It was just before rush hour on August 23, 2017, when Bogotá, Colombia, the District Police and SWAT team arrived for the El Cartuchito gangs, an area with a powerful illegal drug trade and open consumption of bazooka, a crack-like derivative of cocaine. Police, clad in riot gear and armed with batons and tear gas, were sent in, the city’s security department later tweeted, to “reclaim” the area “for citizens.”
It was spin. In practice, the police actually freed not only drug gangs, but also people who were not guilty of anything illegal, namely homeless people, people using bazookas and garbage collectors. These acts, if socially condemned, are not crimes in Colombia, including possession of drugs for personal consumption.
After forcibly evicting everyone from El Cartuchito, the police issued plastic clasp bracelets to residents to allow them to return to the area.
The raid was another aggressive “cleansing” operation in Bogotá. According to the City Safety Department, in 2016 15 such raids on three “alls”or outdoor drug scenes. Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who took office in 2016, insists the crackdown is necessary to ensure public safety as Bogotá’s olla have become “organized crime operations centers” where children are being subjected to “massive sexual exploitation.”
It is true that Bogotá faces a real security challenge in places like El Cartuchito, where the murder rate is extremely high. Together with other researchers, I have been talking to Ollas residents for many years about how the city can keep residents, including homeless children, safe. But it is clear to me that a forced displacement strategy followed by investment and gentrification This is not an answer.
The raid on El Cartuchito was mild compared to what the Peñalosa administration did last year in an area called the El Bronx. In May 2016, SWAT teams broke into the city center in the middle of the night, joined by child protection services and other city agencies.
After waking sleeping homeless residents, often using violence, the police rounded up at least 2,000 people (estimates vary widely) and herded them into trucks, directing them in an unknown direction.
Those who refused to go were gradually pushed out of the area, first into the square, then into the surrounding alleys, and finally into the channel of the Sixth Street canal.
There, the police held hundreds of people in custody for several weeks. At night, the exiles from the Bronx told me, the officers formed a cordon to prevent them from leaving the canal. Every third night, according to the reports, the police forced this group to move up or down the canal, apparently without permission. I spent the night in the canal and saw firsthand the strategy of containment and sleep deprivation.
During one heavy downpour, several homeless citizens were washed away; one was later found dead.
Two local human rights organizations, CPAT and PARCES, whose joint May 2017 report details the mistreatment of El Bronx residents, have filed a complaint against the Peñalosa administration with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case is pending.
Shortly before the crackdown in the Bronx, in May 2016, city officials also cleared the Carrilera slums, burning cardboard houses and dismantling shacks. “What are they doing? The government tramples on the poor, the homeless!” one witness told El Espectador newspaper: “They didn’t give us any alternatives, like where to go, where to live.”
Peñalosa’s motto is “Bogotá, better for everyone”. But all these raids have left many wondering: is Bogotá really for everyone?
Right to the city
The debate about who owns the cities has been going on for a long time. As feminist geographer Melissa Wright has written, urban elites often equate progress with the disappearance of certain social groups that they believe degrade public space.
In the 1990s, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cracked down on “crimes against the quality of life” such as prostitution. Most recently, the new mayor of São Paulo, Brazil, Joao Doria, destroyed a major downtown crack hangout and homeless camp.
Such efforts, sometimes referred to as guarding broken windows, reflect the belief that “unwanted” people and petty crime must disappear in order to improve security and develop cities.
In Brazil, the constitution recognizes the citizens’ right to the city, so several city agencies have questioned the legality of the Doria raids.
Colombians do not have such a constitutional right, and data on the number of homeless people in Bogota is outdated and incomplete (a census of street residents is scheduled to begin in October).
People living on the streets of the capital regularly face harassment and police aggression. The Cartuchito and Bronx raids drove homeless residents and sex workers out of the ollas, where most Bogota residents had never seen them, and dispersed them (and the ollas criminals) throughout the city of eight million.
Many people did not welcome their new neighbors, most of whom are active drug addicts. Local residents filed complaints, and there were reports of poisoning of “donated” products.
But urbanists and scientists have long recognized the right of every citizen to occupy public space. In a seminal 2008 New Left article, geographer David Harvey wrote that it is “one of our most prized yet most neglected human rights.”
The right to the city was also the theme of last year’s United Nations Habitat III conference to develop a “new urban agenda” for the world.
There is no quick fix to urban inequality, but there are ways to drive urban progress while respecting the rights of the most marginalized. Programs that offer social services, health care, housing, and employment can help change the lives of drug users. At the same time, harm reduction services such as needle exchange and peer education can reduce risky behaviour.
In the El Bronx report, released Sept. 27 by the Center for the Study of Security and Drugs at the University of the Andes, the researchers consider which government-sponsored treatment options would be legally viable in Colombia and recommend exploring experimental healthcare strategies tailored to the needs of baguco users in Bogota.
Such efforts have begun in previous mayoral administrations, and from 2012 to 2016 El Bronx operated mobile medical centers for drug addicts in the city. But Peñalosa quickly curtailed these projects.
All those who have been kicked out of El Cartuchito, El Bronx and other “developed” areas have one thing in common: they are all associated with the streets, which means that their day-to-day activities take place mostly in public. By denying such people the right to a city, Bogota officials are essentially depriving them of their right to exist.