EL ESPECTADOR

Welcome To El Bronx, Colombia's Capital Of Violence And Vice

A recent drug raid in a south-central Bogotá neighborhood that shares its name with the New York borough uncovers a veritable den of vice, violence and unfettered gang rule.

On the streets of Bogota's Bronx
On the streets of Bogota's Bronx

BOGOTÁ — A massive police raid has turned public attention to an area of downtown Bogotá that makes its rugged New York City namesake, the Bronx, look charming by comparison.

"El Bronx," as the sector is known, is the Colombian capital's main point of sale for drugs, not to mention a den of kidnappings, extortion and torture. It also attacts an inordinate number of homeless people. About half of the city's 4,000 or so homeless live in the city center, and 30% of those are in El Bronx, which is little more than the intersection of a few streets in the Los Mártires district. The addicts among them constitute a core of collaborators, willing or otherwise, with criminal structures engaged in the trafficking of drugs and people.

The city knows that policing is not enough to put an end to such activities, and officials recently doubled efforts to help the homeless coming out of Bronx. The Bogotá social integration secretariat, part of the municipal government, had recently come to attend some 1,500 homeless people a day, providing shelters to 800 or so homeless people every night.

The area raided by police on May 28 was an ongoing carnival of crime, with a gruesome menu including criminal "slaughterhouses," torture, kidnappings, setting dogs on people, people trafficking, sexual slavery. Each person there seems to have a story, revealing a brutal picture of the working methods of the main gangs, how they used homeless people to ward off authorities and how a private hospital has been saving their lives.

Crime for all

"The Bronx belongs to everyone. We just supply the "product" and you have to take care of the business." That is the message transmitted by the Sayayines, the gang that has largely ruled the neighborhood.

Whenever there were police operations, the homeless were told to take to the streets and riot, ransacking shops and throwing stones at the Transmilenio bus system. Only they had to stay clear of certain clothes shops that were a cover for gang operations. In response to the recent raid, local mobsters were said to have handed out "boxes of bazooka" (cocaine paste), to fire up the homeless to loot shops in nearby Plaza España.

One Bronx resident says the raided zone had two "security chiefs," working around the clock. One was in charge of monitoring the zone and noting unusual entries. The other tracked problems on the street, like a customer paying with counterfeit money or some recycler stuffing a slot machine with cardboard.

For any loan received had to be repaid double the amount within 24 hours. "If they started taking their stuff but weren't showing up, you can be sure they wouldn't get to smoke their bag to the end," as anyone not paying up was burned with acid.

Another means of keeping order in the Bronx was that punishment for thefts among drug was often a fist fight or boxing match, with dealers providing gloves.

The addicts worked for bazooka cocaine paste, and in general, while the Sayayines had a potent arsenal of weapons, they did not mistreat the homeless, locals say. It was their way of ensuring the local version of "peace."

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