Colombia’s ‘pervert police’ want sexual harassment out of rush hour

08/19/2014 6:48 PM

08/20/2014 12:57 PM

Every morning at rush hour, seven young women and four men plow into the capital’s mass transit system, blend into the crowd and then wait. Amid the jostle and crush of commuters, they stay alert for those who might be enjoying the cramped conditions a little too much.

Welcome to Bogotá’s pervert police, an undercover, largely female squad that’s trying to take sexual harassment out of rush hour.

Locals joke that the city’s Transmilenio bus system, which carries 2 million people a day, sometimes gets so packed that the sauna and massage are free. But groping on the bus is a serious issue. Since the squad began operating 20 days ago, it has caught 16 men (it’s always men), some of whom have been repeat offenders.

“We look for people who are staring at women — looking at their private parts, their legs, their butts, and as soon as they touch we make our move,” said Roxana, a 25-year-old police officer who wouldn’t give her name because it would blow her cover. “We’ve caught well dressed men who you would never imagine would do something like that…Then sometimes you see somebody who looks strange, but they turn out to be harmless, just strange.”

The Elite Group, as they’re known, is the city’s latest effort to try to make rush hour more female-friendly. A few months ago, the city also inaugurated women-only cars on the bus system.

Commuter harassment is a depressingly global problem. The Internet is abuzz with groups trying to raise the alarm about groping on trains, buses and metros from cities as distinct as London, Colombo, Istanbul and São Paulo.

A 2014 survey by the U.S.-based nonprofit Stop the Street Harassment found that 20 percent of all women and 16 percent of men in the United States have been sexually harassed on public transportation. But not all of that was the touching that Colombia’s cops are trying to eradicate.

Lt. Lina Maria Rios is the squad’s public face and only one who will use her real name. She said the group’s members were picked for their knowledge of law, intelligence gathering skills, and abilities with children and juveniles. All of them are trained in self defense.

Groping is rarely a jail-able offense in Colombia. Judges usually ask perpetrators and victims to reconcile in lieu of fines or detention. So Rios said she sees her group’s work as instilling a sense of paranoia among potential perverts.

“We want them to think that any pretty woman — or even an ordinary looking woman — might be a cop,” she said. “We want to generate inhibition.”

When the squad was first presented in July — all wearing tight jeans with their backs toward the camera — some accused the police of setting up a sting. Rios bristles at that notion of entrapment and points out that none of her agents have actually been victims of gropers.

In a way, the crackdown is critical to the city’s development. Mayor Gustavo Petro is expanding public transportation as he wages a quiet war on cars — turning thoroughfares into pedestrian walkways and rolling out bus-only lanes. There are also plans to levy a congestion tax on those who drive into the city center at rush hour.

Even so, unless cities provide convenient, high-quality and safe transportation, people will always resist getting on the bus, said Edgar Enrique Sandoval, president of Bogotá’s Transmilenio system from 1999 to 2003.

Public transportation in Latin America “has always been thought of as the last resort for those who don’t have a car,” he said. “We have to make it a system so that even those who can afford a car will take public transportation.”

Linda Salgar is a 28-year-old construction worker who takes the Transmilenio almost daily. She said not a week goes by that she’s not confronted with some sort of unpleasantness, whether it’s pickpockets, rudeness or harassment.

“Sometimes you’ll be standing there and some man will be rubbing up behind you because it’s so crowded but you know there’s more going on,” she said.

The officers, however, said they’re looking for more clear-cut cases — when there’s intentional grabbing and groping.

When asked about some of her most memorable arrests, Sally, a 23-year-old agent, said she busted a man for grabbing a woman’s bottom. He was wearing a colostomy bag and seemed to be in wretched health.

“He was using the fact that he was sick to take advantage of people,” she said.

But Sally said her biggest surprise was the general lack of manners on the bus.

“Men don’t care if you’re a woman anymore,” she said. “They’ll never get up to give you their seat.”

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