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Homeless addicts and crime bosses are roaming the streets of Bogotá after a police raid

Colombian police raided a notorious neighborhood known as El Bronx where addicts were fed to dogs or disolved in acid when they couldn't pay their tabs.

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Jul 15 2016, 5:15pm

Un auto destruido marca la entrada a 'El Bronx'. (Imagen por Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News)

Today, Gonzalo is the only resident of El Bronx, the long-neglected neighborhood just a few blocks south of Colombia's presidential palace.

The area was Bogotá's most notorious and drug-ravaged community until late May of this year, when 2,500 police officers swarmed through, displacing thousands of residents and the crime bosses who ran the place.

"I'm not leaving because it will all be back to normal within a month," said Gonzalo, who asked that his name be changed. "This whole area was controlled by gangs, that room above us is where they kept look out."

Gonzalo never had to move unlike others in the barrio because he owned the property he lived in, but the raid has created a massive diaspora of homeless addicts that the city is struggling to deal with. In the days following the operation police trucks took some of those forced out to other cities, according to witnesses. Some are even feared missing or dead. However, the vast majority remained behind, now roaming the city in search of a new place to sleep and get high.

Camilo, a homeless addict who had been living in and around El Bronx for nine years is now part of the displaced community.

"I was smoking up when the police arrived, shouting, with guns raised, throwing tear gas," said Camilo on the street of a nearby slum while sitting on the sidewalk with his girlfriend, Jenny, and another former denizen of El Bronx, Andres.

"I thought they'd come to kill us," Jenny said. "Everyone was panicking, they were grabbing children, old people and forcing them to move out. We had no idea where we were being taken."

"It was complete anarchy," Andres added, who had been living in El Bronx since its inception in the early 2000s.

The raid, which took place at 6am on May 28, was the brainchild of mayor Enrique Peñalosa.

"El Bronx was evidently a base of operations of all classes of criminals and the numbers show that," Peñalosa said a month after the raid, claiming crime had since fallen 42 percent in the area. "There will be no more independent republics of crime."

'There were buckets where people's faces would be dissolved [in acid]'

Despite the reported drop in crime, the city is now struggling to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the raid. Caught in the middle were an estimated 3,000 civilians, either homeless or living in squalid conditions, like Camilo and Jenny. Criminals too have been displaced to other poor neighborhoods in the city, where they continue to operate violently.

"We sleep in a different place every night now," Jenny said, dragging hard on a cigarette. "Life was much better in El Bronx."

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Hollman Morris, a prominent opposition city councilor and former journalist called the raid a "smokescreen" used to defer discussion from Peñalosa's controversial cuts to public services. According to him, nearly 50 percent of the approved budget for city development is allocated for Transmilenio, Bogotá's much-maligned bus network, with very little for the city's vulnerable homeless.

"When you take a decision to solve a problem like El Bronx, you must have sufficient contingencies for it," Morris added, echoing a common view that while the neighborhood needed to be taken down, the lack of planning was a massive oversight.

Members of the homeless diaspora are unable to reclaim what few possessions they have. At the police blockade at the site's entrance, many former inhabitants were asking officers if they could enter to collect their things.

"All our stuff is inside, but they say 'come back tomorrow'," a displaced woman said, her young family waiting with her. "They've said that every day this week."

Graffiti of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord, outside a bar in El Bronx. (Photo by Joe Daniel Parkins/VICE News.)

Police at the scene said any requests to reclaim possessions must go through the mayor's office.

The neighborhood, just two small city blocks in size, had come to represent Bogotá at its most crime-ridden. Built on an economy of basuco — the highly addictive and dirt cheap by-product of the cocaine manufacturing process consumed by the city's most vulnerable — El Bronx was where the majority of the capital's drugs arrived and were sold. Police estimate that on any given weekday the gangs would earn nearly $25,000. Over the weekend they estimated that they bring in $100,000 from the drug trade.

Today, the area appears post-apocalyptic. With just Gonzalo and 24-hour armored-police patrols in the neighborhood, the extent of the decay is striking. The roads and houses are uneven and littered with pipes, zipper bags, and other drug-related paraphernalia. The floorboards are torn apart and covered in faeces, both animal and human.

'That's where I go to get high now'

In it's day, people would enter El Bronx to get high, often remaining for months, working shifts for criminal gangs in exchange for more basuco, said police and witnesses. It's not uncommon to hear stories from families of promising youngsters who enter El Bronx and are not heard from for years.

Also hoping to enter was a teacher looking for a former student who had gone missing. He suspected he was inside somewhere, hiding, but police wouldn't let him search.

When VICE News visited El Bronx for the first time in August 2015, doctors monitoring the area said that it takes six months of dedicated recovery before a hardened basuco addict begins to find value in life beyond the drug.

Then, the area was rife with addicts sleeping on filthy street floors, or in the dilapidated buildings. A pile of trash at each exit served as a border. Within those confines control belonged to the gangs.

Following the raid, police at the scene gave a morbid tour of some of the area's most grisly spaces. One room high up in an abandoned house was allegedly used to chop up prisoners and feed them to pit bulls.

"People would come here to take drugs until they run out of money," a police officer said, in a room covered in bloodstains, graffiti, and dog faeces. "They would then be forced to stay to work off the debt, or killed to make a point."

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Danny Julián Quintana, director of the attorney general's public investigations team, shed more light on what officials found.

"There were buckets where people's faces would be dissolved [in acid]," said Quintana. "The gangs enslaved homeless people into trafficking drugs and guns, and disappearing the dead bodies. The gangs would also recruit children from schools in the south of Bogotá into sexual exploitation. Homeless people and children were made to fight."

Colombian media following the raid salivated at the gruesome details. There were reports of alligators in the barrio, Satan worship, and labs where people would grind human bones into the basuco. Many of these rumors have been around for years, and observers suspect that they are myths to amplify El Bronx's notoriety.

Quintana was keen to stress that the evidence they found was shocking enough without exaggerating the details, not least because police officers were involved. The gangs paid members of the police and the attorney general's office to work in a range of services, even offering child prostitutes over online social networks.

Quintana's team reports that they found 102,000 doses of different drugs, from pills to basuco, a 200 meter tunnel from within El Bronx to a neighboring barrio, and 900 slot machines. Those living in the area would often turn to gambling in order to support their basuco habit.

'The intervention in El Bronx was necessary'

However, what has disappointed many Colombians is that the massive raid only led to 11 arrests — including Teodilio Arrango and Ronald Stid Rodríguez, both gang leaders — when hundreds if not thousands of criminals operated there. Many observers point to the rampant corruption within the police and military, with the location of a large army building one block east of El Bronx, and a police station with 7,000 officers two blocks south, serving as an uncomfortable symbol of such duplicity.

"The main blow of this operation was against the security forces," said Julian Quintero, director of local drug policy NGO Social Technical Action (or ATS). "The raid has exposed their entire network of corruption that kept this El Bronx business going, that which also allowed several ringleaders to escape."

Homemade pipes, often fashioned from toxic PVC tubing, line the streets of El Bronx. (Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News.)

Quintero, whose organization provides a number of harm reduction programs across Colombia for addicts, also expressed a concern about the future of those who lived there. Some remain temporarily housed outside of Bogotá, or within abstinence-only medical treatment, but the vast majority now live in other rough neighborhoods, where they continue to consume. "The city must open the possibilities of action from the perspective of risk and harm reduction," he said.

The raid, which forced the city's most vulnerable population onto the streets, has caused much debate in Bogotá over how different administrations have approached the complex cycle of addiction and criminality.

The city's previous mayor, Gustavo Petro — a former leftist guerrilla — also tried to take down El Bronx, but did so while looking through a lens of harm reduction and social integration. He introduced the Center for Medical Attention to Drug Addicts, or CAMAD, which saw doctors arrive to El Bronx and other vulnerable areas in order to provide basic healthcare for the people living there.

As part of the current mayor Peñalosa's reforms, CAMAD has had their funding slashed and faces being scrapped altogether. The senior Doctor at the hospital serving El Bronx claims the raid and the reduction in CAMAD resources constitute an attack on Bogotá's weakest, which she attributes to a pernicious neo-liberal agenda.

"Peñalosa is clearly against anything that can be attributed to Petro," said the doctor, explaining her concern that 22 public hospitals face partial privatization. "He is doing this for purely political reasons." Her team received no notification of the raid before it happened. They, like every other Bogotano except a handful of officials and El Bronx kingpins they tipped off, found out about the operation through the splashes of headlines.

Dog faeces and bloodstains on the floor of a 'chop house', where people would be chopped up and fed to dogs.(Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels/VICE News.)

Analysts were quick to point out that while the raid generated some welcome publicity for the unpopular mayor, little will change on the ground, with criminals already setting up operations in nearby areas.

"The intervention in El Bronx was necessary," said Ariel Ávila, a Bogotá-based analyst with Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. "But the brutal error on Peñalosa's part was equating crime with criminal markets. You can fight criminals but because the market for basuco, coke, and pills will always remain, [crime] will always appear somewhere else."

Since the raid, many of the gang leaders that escaped capture have moved into San Bernardo — more commonly referred to as Samber — a similar though less infamous neighborhood a few blocks away. Police say that despite heightened presence there following the raid on El Bronx, Samber is already seeing an increase in violent crime and drug trafficking, with the gangs desperate to establish control. Homeless addicts are arriving daily to support their habits.

"That's where I go to get high now," said Camilo, who was living in El Bronx at the time of the raid. "Except now it's more expensive. Since they took [El Bronx] the price of basuco in Samber went up."

Colombians are keen to point out that this is nothing new. When Peñalosa served his first term as mayor back in the late nineties, Bogotá's drug trade ran through a shanty town a few blocks from what is now El Bronx. The area was known as El Cartucho, from the Spanish for cardboard, after the makeshift dwellings fashioned from empty boxes that covered the slum. Peñalosa ordered a raid just like the one late last month, indiscriminately kicking out gangs and civilians in the region. The majority then moved a few blocks west to El Bronx.

"I was here before this was El Bronx," Gonzalo, the neighborhood's last resident said, looking resigned. "I came to Bogotá looking for opportunity and set up my shop here. Then they shut down El Cartucho, and the gangs arrived. Now they'll either end up back here, or somewhere else. What will change?"

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Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter:@joeparkdan