Saturday, December 25, 2010

Martyrs' Plaza

Plaza de los Martires, a scene of human degeneracy
Plaza de los Martires, in central Bogotá just a few blocks northwest of the Plaza Bolivar, sort of personifies the tragedies Colombia has seen.

During Colombia's decade of revolution from Spain in 1810-20, this area, then on the city's edge, was the scene of key battles. During Spain's short-lived reconquest of Colombia (1815-19), the Spaniards executed revolutionaries here, the most famous of them probably the young seamstress Policarpa Salavarrieta, now on the 10,000 peso note. Later, Colombians fought each other here during the first of the country's many civil wars.

'It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.'
In the mid-1800s, the government decided to build a monument in the area to the nation's martyrs. After the War of the Thousand Days ended, the Iglesia del Voto Nacional was built on the plaza's western side.

The century-old church shows its age. 
The National University's medical school was located on the plaza's south side, and the plaza was for many years the city's main market area, until this shifted south to Abastos and west to Paloquemao. The departure of the markets left many empty buildings, which were occupied by the homeless and drug addicts, who still populate the neighborhood. The old university building is now the police recruitment headquarters and used by the Presidential Guard, and the church has seen better days. The neighboring blocks contain many hardware and grain stores. On the plaza's east side is a Transmilenio line. On the plaza's western side, bicitaxis line up to carry people to the nearby Sanandresitos shopping centers.

Charity workers distribute food to homeless. The beggars broke into fights every few minutes. 
Waiting for handouts. 
Got some!
Los Martires has a terrible reputation because of the population of homeless people and drug addicts. That was intensified by the 2004-5 clearing of the infamous El Cartucho neighborhood, located just southeast of Los Martires, and replaced by Tercer Milenio Park. Some of El Cartucho's resident drug addicts and small-time criminals shifted to Los Martires, and in particularly the streets called 'El Bronx' or 'La Ele.'
This woman had fallen ill and was helped by paramedics. 
'It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country,' but the monument, renovated in 2008, doesn't show it. 
Few people, except perhaps the police and soldiers, come to the plaza to do homage to the martyrs buried here. For most bogotanos, it's a place to avoid. Perhaps as the city advances in its renovation of the city center, more businesses will move in and the drug addicts will move elsewhere.

Meanwhile, however, the human wreckage wandering across the plaza and sleeping on its grass seems to represent Colombia's martrydom - to the War on Drugs, to the many civil wars, which helped nobody and left so many lives devastated.

Lost cause? This plaque boasts about the city's 2008 renovation of the plaza. 
The area also preserves reminders of a lost dignity.

A horse cart rolls home thru, with the church in the background.
This building, on the plaza's corner, once was grand.
A Los Martires street today
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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