Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Memories of El Bronx

Chiri, left, and Juan Carlos point to a detail of their model of El Bronx.

Looking out of the window of
a Bronx rented room.
For most Bogotanos, the name 'El Bronx' represents misery, addiction, depravement and addiction. But, for three young men who lived years there as criminals and addicts, the place also represents joys, friendship and pleasure.

The three young men recounted their experiences recently in Bogotá's Museo Nacional, where they also displayed a scale reproduction of the three streets which for nearly 15 years were home for thousands of thieves, drug dealers, crack addicts, prostitutes and myriad other criminals, just a few blocks from City Hall and the Presidential Palace.
Drugs for sale.
The model was complete with a stabbing, lots of bags of drugs and the streets' many other criminal activities, but also normal activities such as a woman preparing food and children playing with a dog.

Juan Carlos, 19, who lived in the Bronx for six years and Chiri, 22, who lived there for a decade, were both addicted to basuco, a cheap, dirty form of crack cocaine, and supported themselves by robbery. Chiri recounted how he belonged to a gang which stole car parts on the neighboring Carrera 10.

"I'd ask the driver for a handout," he said, "and then bang! the rear-view mirror's gone!" He made a motion of ripping the mirror off of the car.

But El Bronx, which was ruled by several criminal kingpins, each of whom controlled a sector of the
A Bronx corner.
streets, had its own organization and rules. For example, thievery was prohibited inside - except when the prize was big and one had permission from one of the kingpins.

"You could come and go safely," one of the young men told me. "Fresco."

"Nobody stole just a few hundred thousand pesos. It had to be millions."

The neighboring small businesses, which sell bedwear and hardware were safe, the men explained, because they paid protection money. In fact, El Bronx's bosses prohibited stealing within a several block radius, as Chiri learned when he stole a bicycle on the neighboring Los Martires Plaza. The bike's owner chased him into El Bronx, where one of the bosses learned of Chiri's misdeed and sentenced him to being hit 25 times with a wooden board. Chiri took it in stride.

A stabbing in the street.
"I just said 'let's get it over with,' Chiri recalled. "I wanted someone who would do it fast."

But he'd gotten off easy. When Mayor Enrique Peñalosa sent in thousands of police to clear out El Bronx a bit more than a year ago, they found cemeteries and torture chambers, used to punish those who didn't pay their drug debts. I asked the young men about the stories that the penalty for failing to pay was death and they shrugged their shoulders.

"Isn't it that way everywhere?" they asked me. "How about your country?"

I told them that this was beyond my personal experience.

Another unpardonable sin in El Bronx was spying - or even giving the appearance of doing so. For
example, outsiders came in to buy drugs or stolen items, but couldn't dilly dally. If they didn't come, buy and leave, they were suspect and could be punished.

"The Bronx wasn't a shopping mall," Juan Carlos said.

Both boys entered El Bronx because of their drug habits. "It's just a short step from (doing drugs on) the corner, to living in the street," they said, and added, "There are no social classes in El Bronx. Everybody's the same, everybody's an addict."

In contrast, young girls and women addicts ended up trading sex for drugs in El Bronx - and many became prisoners. After months of witnessing the Bronx's crimes, the kingpins would not let them leave for fear they'd rat on them.

Children play with a dog, lower left, near scavenged materials to be sold.
Bazuco, or crack, was the ubiquitous drug there, but marijuana, heroin, psychedelics and alchohol were also popular. Juan Carlos recalled multi-day alchohol and heroin binges. "Boy, I was flying," he said.

The entrance to the old Bronx.
Not all the Bronx residents were criminals and addicts. There were also working families, they said, who lived there because it was cheap: a room cost as little as $5,000 pesos per night, and you could pay in cash by the night.

But, amidst the horrors, the boys also experienced solidarity, when other Bronx residents shared food and loaned money to each other.
Quiet and empty: El Bronx today.

Now, they are living in a rehabilitation center, working with other addicts, and have started a hip hop band called 'Free Soul.'

El Bronx replaced the nearby El Cartucho neighborhood, which was bulldozed and replaced by the Tercel Milenio Park in the early 2000s. The ex-Bronx residents agreed that the problems of addiction and crime won't go away, but urged more support for addicts. That wasn't the case with the thousands who had inhabited El Bronx, many of whom ended up on the street. Juan Carlos and Chiri said there are about 150 recovering addicts in their rehabilitation residence.

The young men made one other point: To its residents, their home was not 'El Bronx,' but 'La L,' named for the L shape made by the two original streets invaded by addicts and criminals driven out of El Cartucho. "El Bronx is a place in New York," they pointed out.

Evidently, they think the original Bronx's reputation reflects badly on them. (Little do they know that New York's Bronx is being gentrified.)

As for Bogotá's Bronx, the city has plans to turn the neighborhood into an arts and education district. We'll see whether that ever happens. So far, it's still vacant.

I asked Juan Carlos whether he regretted his years living in El Bronx.

"No," he replied, "if I hadn't been there, then I wouldn't be here today."

This was the last week the event and exhibition were to be held in the Museo Nacional, but it will move on to the Centro de Memoria and IDArtes.

It's worth seeing, even if your Spanish is less than perfect, like mine. I probably understood less than half of what was said, but I comprehended enough to appreciate the tragedy, suffering and humanity of El Bronx, and why it's a good thing that it's gone - until another one appears.


Battle in El Bronx

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Stiudents' Strange Ceremony

This strange ceremony, mixing chicha, fire, a monster and indigenous dancing, was staged yesterday evening by dance and art students from the Antonio Nariño University, as part of their year-end project.

What it meant was not clear, and left open to interpretation, a student named Brayan told me. But it also had something to do with the injustice of the 1948 assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán on a nearby sidewalk, Brayan said.

The police, however, evidently did not recognize the artistic genius in the event, rather seeing it as more of a public nuisance, located between two TransMilenio lanes and in the middle of busy Carrera Septima - not to mention the smoke billowing into Bogotá's already-noxious air. The cops hurried the students away, and later fined their teacher under the Nuevo Codigo de Policia.

That all seemed wrong to Brayan.

"It's just an art project," he protested. "It's not like we were here burning things all day long."

Evidently, artistic smoke is not bad for you like regular smoke.

But Brayan saw an elegance in the episode. "We were memorializing injustice," he observed, "and now we've been met by injustice."

Brayan was collecting donations in a hat to pay his teacher's fine.

Certainly, in their zeal for public order and protecting our air, the police might think about going a few blocks north or west and citing the vehicles belching black smoke all day long.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Carification of La Candelaria

An apartment building goiing up with a parking garage.
A new kind of apartment building is popping up in La Candelaria: Ones with car parking incorporated. 

That might sound nice and convenient, but it means worse traffic congestion, more pollution and even worse health for the neighborhood. 

Until now, the minority who owned cars parked them in commercial lots and paid for the privilege.
A new apartment complex with parking garage:
Makes an ugly contrast with the neighborhood's
historic homes.
But incorporated parking changes the dynamics and economics. Now, by acquiring an apartment, you're paying for a parking space whether you want it or not. That means that those who don't own cars, subsidize those who do (as happens with all 'free' parking.) It also sends a signal: 'You should own a car, and use it for transport.'
The convenience of having a car at hand means that many residents will use them, even to go two blocks to buy some beers. That means even worse traffic jams, and less exercise for residents. It also hurts the local economy, since residents with cars are more likely to go across town to shop in some supermarket, rather than supporting a local shop. 

And, of course, more driving means less exercise and all the harm that causes. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Price of Democracy

Humberto de la Calle celebrates victory.
The Partido Liberal, once one of the Colombia's two dominant political parties but now a minor player, held its presidential primary. Only 2% of eligible voters, and a far smaller proportion of Colombian citizens, participated in the election, which cost the nation 40 billion pesos, as well as subjecting the whole country to a dry Sunday and depriving tourists of public museums.

2% of the electorate participated.
But out of this exercise in democracy - which might have been better and more cheaply carried out by a phone survey or an internet vote - came the Liberal's presidential candidate, Humberto de la Calle, who defeated Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo. De la Calle headed the government delegation at the peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba, and would be a fitting succesor to Pres. Santos, who has made peace the centerpiece of his government.

Colombians will almost certainly face a choice between de la Calle and an anti-treaty candidate chosen by  ex-Pres. Uribe. The vote will become a referendum on the peace treaty.

If by next year, Colombians have accepted the peace agreement and want to move forward, then de la Calle will likely be the next president. But in the era of Brexit and Trump, there's no telling what might happen. The peace deal, after all, was narrowly defeated in a plebiscite.

It won't happen this time: A mural advertises the candidacy of Interior Ministry Juan Fernando Cristo.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Cynicism of Timochenko

FARC leader Timochenco, who created
millions of victims, is suddenly
concerned for them.
Timochenco, the ex-leader of the FARC guerrillas, and now presidential candidate of the FARC political party, apparently has a new mission: to fight for the rights of the victims of Colombia's armed conflict.

That's really interesting, since Timochenco, whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, created innumerable victims himself as leader of the FARC guerrillas, who kidnapped, committed massacres, recruited children, forced women to have abortions and drove millions of peasants off of their land during their half-century of existence.

None of which, however, means that Timochenco's concerns are misplaced. In fact, the peace deal between the FARC and the government will mean widespread impunity for both soldiers and guerrillas, some of are eligible for political office despite being guilty of crimes against humanity. Timochenco, for his part, has been sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for myriad crimes. Those sentences will be suspended, however, as long as he participates in the JEP, the transitory judicial structure created to try ex-guerrillas and soldiers. Meanwhile, Timochenco is running for president.

Another group who will get off with a slap on the wrist are ranchers and businessmen who financed
Creating victims: Residents of the town of Bojayá, Chocó
clean up the church destroyed by a FARC cylinder bomb
which killed about 100 people.
illegal armed groups such as the guerrillas and their paramilitary enemies. The payments are known as vacunas, or 'vaccinations,' and opinions are polarized over whether those who made such payments are victims or criminals. In many cases, those who refused to pay off the outlaw groups have been kidnapped or murdered or had their livestock stolen. But many allege that landowners and corporations paid off illegal groups which returned the favor by driving peasants off of land the wealthy desired.

Ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe also appears to have gotten off easy under the court's recent interpretation of the peace agreement. Uribe, who comes from a ranching family and whose father was murdered by the FARC, has been investigated multiple times for alleged links to right-wing death squads which flourished during his time in power. However, as an ex-president, he will enjoy immunity.

Yet, while it is certainly true that the conflict's victims will recieve short shrift, a successful peace process will hopefully reduce the number of victims created in the first place.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Plaza San Victorino UInder Guard

A police line on Plaza San Victorino today.
Plaza San Victorino, known for the nearby stores selling inexpensive toys, clothing, housewares and
Barricades on the plaza's west side.
other things, is sealed off these days. The city fears, reasonably, that, given the chance, street vendors will invade and occupy the plaza, as they have done many years before as Christmas neared. 

Some years, police invaded, the vendors rioted, and the police used tear gas. This year, they want to avoid those crises before they happen.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Bendita Chicha Festival

A few photos from the Bendita bebida festival held yesterday and today on the Plaza del Chorro de Queveda. Chicha and masato are traditional drinks inherited from the Muisca indigenous people, made from fermented corn and rice, respectively.

They're available around the plaza all the time (except during dry law), particularly in the Callejon del Embudo.

Bottles of chicha for sale.

Traditional foods.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Non-P.C. Forum

The Freedom Forum was held in the old Jockey Club
building off of Santander Plaza in La Candelaria.
When it comes to youth protest, usually the targets are pretty clear: The U.S. government, the World Bank, big business, Israel, etc. etc.

And there's plenty there to protest about, particularly with the current administration in Washington. But there's plenty to protest against in other places. So, it's refreshing to see young people taking on those other targets.

And some of those young people got their say this week at the College Freedom Forum, hosted this year by Bogotá's Rosario University. They included Abdalaziz Alhamza, a young Syrian, who talked about the horrors ISIS is committing against his country's people; Kimberley Motley, a U.S. citizen who is a pioneering defense attorney in Afghanistan, where just being a woman is a challenge, much less a foreigner who is of Korean and African descent; Cuban freedom activist Kimberley Motley; Mexican anti-drug prohibition activist Lisa Sánchez; and Ukranian anti-corruption activist Yulia Marushevska.

Significantly, the participants, four of the five of whom are women, don't seem to belong to any single ideology. Instead, they fight against severe social problems and straight-out evil.

Of course, the College Freedom Forum, and its sister organization, the Oslo Freedom Forum, as well as their sponsor, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation have been linked to islamophobia for criticism of repressive governments in Moslem nations. The Rights Foundation "has been described by the Cuban state media as a CIA front, labeled “imperialist” by the Ecuadorean president, and declared “enemies of the state” by the Venezuelan propaganda machine" says the Huffington Post. But, sadly, many Moslem-majority nations do have repressive governments. And Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, which label themselves lefist 'revolutionaries,' have all committed serious violations of human rights.

For its part, the Rights Foundation says it promotes an open society and opposes authoritarianism. It's hard to argue with those values.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Institutions Don't Work

Are they real, or just virtual?
Case One: For months, our building's sewage system regular crisis. During hard rains, the
wastewater would back up and come flowing up out of the bathroom drain, obliging all of us to grab mops and buckets and clean the mess up.

The landladies, who live upstairs, didn't care - until it happened to them. Then, they hired laborers to clean and rebuild the house's pipes. Then, the only step left was for the city's Acueducto, or Water, department, to hook the house's pipes up to the city sewer line.

That was months ago, and we're still waiting.

One of the landladies, who has physical and psychological problems, has visited Acueducto at least a half dozen times, and come back with promises that they would do the work 'in a few days', 'in a week', 'in a month', etc. They even wrote 'Emergencia!' in big letters on one of the work orders. They've broken all their promises.

To compound the situation's absurdity, the last time the landlady visited Acueducto, they told her she needed to first go get permits from the city's Transit and Public Space departments. And then come back to acueducto.

Shouldn't the water department, rather than the homeowner, have the responsibility of coordinating with the transit department about planned street work? And if they do want the homeowner to do the city employees' job, shouldn't they have told her this the first time she visited, months ago?

Or is all this delay and run-around their way of saying 'You need to grease my palm to get anything done'?
'God and Fatherland.'
And where does the
public service come in?

Case Two: More than two months ago, a foreigner who has lived in Colombia for years was walking down a Candelaria street when a youth stabbed him several times in the back.

The foreigner almost died of blood loss, spent more than a month in the hospital, underwent a half dozen surgeries, lost a piece of one kidney, and is now at home recuperating.

Meanwhile, what have the police done about this attempted murder? The police 'investigador' only interviewed the victim more than two weeks after the attack - and only after we complained to his superiors - and more than two months after the crime he has not talked to the witness. The street has many video cameras which might have captured the attack, but the investigador hasn't looked at the videos. Instead, he gave the victim's teenage son a letter authorizing him to obtain the videos.

"He wants me to do his job," the son says.

A Colombian acquaintance who works in a La Candelaria hotel had a similar experience after being stabbed in an attempted mugging. He went down to the police station and placed the denuncia, but hasn't heard from the cops since.

How many people have these criminals robbed, attacked or even murdered since? But identifying and catching them seems to carry a much lower priority with the cops than, say, shaking down kids for smoking pot or stopping tour guides for working without the benefit of a Sena certification.

And if the public institutions are this apathetic and abusive here, in central Bogotá, in one of the city's more important neighborhoods, the heart of its tourism industry, then what happens when someone needs help in Usme, Kennedy, Ciudad Bolivar or some other barrio popular?

Yet, the really remarkable thing is that Colombian institutions actually work WELL compared to those in many neighboring countries, such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have sought refuge in Colombia because of the astronomical levels of corruption and criminal violence there (as well as the collapsing economy and hyuperinflation).

In Bolivia, where I lived some 15 years ago, the public institutions seemed designed primarily to squeeze money out of the people they were supposed to serve. There, my landlady's telephone would get cut off periodically, and she'd have to go down to the phone company and pay someone a bribe to get it turned back on. And the police seemed to make a practice of arresting people in order to force them to pay a bribe to be released - a form of institutionalized state kidnapping for ransom.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The War We Have Not Seen

Massacre victims.
A paramilitary commander kidnaps a woman on suspicion of guerrilla sympathies, holds and rapes her, and then murders her to keep her quiet.

A teenage FARC guerrilla, eight months pregnant, wants to have her baby. But the guerrilla leaders
Massacring civilians.
force a doctor to abort her pregnancy. When the doctor and the baby's father both object, the guerrilla leaders order them murdered, too.

A child soldier flees a paramilitary unit, but is recaptured. The paramilitary commander gathers together the students from the local school to watch the execution, as a warning.

A guerrilla unit commander, ordered to blow up a military vehicle, becomes bored with waiting, and decides to bomb a car carrying a civilian family instead.

FARC guerrillas, suspicous that a local schoolteacher is reporting on them when she leaves town, capture and hang her.

A funeral.
Such horrors became almost routine during Colombia's long and senseless conflict. And such accounts, told by ex-combatants, many of them only children when they joined up, are on display now in Bogotá's Museum of Modern Art, illustrated by childlike paintings.

The project is called 'The War We Have Not Seen', by the Points of Encounter Foundation, and captures a few of the conflict's innumerable horrors, horrors which would have made headlines in any normal country, but, if not for this project, would have gone unnoticed here.

The museum has, incidentally, done a good job of becoming bilingual.
A hanging.

A river of death.

Killing a woman.

Kidnap victims.

A massacre.

A paramilitary officer. In the background, a woman he raped and then murdered.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours