Filmmaker reveals Amazon jungle's greatest danger: 'Won't tell my wife'

·News and Video Producer
·5-min read

A nature documentary filmmaker has revealed its not savage animals deep inside the Amazon that frighten him, but rather the armed guerrillas who patrol the region.

After returning from Sydney to his native Colombia a decade ago, Simon Gonzalez Velez has made a name for himself as an adventure-seeking cameraman and director. 

He's known for going to extreme lengths to film stories that advocate for wildlife.

Simon Gonzalez Velez filming through the open section of a plane.
Simon Gonzalez Velez takes a shot while flying over Colombia's thick jungle. Source: Supplied

Colombia's remote areas remain dangerous, despite a peace agreement between the guerrilla fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government.

Covid-19 has only worsened the situation, with reports indicating that during lockdowns activists have been targeted at home. 

The country was ranked by advocacy group Global Witness as the world’s most dangerous place for environmentalists, with 65 murdered in 2020.

This was more than double the amount killed in Mexico which recorded 30 deaths and came in at number two, followed by the Philippines where 29 were killed.

A jaguar drinking from a river.
It wasn't the jaguars Mr Gonzalez Velez was afraid of when filming deep in the Amazon. Source: Supplied

Although he has not been directly targeted by guerrilla groups, Mr Gonzalez Velez has had a number of close encounters with armed militias when venturing into lawless regions of the country. 

Despite the danger, he finds peace deep in the jungle, away from the bustle of the capital, Bogota. 

“When I go to those places deep in the jungle, where there isn’t much progress of law or societies, when you get really deep, nature is at ease," he told Yahoo News.

“Brother, I don't know but it makes me feel alive."

Documentary maker reveals his most terrifying moment

Speaking with Yahoo News, Mr Gonzalez Velez said during the years filming his 2021 documentary Jaguar Voz de un Territorio (Jaguar: Voice Of A Territory), he was stopped and searched a number of times by armed gunmen.

The first time, which occurred in the Amazon in southern Colombia, was the scariest.

“Because I wasn't expecting that, I’d heard about it in news, stories of people telling you to take care because of guerrillas, but I’d never run through that situation,” he said.

“When that happened to me, those guys took the bus driver, they put him on the floor and then they started yelling at everyone to go out of the bus.”

Simon Gonzalez Velez in close up with his camera in the jungle.
In remote regions outside the laws of human society, Mr Gonzalez Velez (pictured) says nature is at peace. Source: Supplied

These ordeals can last two or three hours as the guerrillas check traveller’s plans, but Mr Gonzalez Velez has learned to navigate these situations by staying calm.

“They let you go, or they pull you into into a different truck and they take you deep in the jungle,” he said.

“It’s never happened to me that they take me in a different car, but it’s very scary because they go in with guns, they in go very aggressive normally.

“You’ve got to go out of the bus and show everything you have inside your bags.

“You don’t look at their faces, just be very quiet if they ask you something, just go with the truth.

“If you start lying maybe it's not going be good.”

Near miss a reminder of the dangers of Colombia

It’s not just when travelling by bus that guns have been pointed at Mr Gonzalez Velez.

While filming indigenous people in the Amazon to understand their relationship to jaguars, armed men entered the village asking for food and alcohol.

The guerrillas interrupted a midnight ceremony, but this time Mr Gonzalez Velez felt safer as the Sharman was able to hide him in the jungle.

Landmines were also a threat in parts of Colombia, made only too clear after a local man lost his leg in an explosion. 

The documentary team had traversed the same road on the previous day.

Drug smugglers ask whale documentary crew for help 

This year Mr Gonzalez Velez has left the threats of the jungle for the open ocean.

He’s making a documentary off the west coast of Colombia focusing on whales and the impact of humans on their migration to Antarctica.

Unfortunately this part of the Pacific Ocean is also a popular drug smuggling route, bustling with boats heading across to Panama and the United States.

Simon Gonzalez Velez standing alongside three Indigenous men in Colombia.
Mr Gonzalez Velez (left) travels into the Amazon to listen to stories of Colombia's Indigenous people. Source: Supplied

In September one drug smuggling boat, easily identifiable with its load covered underneath a tarpaulin, beckoned over his team.

“It’s engine was badly broken and we were on the sea recording whales and they were asking for help,” Mr Gonzalez Velez said.

“The guides were telling us that's a boat that’s full of drugs… and it's better to go back to our base camp instead of going and giving them help.

“They were saying I’m totally sure there's going to be another boat coming very soon to give them a hand and there’ll be a lot of drug dealers, definitely with guns, and it’s going to be very intense."

Despite the risks, Mr Gonzalez Velez knows he must return to the ocean soon, to continue telling the story of the whales.

“Doing these documentaries the whole story is in my head and I have a responsibility to share that message.

“It’s a big risk, hopefully I will stop one day. I'm not going to tell my wife about this article."

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, and Simon Gonzalez Velez worked together on the documentary The Animal Condition.

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