It’s known as “El Bronx,” and for decades the slum in the heart of Colombia’s capital has been the stuff of nightmares: a sordid stew of drug dens, vagrants, prostitution and gambling.
Close to government buildings and tourism hotspots, the area has been a no-go zone for police — and anyone else who cared for their pocketbook or their safety.
Mayor Enrique Peñalosa calls it an “independent republic of crime.”
Starting Saturday, the police and heavily armed military began seizing control of the area, and the reports that have emerged prove the neighborhood’s fearsome reputation is merited.
Guns, Hostages, Grenades
Police said they had removed more than 2,000 people — many of them homeless drug addicts — from the neighborhood and rescued 136 minors, some of them victims of the sex trade. They also seized stockpiles of cocaine, marijuana and bazuco, an addictive crack-like substance.
In addition, they found hidden passageways used to smuggle drugs and weapons, and rescued a 23-year-old man who was being held hostage in a derelict building, bound hand and foot and with a chain around his neck.
“What we found in the Bronx went far beyond what we knew,” Daniel Mejía, the city’s undersecretary of security, told RCN radio on Tuesday. “We found caches of weapons and grenades, large amounts of drugs [hidden] in walls and ceilings, houses for satanic worship and places for the sexual exploitation of minors.”
The attorney general’s office is also investigating three locations that they suspect were “casas de pique,” or chop houses, where people may have been tortured and dismembered.
“This was hell in the center of the city,” Mejía said.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday said authorities had captured the heads of three gangs that used the neighborhood as a stronghold to sell drugs.
“The operation is ongoing because we cannot allow this situation to continue in the heart of Bogotá, just six blocks from the presidential palace,” he said.
The mayor’s office said it has provided aid to 2,500 Bronx dwellers, including 1,700 who have been moved to shelters. But many are resisting the change. About 400 had started setting up camp in the nearby Plaza España, where city officials said they were armed with Molotov cocktails. But they were evicted late Monday.
On Tuesday, parts of the city’s center looked like a war zone. Riot police had barricaded off several blocks and were checking identification of those trying to get in.
Luz Estela Cardenas, the director of Renacer, a foundation that works with sexually exploited children, said that many of the 18,000 minors her organization has helped over the last 28 years have emerged from the Bronx and neighborhoods like it.
Many victims start off visiting the areas to buy drugs, she said, before getting snared by criminal networks.
“This goes well beyond sexual abuse,” she said. “The issue is exploitation and the trafficking of girls and boys. Some of these children are sexual slaves.... Others have literally been kidnapped off the streets surrounding the Bronx.”
The slum, named after the storied New York borough, has resisted redemption in the past. In 2013, Santos visited the site after then-Mayor Gustavo Petro had tried to clean it up. At the time, Santos said the Bronx’s “recovery” was a model for other urban slums, which are known here as “ollas,” or cooking pots.
The nation’s ombudsman, Alfonso Cajiao, said he was “horrified” by the reports and said his office would be vigilant to make sure the city wasn’t simply pushing the problem from one neighborhood to the other.
City officials say there are enough shelters and resources to provide services for everyone being evicted, but they also cautioned that they cannot force the homeless to accept those services.
Peñalosa, who took office in January, has a history of cracking down on ollas. In 1998, when he was also mayor, he razed one of Bogotá’s most notorious slums, El Cartucho, and turned it into a concrete plaza. Those strong-arm tactics were questioned by homeless advocates at the time but also won praise for helping revitalize the city’s center.
Cardenas, with Renacer, said the entire city needs to pitch in if the problem is to be resolved for good.
She said that for the past 20 years she’s seen the problem of child sexual exploitation be pushed around from slum to slum amid police crackdowns.
“The mafias that control this trade are very powerful,” she said, and are probably already looking for their next haunt.
Around Bogotá, a city of almost 8 million people, there are dozens of mini-slums that could easily turn into hotbeds for Bronx refugees, she said.
“Now,” she said, “we have to hope they don’t grow.”
This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.