Bogotá's Anti-Drug Strategies Cause More Harm Than Healing

By Bram Ebus 08/09/16

The police raid on "the Bronx," one of Bogotá's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, was an extreme example of misadministration leading to displacement, violence, and corruption.

Bogotá's Anti-Drug Strategies Harm More Than Heal
Authorities only managed to scatter the problem, not solve it.

On May 28th, 2,500 Bogotá police officers raided one of the city’s most crime-riddled neighborhoods, known among locals as “the Bronx.” In the follow-up, the international press applauded the powerful words of the Colombian capital city's mayor Enrique Peñalosa: “We will never tolerate an independent republic of crime in Bogotá where children are exploited.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The mayor of Bogotá suffers from a popularity in fierce decline, owing to his efforts to privatize education and healthcare, and to abolish harm reduction initiatives targeting the drug-using population. The Bronx has been an extreme example of misadministration concerning crime, drug addicts, forced prostitution of adults and children, gangs and the homeless.

The Bronx

For over a decade, the Bronx had been a hotspot for micro-trafficking, prostitution rackets and extreme violence. The tiny neighborhood—a stone's throw away from a military battalion and a few blocks from the presidential palace—functioned as the capital’s main drug market and users' den. Consumers slept in squatted houses or simply made themselves comfortable in the streets—the Bronx was their home. Living and sleeping in the Bronx came with a risk, but actions of "social cleansing," routine killings by urban armed groups that occur frequently in other parts of the capital, have not been allowed by local gangs as it is bad for business.

The recent crackdowns on crime-ridden sectors in Colombia's capital have been ineffective, if not counterproductive. As the Bogotá police raided the Bronx, the leaders of local gangs were informed beforehand, allowing them to escape, and the thousands of civilians, most of them drug addicts, were displaced rather than helped. Corruption is widespread within the metropolitan police and only a few middle-ranked members of organized crime were arrested in the operation.

The massive police effort penetrated the Bronx in a violent way. Tear gas and stun grenades were used. One of the inhabitants who was present during the invasion told me the following: “I was playing a slot machine in a small shop when the police entered through the roof. They've beaten me up and accused me of numerous things. Many persons were abducted.”

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos mentioned in the United Nations Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in April this year that he wanted to tackle the drugs problem in his country from a “health perspective.” Still, operations like the Bronx raid show that Colombia, in practice, often applies the stick approach when dealing with drug consumption and related crimes.

María Helena, a 52-year-old woman, calls the Bronx her former home. She arrived in Bogotá as a single mother and a widow, just 14 years of age. She lived in total for 38 years in the Bronx and the Cartucho, another vulnerable area that was similarly evicted in 1996 in a previous operation by mayor Peñalosa, then in his first term. Her firstborn was murdered when he was only 13 years old, but María Helena managed to survive by working a variety of informal jobs: “The Bronx was our home, we could consume and even sleep on the street. It was our home.”

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Many inhabitants of the Bronx spent years of their lives hidden in the twilight of narcotic-related vices. Drugs were dealt openly in the streets and distributed through houses that functioned as fronts, called ganchos. Armed dealers called sayayines (a nickname lifted from the popular cartoon Dragonball Z) secured the commercialization of drugs, the movement of money, and above all, maintained a strict rule of order.

“Injustice reigned, the Bronx was a separate city,” John, another former inhabitant of the neighborhood, told me. “If you did something wrong the [sayayines] would cut off your hand or you would be thrown in a room with a serpent. There were separate rooms with unfed pit-bulls.”

The blood-stained rooms John talked about were found by the Bogotá police during the raid and offered some insight into the neighborhood’s cruelty. Men and boys were forced to deal, torture or kill, or were tortured or killed themselves if they did not find a way to pay off the debts they incurred buying drugs. Women and underage girls were forced into prostitution as they indebted themselves. Many of them were escorted out of the Bronx by the crime bosses before the police invaded.

The most popular drug on the streets is basuco, which is derived from cocaine paste. The increased consumption of psychoactives in Colombia shows that the country is steadily becoming a consumer country and cannot be called a sole production country anymore. 

Smoking basuco is highly addictive. The brief high after inhaling lasts only a few minutes, requiring the user to continuously retake. The commercialization of basuco does not necessarily mean a loss of profits for traffickers in comparison to trading cocaine on foreign markets. A kilogram of basuco is only equivalent to one gram of cocaine, but it is often mixed with amphetamines, ground brick and chalk—therefore it is a profitable drug to sell.

CAMAD—the abolition of a progressive harm reduction initiative

July 2016 was the last month of existence for the Mobile Center for Dependent Drug Users (Centros de Atención Móvil para Drogodependientes—CAMAD). The initiative that was launched by Bogotá's former mayor, Gustavo Petro, saw its budgets cut by current mayor Peñalosa, and recently ceased to exist. CAMAD targeted the at-risk population and the socially excluded as never before in Bogotá. Seventeen mobile centers were regularly deployed in 20 localities of Bogotá, including the Bronx. Petro even floated the idea to provide a safe spot for drug users within CAMAD. The idea was to enable users to gradually diminish their consumption by, for example, handing out marijuana. But safe consumption spots and the provision of drugs officially never took off, and moreover, caused a lot of public criticism in Colombia. 

CAMAD received international praise from the World Health Organization and was evaluated by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as one of Latin America's successful initiatives in risk mitigation and harm reduction of consumption of psychoactive substances, and for promoting security policies.

Claudia Osorio, psychologist and former director of CAMAD Rafael Uribe Uribe (a vulnerable southern neighborhood), said: “If only by a shower, breakfast, or minor medical treatment, we [can] strengthen the dignity of street inhabitants for a moment.” CAMAD's objective was not to force people into trajectories of rehabilitation. Possibilities were offered, but from the starting point of volition.

Accompanying a CAMAD that operated in Rafael Uribe Uribe was a gratifying experience. Dressed in a white doctor’s jacket, director Claudia Osorio walked on high heels through the streets. Whilst slowly passing the edges of city canals and wading through trash and broken bottles, she carefully approached sleeping street residents and early risers who had just woken up from their drug-induced sleep—already going about their daily business. With a gentle touch and a few words of comfort, the street inhabitants were advised and urged to stop by the nearby CAMAD, not only to receive a fruit juice and a sandwich, but to be approached as well by the CAMAD team and receive STI testing, and medical and psychological attention.

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The team of CAMAD consisted of doctors, nurses, odontologists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Over four years, CAMAD aided the population more than 58,000 times. No proof of identification was needed to receive medical treatment. “CAMAD is neutral, CAMAD provides health services, CAMAD does not judge,” a former doctor of the CAMAD who would rather not be named, said.

The approach of risk mitigation and harm reduction through mobile treatment not only sought to help people kick their habit, minimize the impact of substance abuse and street life, but also served to provide a connection between institutions and the street population. The administration of former mayor Petro carried the slogan "Bogotá Humana" (Humane Bogotá) and tried to curb street crime and micro-trafficking, while not losing sight of its at-risk homeless population.

This strategy seems lost now. The 2012 Law 1566 mentions that addiction should be treated as a disease, and therefore should be treated from a health perspective. CAMAD was abolished by the current administration because it lacked profitability, therewith losing sight of public health. According to the former CAMAD doctor, “prevention does not bring in money, and if we [CAMAD] encounter ourselves in the sphere of public health, we do not generate money and it's considered a 'loss' [by the municipal administration] ... They terminated the only strategy to come closer to the street population, who have nothing now.”

Consequences of the Bronx raid

The Bronx currently remains empty and is guarded by the police. Project developers have big plans with the almost fully vacated territory located in the center of the capital. The population itself did not, however, completely disappear.

"The intervention in the Bronx was an aesthetic solution to a social problem," said the former doctor. Under the nose of Bogotá's authorities, the city's most infamous neighborhood was tolerated for years. Evicting the Bronx ultimately did not solve anything, as problems were displaced to surrounding areas.

A few minutes’ walk from the Bronx brings you to places where many of its former inhabitants are located now. Streets are filled with people lying on the ground, clustering together. The homeless have found new shelter in the surrounding neighborhoods. Dealing and using—again—occurs openly. Local shopkeepers are worried about their security as the sayayines try to install new ganchos—the word given to the houses that served as criminal hubs—and try to reinstate the law and order of the Bronx elsewhere in the city. The same homeless and user population is currently an unwelcome guest in many neighborhoods, and faces violence and even murder in cases where local inhabitants and shopkeepers organize against them.

A few blocks further outside of the Bronx, in the neighborhood Restrepo, I met Claudia C., who is also homeless. She left the Bronx years ago when she stopped taking drugs after eleven years of substance abuse. She makes a modest living recycling trash she finds on the streets. Claudia shares an improvised home with three other homeless women. They organized a little kitchen inside, and her “apartment” is kept clean with a strict hand. Claudia explains that she lived in respective tranquillity for the last year, until recently. 

“I've been living quietly for a while in my neighborhood, until the Bronx got evicted. Since the homeless population increased, my belongings got stolen and stabbings nowadays occur frequently.” Claudia C. saw the street population in Restrepo rise from 40 to 200 persons. According to CAMAD's Claudia Osorio, the police haven been destroying and burning makeshift homes in the locality.

As the homeless currently spread throughout Bogotá, many of them are reported missing. Meanwhile, public funds designated for infrastructure projects and health budgets are cut—all while parts of public health services are being privatized.

A big problem is the social stigma and the criminalization by the authorities. Colombia has 6.9 million internally displaced persons—more than Syria. The "drugs-using thieving street population" is not much of a just image for the homeless in Bogotá. Especially knowing that many of the persons in the Bronx and similar places have been victimized by Colombia's internal conflict before, and have fled to the capital. Once in the streets of Bogotá, many of them end up in a vicious circle of crime and drug abuse, which is facilitated by an illicit narcotics economy which simultaneously serves as one of the drivers of conflict in the country. Violently displacing the same people within the capital aggravates social problems and creates personal upheaval and trauma. In Bogotá, current political strategies concerning the homeless and user population remain far from ideal.

Bram Ebus is a Dutch investigative journalist and NGO-researcher with ample experience in Latin America. In 2011, he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. In 2014 he obtained his Master´s Degree in Global Criminology at the same University. Investigating "crimes of the powerful," he currently has his focus on state-corporate crimes by the extractive sector and human rights violations caused by the war on drugs in Colombia, and is based in the country's capital Bogotá.

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Bram Ebus is a Dutch investigative journalist and NGO-researcher with ample experience in Latin America. In 2011, he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. In 2014 he obtained his Master´s Degree in Global Criminology at the same University. Investigating "crimes of the powerful," he currently has his focus on state-corporate crimes by the extractive sector and human rights violations caused by the war on drugs in Colombia, and is based in the country's capital Bogotá. You can find Bram Ebus on Twitter or Linkedin.