I’ve heard of police and military carrying out extrajudicial killings of thieves and indigentes. The issue came up after I noticed a significant difference in the streets around 7 de agosto.
I always hated going to 7 de agosto because it’s crawling with bazuceros, stumble-bums, and drunks. After countless times, I never stopped getting uncomfortable. I thought pictures or video of the area would be great for this blog, but I could never imagine stopping to take out a camera around all those dirty junkies.
I recently noticed a stark difference in 7 de agosto: there are no indigentes. None. Why was I so nervous? All the people around here are normal working Colombians – definitely not rich but nothing to be afraid of. None of the filthy addicts and beggars I came to associate with the neighborhood were around. What happened? Where’d they go?
I brought the issue up with some Chapinero neighbors and they all agreed the scum of 7 de agosto have disappeared. They said there must have been a limpieza – a social cleansing. Squads of police, military, paramilitary, or just vigilantes sweep through picking up the undesirables. They bring them to the mountains and shoot them, then dump them in the gullies where nobody will ever find them. Social cleansing is a documented practice in Colombia and much of Latin America.
I usually use the word, indigente, to describe these people. Some are bazuceros and others borrachos, but they’re all indigentes. There’s another word in the local slang: desechables – disposables.
In a well-known case from Barranquilla, private security guards for the Universidad Libre carried out a massive for-profit limpieza. They drove vans around the city looking for vagrants. They told them they had loads of cardboard they needed to get rid of, which the vagrants could have if they just came and picked it up (recycling cardboard is one of their primary money-makers). Once the guards had the vagrants away from the streets, they killed them and sold their bodies to the university’s medical department. It was a major scandal. Source: Deadly ‘social cleansing’ hits Latino poor.
Every article I found about social cleansing featured a quote from a citizen defending the practice. From that last article, a restaurant owner in downtown Bogota said:
The social-cleansing violence stems from a lack of legal guarantees. We pay our industry and commerce taxes and the government is supposed to keep the streets lit and provide a safe atmosphere for business … But the government does not keep its part. It is incapable of fulfilling its role as the regulator of peaceful coexistence among citizens.
Here’s a 1994 NY Times article on social cleansing in Colombia: Vigilantes in Colombia Kill Hundreds in a ‘Social Cleansing’. That article confirmed that the groups announce their sweeps in a given neighborhood. They warn the junkies when and where they’re coming with signs plastered all over the streets. So the junkies who (A) can read and (B) are sober enough to read have a chance to escape. Here’s a quote from a political science professor at the national university:
No state is viable with 30,000 homicides per year … Only 3 percent of those crimes go punished. Social-cleansing organizations spring up as a substitute for real justice.
I’ve had some harsh words for the addicts of Bogota. Apparently, a lot of people dislike them more than I do. If I hated going to 7 de agosto because of them, imagine how those local business owners felt. It wouldn’t be hard to take up a collection between those businesses to finance such a sweep. Maybe the business owners weren’t involved, but a group of police and military who felt it their civic duty. However it happened, the change in 7 de agosto is undeniable.
Here’s a recent tweet of mine (twitter.com/colinpost):
A beggar came up WITH A BOTTLE OF GLUE IN HAND. He asked for change in between huffs. Unbelievable.
Social cleansing is obviously wrong and should be condemned. But to play devil’s advocate, I had often looked at some of these people and wondered why they don’t just kill themselves. It seems some locals took that thought a step further. I just went to 7 de agosto today and concluded I’d have no problem whatsoever bringing my camera to take pictures or video. The only problem is there’s nothing interesting to take pictures of.
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