… something, don’t you think?”
Daniel: Ready for what?
Camila: I have no idea, but you can imagine that he or she might threaten him or something, right? I don’t know.
Daniel: And how many people did they search? How long were they at it?
Camila: Edgar figures around 300 people or thereabouts. And it lasted for about half an hour until…
Edgar: There came a moment when I lost faith in thinking that the book would turn up if I kept searching people.
Camila: During all this, David wasn’t at the fair. He was at his own bookstore, almost on the other side of the city, in the middle of an event with a writer. While Edgar was searching people, Lucía knew that she had to call someone, but she thought:
Lucía: I can’t tell Álvaro myself. I’m calling David.
Camila: But Lucía is the kind of person who almost never calls.
David: If Lucía is calling me, it’s because it’s important. I answered, “Hello?”.
Lucía: And I said, “David, I have some of the worst news you could get at the fair.”
David: She tells me, “David, the worst thing has happened. I have the worst news you could imagine. The worst possible. The worst. The worst”. And she said “the worst” like 80 times. And well I… I was already freaking out. I said, “the worst thing for Lucía has to be the worst of the worst of the worst.”
Lucía: And David says, “what? what happened?”. And I don’t want to tell him, but I have to. And it’s like, “oh, no…”
David: And when she tells me, “they stole Álvaro’s One Hundred Years of Solitude”…
Camila: David froze.
David: It’s that kind of moment when you put yourself in the third person and say, “what now? what am I supposed to say? I should say something and do something very meaningful so it seems like I’m doing something.” It’s like really absurd because it was like, “not this, this is bigger than me and I have no idea what I’m going to do”.
Camila: He knew there was nothing he could do. So much so that he didn’t even ask Lucía for many details. All he managed to think was, “I don’t want more books from the collection to get stolen.” So he asked Lucía to remove all of Álvaro’s books and store them in a safe place. But Lucía remembered that the agreement was that only Álvaro could handle the books.
Lucía: So I didn’t take them out. I didn’t even open the display case.
Daniel: In other words, she didn’t follow David’s instructions?
Camila: No, she felt it was more important to stick to the agreement they had made with Álvaro. Around that time, two people from the pavilion’s logistics team arrived. They put a type of caution tape in front of the display cases, like at a crime scene, and the order was not to move until Álvaro arrived.
David hung up with Lucía and it took him about 10 minutes to call Álvaro.
David: I really didn’t want to call Álvaro. Not at all. Not at all.
Camila: But on the other hand, he was certain he didn’t want Álvaro to find out from someone else.
David: I mean, it’s just not right. It was wrong. The right thing to do was to call him and tell him myself because I was the person he had loaned the books to.
Camila: And, well, we already know how that call went.
When they hung up, Álvaro was in shock. He went out to walk and he didn’t say anything to anyone for some time. He called his mom but she didn’t answer. He decided to go to Macondo. He felt like everyone at the bookstore was looking at him with an expression of…
Álvaro: Like shame, disbelief, alarm, fear. I don’t know what kind of expression I had because I couldn’t see it, but I know it didn’t look like I was angry. It was an expression like “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Camila: Edgar saw when he came in.
Edgar: He stopped in front of the display, saw that the book was missing and put his hands on his head. I could tell that it was deeply painful for him because his eyes were watering and his mouth was trembling. I was almost expecting him to start cursing and shouting and get violent. But instead he was very controlled.
Camila: They hardly talked about it.
Edgar: We didn’t get into the details of how it happened. And he didn’t blame whoever was there or anything, either.
Álvaro: Edgar didn’t talk to me at all. He looked at me quietly with this terrified look on his face but he didn’t talk to me.
Camila: Álvaro told Edgar that he was going to take the rest of the books and told him to bring a box. They took all of the books out of the display case and started packing them up. And Álvaro told him:
Edgar: That the book was priceless but the ACLI had to answer for this. All I could say was “sure, of course, we have to answer for this.” I thought “I don’t know how but we have to answer for this.”
Daniel: In other words, pay for the book.
Camila: Of course, but the book hadn’t been appraised, it didn’t have a price.
Edgar: And he said “return my book or pay for it”. Well, obviously I wasn’t going to get in an argument with him and say, “no, what are you talking about?”. Instead I said, “yes, of course.”
Camila: Not knowing what he was going to do, Edgar put the box in storage and ordered that no one touch it. Álvaro left Macondo and went to his stand.
At some point various men from security arrived along with the manager of the pavilion. Edgar took the responsibility of explaining to them exactly what was going on.
Edgar: He tells me, “the police are coming now so you can file a report”.
Camila: Everyone’s spirits were as low as they could be.
Edgar: Our heads were down. There was another girl who started crying, another bookseller, for no apparent reason because she didn’t have anything to do with what was happening, but it was just seeing all of the commotion. They even had to accompany her outside, so she could cry out there. Everything was very melodramatic.
Camila: Álvaro still didn’t tell anyone anything. It was around eight at night by the time he went to Macondo to get his books. He brought a satchel to carry the books, since he thought if he left with the box people would say he was the thief. The books had cards with bibliographic information. Álvaro started taking them out and throwing them on the desk.
Álvaro: I think that was the only time I showed any anger. Taking out the cards, like they were shit to me, and leaving them on the desk.
Camila: He picked up his satchel and left. They were about to close the fair and the police never arrived.
Álvaro went back to his house. He had a huge headache. He thought about posting something on Facebook but he decided it was better not to. He barely slept at all that night. The next day a friend went to visit him at the fair and Álvaro told him about the robbery.
Álvaro: He said, “I can’t believe it. What can be done? How can that be? What happened?”. And I said, “I don’t know.” So he said, “Do you want me to give you the email of ‘Teléfono Rosa’ at El Tiempo?”.
Camila: I’ll explain: El Tiempo is one of the most important newspapers in the country and ‘Teléfono Rosa’ is a “news” section –or rather, a gossip section– about celebrities in Colombia that comes out once a week, every Sunday.
Daniel: But that was on Sunday, right? Which means the news wouldn’t come out for another seven days.
Camila: Yes, but still Álvaro told him…
Álvaro: Well, sure, so they can say something, you know?
Camila: The friend gave him the email address.
Álvaro: But my phone doesn’t even have a data plan and the fair didn’t have wifi and all that.
Camila: So he thought “from now until I get to my house and send the email I will have lost a whole day”. So it occurred to him to call a journalist friend who worked at El Tiempo.
Álvaro: To ask for the phone number of the person in charge of “Teléfono Rosa”.
Camila: She tells him:
Álvaro: “Are you crazy?! That’s not news for ‘Teléfono Rosa’. And on top of that the ‘Teléfono Rosa’ comes out once a week. You’re crazy, what are you thinking?!”.
Camila: His friend asked him to tell her everything in detail. She told him that she was going to write the story herself and send it to eltiempo.com. That day around noon his friend called him back.
Álvaro: And she says “Álvaro, you have no idea what kind of shit storm this has caused. The story is all over the world.”
Presenter: And some rather discouraging news is coming to us from the culture page. A first edition copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, was stolen at the Bogotá International Book Fair.
Presenter: It seems like yet another typical event in the unusual and magical country of Macondo, but it is real.
Presenter 2: A thief entered Macondo and cast a dark shadow over the most successful of all of the Bogotá Book Fairs. His prize was a first edition book from 1967.
Álvaro: And my phone started ringing. “We are calling from who knows where, who knows where.” They called me from Mexico, Argentina, Europe, France, Spain. From all over the world.
Daniel: And at this point what is David doing?
Camila: Well, he hadn’t set foot in the fair since the robbery. He was at en event at his bookstore when he found out the news was everywhere.
David: I knew this was a very serious problem but what I was worried about was the institutional issue.
Camila: In other words, he wasn’t just worried about how he was going to pay for the book, but also about what would become of the association. But he hadn’t even thought about the media.
David: I mean, at that point I was much more worried and I really wanted to go figure out what had happened with the police because I was really worried that this was going to turn into a big story in the media and we hadn’t even filed a report.
Daniel: How come they hadn’t even filed a complaint?
Camila: Exactly. They hadn’t filed a complaint. And I’ll explain: Edgar and Lucía had told the fair security about the robbery. But…
Edgar: Under regular security procedure, they should’ve informed the police.
Camila: “They”, meaning fair security. But they didn’t
Lucía: The media came first, then the police.
Camila: When David found out that the story was already all over the media, he got fair security on the phone, a retired colonel. And when he got to the stand…
David: There was a very diligent group of police. There was a major, there was a colonel, there was a captain from the Heritage department, there was an officer from the SIJIN and from the DIJIN.
Daniel: No, wait, Camila, you’re speaking Colombian.
Camila: Yeah, I know. The DIJIN and the SIJIN is very confusing even for us. But basically what you need to understand is that SIJIN is local and is dependent on the DIJIN, which is national.
But well, moving past the technicalities, when Álvaro arrived at the stand he was really impressed to see all of these people, including criminologists who were dusting for fingerprints.
Álvaro: They were like CSI or something. Everything was very strange.
Camila: The police started questioning everyone.
Álvaro: They were asking me, “Where did you get the book, how much did it cost, how did García Márquez inscribe it for you, why did he inscribe it for you, where were you, who had the keys?” And I said, “Me, I was the only one who had them.” “How do you know you are the only one?” “Because they told me I was the only one.”
Camila: They took Álvaro, David, Edgar, Lucía and two other women who were in charge of taking care of the display case to the fair’s security office. There they took their statements.
Álvaro: It took four or five hours, it was this frustrating thing that wouldn’t end. And you start to feel like a thief, like you’re the one who’s guilty, because of the interrogation. They questioned and doubted everything I said. So I started to feel really really bad.
Camila: When they left the interrogation it was practically nighttime. Dozens of national and international media outlets continued to call Álvaro and David. But at one point David decided to stop giving interviews.
David: Because the whole thing started to break down. For instance, people started coming up with really crazy and sometimes very disrespectful theories. Like saying that Álvaro had stolen it himself, which seemed like the meanest possible thing to me.
Camila: By Monday, this was already the story of the day in all of the newspapers, broadcasts and news bulletins.
Juan Vicente Valbuena: The Attorney General considers the theft of Gabriel García Márquez’ work a serious attack on our cultural heritage.
Daniel: And who is this man?
Camila: This is the vice-attorney general at the time, Juan Vicente Valbuena. He held a press conference just to talk about the incident. He said that the National Police were investigating the case and that he had to make it clear that not only were the individuals who stole the book responsible, but also anyone who bought it.
Juan Vicente Valbuena: …As well as anyone who acquires it. Those who stole the work can suffer penalties ranging from 6 to 20 years, as well as those who commit the crime of handling stolen goods, meaning, buying this stolen good, could get 4 to 12 years in jail.
Daniel: Hold on. 20 years in prison for stealing a book?
Camila: Yes, up to 20 years. A lot of people found that absurd. On social media you could read things like:
User 1: That’s why this country is backwards. Someone who steals millions and millions of dollars gets eight years in prison and someone who steals a book by Gabo gets 20. It’s unbelievable.
User 2: This country is totally charro. 20 years in prison for someone who stole a book by Gabo and eight for someone who committed crimes against humanity. What a country.
Daniel: Charro? What’s that?
Camila: Charro. In this context it means something like ridiculous.
That Monday was the last day of the fair. That morning Álvaro was getting ready to give a television interview at the central plaza of the book fair when dozens of kids, students from some grade school, came in.
Álvaro: And a boy who was somewhere between 10 and 12 years old comes up to me and says “hey, aren’t you the one they stole the book from?”. And I said “yes, I am.” And the boy gave me a hug and said, “I’m so sorry. I hope you find the book.” And I started to cry.
Camila: Álvaro needed a moment before he could start the interview. The first question they asked him was, “how do you feel now?” And Álvaro answered:
Álvaro: Right now I feel different because I realized that this didn’t just happen to me, it happened to all of Colombia. And it makes me very sad because the book was stolen, but it also gives me peace, tranquility and pride knowing that there are people who can feel another person’s minor misfortune, compared to the many misfortunes in life and in the country, as if it were their own. And that proves to us that Colombians, like García Márquez says, are capable of the worst as well as the best.
Daniel: We will come back after a small break.
Thank you for listening to Radio Ambulante. Before we go back to our story I want to tell you about another NPR podcast, one about music, called Alt.Latino. It’s hosted by Felix Contreras, and Felix is your guide into the world of Latino arts and culture. An alternative approach to traditional music. Interviews with cultural icons like Rita Moreno and Carlos Santana as well as contemporary vanguards like Calle 13 or author Junot Diaz. Find Alt.Latino on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts
Hi, I’m Daniel Alarcón. We are back with Radio Ambulante. Before the break, Camila was telling us about the robbery of a signed first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude at the Book Fair in Bogotá. And well, the fair ended on Monday and..
Camila: Everything was going back to normal. But on Friday, six days after the robbery, Álvaro was in his bookstore, working, when a friend called him and said:
Álvaro: “Brother, so the book turned up?”
Camila: And Álvaro replied: “no…”
Álvaro: “It’s just that my dad heard it did. He heard the news on La Luciérnaga.” I told him, “no, if it’s on La Luciérnaga they’re just messing with people.”
Camila: La Luciérnaga is a radio show where they talk about national news. But made-up people and stories are featured on the show to make fun of what’s going on in the country. So, of course, for Álvaro, if the news came from La Luciérnaga it had to be a joke.
Álvaro: And I saw on Facebook someone posted, “Hooray! The book was found!” And I said, “but how could the book be found without anyone telling me?” And all of a sudden my phone rings.
Camila: The assistant of General Palomino, the chief of police, was calling him.
Álvaro: “I’m calling to inform you that the book has been found.”
Camila: And that General Palomino wanted to deliver it to him in person.
Daniel: In person? That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?
Camila: Yes! But he also told him…
Álvaro: “We’re going to send a squad car for you.”
Camila: How did you feel after that call?
Álvaro: I was in total disbelief. Happy and absolutely incredulous.
Camila: As soon as he got off the phone with the police, he called David.
Daniel: That’s the director of the Association of Independent Booksellers, right?
Camila: Exactly. The one he had loaned the book to.
David: I said, “Álvaro, you’re not going to believe it but I think I’m happier than you are.”
Camila: Just then the squad car arrived to pick up Álvaro. It was rush hour on a Friday and the traffic was really backed up. They radioed the poor police officer.
Álvaro: “Listen, hurry up, hurry up, they’re waiting.” “Traffic isn’t moving.” “Well, turn on your siren.” So the car went as fast as it could.
Camila: And, Daniel, do you know what Transmilenio is?
Daniel: Yes, yes, the express buses in Bogotá.
Camila: Yes, those. The ones that have a restricted lane. Álvaro told me that the squad car was driving at full speed down the Transmilenio lane to avoid traffic.
Daniel: As if it were an ambulance or something.
Camila: It was like if delivering the book was matter of life or death.
Álvaro: I said, “this is really funny”. I was laughing at that point.
Camila: They arrived at the police station and the chief of police, Palomino…
Álvaro: Came up to me looking very friendly and said, “You don’t know how proud we are to have recovered your book.” And on his desk there was a cardboard box for a router. And he opened the box and there was the book. He asked “Is this your book?”. Then I opened it to the page with the inscription and said, “yes, this is my book,” and I started to cry. It was the second time I cried. Those were tears of joy.
Camila: Then they told him he had to go to a press conference. Palomino spoke first. Having found the book in record time was a victory for the police: only six days after the report was filed.
Rodolfo Palomino: We have accomplished something very important, very important. But we have to close this circle with the capture of those responsible. There are some details that certainly, for now….
Camila: The thing is, they found the book but not the thief.
Daniel: And what did he say about recovering the book?
Camila: Not much. He didn’t give a lot of details about how the operation went. He said that they had found the book in a box in the neighborhood La Perseverancia, in downtown Bogotá. What he did say was that the book had been prepared to be sold when it was discovered.
Palomino: We know they were going to sell it for more than 120 million pesos.
Daniel: And how much is that in dollars?
Camila: About 40 thousand dollars. We’re talking about a lot of money. 174 times the minimum wage, enough to buy, I don’t know, a small apartment in the southern part of Bogotá.
And well, Palomino made the official delivery of the book to Álvaro in front of all of the media, and then let him speak. Álvaro thanked them and was clearly moved. You can hear it in his voice.
Álvaro: This book doesn’t belong to me anymore. This book belongs to my country and I’m going to donate it to the Colombian National Library because from the moment that most Colombians showed their scorn for this act, it became part of everyone’s heritage.
Camila: That night the story was aired on national and international news. But what caught my attention was that there were slightly different versions of where the book had been found.
Daniel: How so?
Camila: Some news outlets, for example, said that they had found it inside of a house and others said it was at a street stand. They didn’t give Álvaro a lot of details either. Gautibonza, the chief of police for Bogotá, told him that when they found out about the robbery…
Álvaro: They put out an all-points bulletin and somehow discovered –I don’t know how– that the book was going to be taken out of the country. And they decided to infiltrate the black market, where this was being discussed.
Camila: They said they had found out that someone had the book and that this person had set up a meeting with a possible buyer. And finally, the vendor…
Álvaro: Realized it was a trick. And that they had already identified and intercepted him. Then the guy abandoned the book and they retrieved it at a store. That was the version I heard, the version that was in the press. It’s the only version I have of what happened.
Daniel: And what about that figure, that they were going to sell it for 120 million or something like that?
Camila: I also asked Álvaro what he knew about that.
Álvaro: Where did that number come from? I don’t know… I don’t know anything.
Camila: The weekend went by and Álvaro was still getting calls for interviews. He was tired, he hadn’t been sleeping well and he could hear his phone going off, even when no one was calling. He wanted the whole thing to be over, so early that week he called Consuelo Gaitán, the director of the National Library, and told her:
Álvaro: “Please, I want to make this donation really, really quickly. I want to get this over with fast.” And I said, jokingly, “if this isn’t done by Thursday, I’m donating it to the National Museum on Friday.”
Camila: So they agreed the donation would be on Thursday, May 14th at 4pm. I met with him on that day at the door of the library.
Employee: This way, please.
Camila: We went up to the director’s office and he showed me the eight boxes of first editions, the other books, magazines and newspaper clippings he was going to donate.
Daniel: So, not just the recovered book.
Camila: No, he donated several other things. A large part of his García Márquez collection which he had spent years compiling. We sat down and he showed me the book.
Álvaro: So, do you want to see the book? They gave it back to me in this little box. This very same box.
Camila: He showed me the inscription and then he showed me something else.
Álvaro: And I added a note to the book which I wrote on the first page. It says: I bought this copy of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in Montevideo, Uruguay…
Camila: Then he wrote the facts: when it was stolen and recovered, and it ends with this:
Álvaro: Today, May 14th 2015, I am handing it over to the National Library of Colombia so that it may remain there and serve as a symbol of gratitude for all Colombians…
Camila: A little later, we went down to the press conference where there were several media outlets. Álvaro wanted it that way, as an official public act.
Then the director started to speak.
Consuelo Gaitán: Well, this is just a meeting that came out of an unfortunate circumstance but has a fortunate ending.
Camila: Well, you can’t hear it very well, but she thanks Álvaro, obviously, and says that this book is the start of a great collection that the library wants to create, and that this book in particular is important not just because of it’s value as a piece of heritage, but also because of what its theft meant for the country.
Consuelo: …What the loss of this book meant to the country.
Camila: Álvaro spoke briefly and finally gave the donation.
Daniel: Well, a happy ending then.
Camila: Sort of. I mean, yes, the book was found and everything was well and good. But I think many of us were left with a lot of questions. Like the idea that there was something weird about this version of the story. How is it that they didn’t catch the thief? Lucía, for example, said this to me:
Lucía: Well, it doesn’t make sense that the police, knowing who was involved, didn’t hold anyone accountable for anything, right? It seems like there was some kind of agreement to turn over the book, and that’s that.
Camila: Edgar said something similar to me:
Edgar: The fact that the culprit was never found gives me the feeling that things were done a little… like the whole thing wasn’t so transparent.
Daniel: So you started investigating?
Camila: Yes. And I started at the most obvious place: The National Police.
Police: National Police line, good morning. How may I help you?
Camila: Good morning. May I speak with the press department of the police, please?
Police: One moment.
Camila: And, Daniel, I can’t tell you how difficult it was to find someone in the police department who would agree to talk to me or who was able to. The first time I tried was in June 2015.
Daniel: More than a year ago.
Camila: Yes. I spoke with press chiefs, commanders and lieutenants. No one wanted to give a statement. Some of them told me that they had already said what they could about the issue. Others said they couldn’t speak because they believed they were about to catch the group that had stolen the book. I made calls almost every week. Until finally in April 2016 they gave me an appointment to meet with the lieutenant in charge of the case. So I went to the SIJN offices.
GPS: You have arrived at your destination.
Daniel: The people in charge of investigating crimes in Bogotá.
Camila: Yes. The SIJIN is right in the middle of downtown Bogotá. It’s a decrepit building. Paint is peeling off the walls and sometimes you get the feeling that the building is abandoned. An officer met me and brought me to a small office filled with empty cubicles.
There was nothing there. Not a computer or a telephone or a photo. Barely a sheet of paper.
My guide introduced me to another officer but neither of them knew why I was there. I told them about the story I was doing and that I wanted to interview the lieutenant. I was waiting for them to take me to his office…
Doesn’t the lieutenant have an office?
Officer: No, it’s that desk.
Camila: Oh, this desk?
Officer: “We’re poor here and we live far away,” they say in my village.
Camila: The lieutenant’s desk was the same as the others. Completely empty. And the lieutenant was nowhere to be seen. The officers took me to a major and then I retold the whole story: about Radio Ambulante, the theft, the authorization. And the protocol goes on and on. The major calls the press chief and tells her the whole story.
Major: Would we be able to do that? How could we do it?
Press Chief: Major, but the book that was stolen at the last Book Fair?
Major: Well, as far as I know, the only book by García Márquez that was stolen was that one. Don’t tell me there’s another one…
Camila: And well, I’m telling you all this, Daniel, because I sat there for almost two hours and I couldn’t believe how much bureaucracy I had to deal with. Even after dozens of conversations with the lieutenant, even though I carried with me a signed authorization, at one point I came to think that I was going to leave that place without an interview.
Camila: But finally the major told me sure, I could interview the officer that had taken me to his office because he was the one who conducted the whole operation. We went to a car and parked in a parking lot in the basement.
Supervisor: To the basement.
Camila: How are you?
Supervisor: Good morning.
Camila: The officer asked us not to use his name.
Supervisor: I’m an investigator with SIJIN’s anti-theft group. I hold the rank of supervisor. We investigate all kinds of crimes dealing with kidnapping and theft in all its forms.
Camila: He told me that every Monday morning, the nearly 1,300 men in the SIJIN gather in a square downtown and do what he calls a “developments check”, in other words, they are updated on that week’s investigations.
That Monday, after the robbery…
Supervisor: They told us: “Alright, listen up. We’ve got a recommended case here. You guys who are going to be downtown, a book by Gabriel García Márquez was stolen in one of those bookstores, so you need to get in touch with your contacts about it.”
Daniel: And what is a recommended case?
Camila: Well, listen to what he told me:
Supervisor: A relevant case is when a person is robbed and that person has some important societal status. So a senator is robbed, a minister is robbed, someone steals… I don’t know, the cellphone of a private secretary at the ministry. For us those are recommended cases.
Camila: Basically what he is saying is what all of us Colombians already know more or less: that the police give priority to cases involving more important people, people with money, famous people.
Daniel: In other words, to a valuable book, to a media scandal…
Camila: Exactly. So the case with the book was clearly recommended. And this supervisor spends his time walking through downtown Bogotá because that’s where most robberies happen.
Supervisor: We have a lot of contact with a number of merchants, let’s call them, “the good and the bad” ones.
Camila: In other words, people who “sell things with dubious origins.” That was the phrase the supervisor used. In that part of the city-center, there are several blocks filled with stands that for years have been selling books, mostly used books.
Supervisor: So I spend a lot of time with them because sometimes they’re victims of the gangs that operate downtown too. Why? Because that creates insecurity.
Camila: And of course, the business owners don’t want their clients to get robbed. But the supervisor put it better. Listen:
Supervisor: So, if you want to buy a book and you know that on the intersection of streets 10 and 13 you’ll get your socks stolen with your shoes still on, well you’re going to turn around, do you understand?
Daniel: I’m sorry, what did he say?
Camila: That you’re not going to go where they steal your socks with your shoes still on. So the supervisor starts going by all the book stands in the area and says to the vendors:
Supervisor: “Listen, brother, a book got stolen around here. And if you hear about it or they come by to try to sell it, you’d better give us a call.”
Camila: He said that no one was going to settle down until that book was found.
Supervisor: It was around 8:30, 9:00 in the morning. When I went out to eat breakfast, I also went by the bookstore. “Hey man, you heard anything?” “No, man.”
Camila: He insisted that the book was important. Until Friday, around two in the afternoon, he went back to one of the bookstores on the intersection of streets 10 and 13.
Supervisor: When they said, “hey, come here, sargeant.” “What’s going on, man?” “They’re trying to sell that book.” “What?” “Yeah.” “And who are they?” “I don’t know, they’re some guys from La Perseverancia.”
Camila: They described them as a young olive-skinned man who was about 1.6 meters tall [about 5’3”] and a young blonde woman.
Supervisor: “But what are their names, man? Their number?” “I don’t know, those guys came to sell the book but they are asking for a lot.”
Daniel: How much were they asking for?
Camila: According to what the supervisor told me, 50 million pesos. Or about 20 thousand dollars.
Daniel: But the chief of police gave a different figure.
Camila: Yes, 120 million. More than double what the supervisor told me.
Daniel: How weird.
Camila: Yes, very weird. And no one has been able to explain where that number came from. But the supervisor started to check other areas to see if they had been offering the book as well.
Supervisor: We went to another place. We showed up and they said, “listen, there was a guy here who was interested but he’s going to go to Preservencia to buy it there because those guys are pissed off and don’t want to come over here because they know the book is a touchy subject.”
Daniel: I’ve never heard anyone talk that fast in my whole life.
Camila: I know, he talks really fast, it’s almost like he doesn’t even stop to breathe.
Daniel: Great. So?
Camila: They gave him a tip.
Supervisor: And they indicated to us more or less where the guys were going to meet.
Camila: They say that they are meeting on a foot bridge near the neighborhood. So, of course, the first thing the supervisor does is call the chief of police to tell him that he has this information, and his chief tell his own boss to tell him. And they decided to act.
Supervisor: At that point we organized ourselves and got in three cars.
Camila: Eight police officers went. When they get on the highway, near the neighborhood, one of the police officers says:
Supervisor: “There are some guys down there.”
Camila: The officers jump out of the cars, and he tells me that there were four or five guys there when the police came and they started running.
Supervisor: When they get out to run, they hear gunfire. “Don’t move, don’t move, they’re shooting.”
Camila: Some of the eight police officers went after the men. Others, including the supervisor, realize that something had dropped to the ground: a box.
Supervisor: When we check the box, the first thing we do is see what’s inside. So my major says: “Here’s the book. Here’s the book.” “And the guys?” “I don’t know. They threw the box and started running.”
Camila: They asked the police in that sector for help.
Supervisor: And they came with four or five motorcycles. We started driving all over the place.
Daniel: So, they didn’t catch them.
Camila: No. According to the supervisor, they didn’t catch them.
Daniel: And that’s where it all ends?
Camila: Well, not quite. In April of this year, 2016, almost a year after his book was recovered, Álvaro got some news from the attorney general’s office. They said that the file on the robbery had been placed in what’s called a provisional file.
Daniel: What does that mean? Did they close the case?
Camila: Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to know. I asked the supervisor if that meant they weren’t looking for the culprits anymore. This is what he told me:
Supervisor: No, the investigation is still ongoing. I mean, we must be certain of that. That kind of case doesn’t close.
Daniel: Or rather, they don’t close… But they get filed away?
Daniel: And the difference is?
Camila: From what I understand, it isn’t open because they aren’t looking for the culprits, but it isn’t closed because they haven’t found them.
Daniel: But then when is it supposed to close?
Camila: Well, listen to what he told me:
Supervisor: I mean, a lot of years are going to go by but the case isn’t going to close.
Camila: It will only close the moment someone is captured.
Supervisor: Yes, it is a provisional file.
Camila: But if they do capture someone, then it will close.
Supervisor: Ah, yes. Yes, it will close. But if they capture one person and two people tried to sell the book and the third person is the buyer, it’ll close the day all three are caught.
Daniel: And where is the book today, Camila?
Camila: Today it is in the collections section, along with the other more valuable books in the National Library. Anyone can come to see it, but always under the supervision of one of the officials in the room.
Daniel: And what about the price? Were you able to figure out how much it would really cost?
Camila: Well, I tried everything to find out where Palomino got that 40 thousand dollar figure, but I didn’t get an answer. I spoke with an appraiser who told me that the book couldn’t have sold for more than 10 thousand dollars, 12 thousand at most. But I don’t think the bit about the price is so important.
What is really important and what I take away from all this extends beyond the book. It really has more to do with Colombia than with García Márquez or any stolen first edition. It’s that very same feeling that Edgar had.
Edgar: That there must have been some boss yelling at someone: “this has to be found because it’s getting found.” Then someone did something.
Camila: That’s the bad part. Which is to say, it would be nice if all of the cases the police handled where recommended cases and they were just as efficient when they deal with the robbery of an average, ordinary citizen.
Daniel: Camila Segura is the senior editor at Radio Ambulante. Thanks to la Productora Sónica, Sandra Acero and José Luis Peñaredonda.
Silvia Viñas and I edited this story with the help of Martina Castro. The music is by Luis Maurette. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Luis Trelles, Fe Martínez, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill, and Caro Rolando. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez, Andrés Azpiri and Luis Fernando Vargas. Thanks to Gustavo Martínez for his help. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story by visiting our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.