Saturday, 8 March 2014

Bogotá's 'dark side' rises

There is no doubt that Colombia's image has changed, in a positive sense, over the last number of years. Not only has this happened from an external perspective, where this naturally stunning country was once seen as a war zone and best to be avoided, but also internally. Many Colombians now have a desire, and more importantly feel safe enough, to travel around and see the many sights this land has to offer; and on that front it has few equals.
One of the many locations in Bogotá where the city's homeless sleep.
Above is as good as it gets for some of Bogotá's homeless.

From a personal perspective, a few 'minor-ish' incidents aside, I've generally felt largely safe here, be that living in Bogotá or travelling independently to various parts of the country.* Of course at times it can be a case of ignorance being bliss. In terms of the capital city, since my first arrival in 2009, I've wandered about in areas that many longer-term residents, with memories of a not-too-distant deadly past, wouldn't let a rat roam in. For sure, I've heard the stories, but I find it best to judge from personal experience in the 'here and now', along with my gut instincts. Such an approach generally 'sees me right'.

To this end, I had always found Bogotá's historic centre, La Candelaría, as safe as any inner city neighbourhood can be. However, since returning to live there after a spell in some different sectors, it seems that there has been a growth in 'less desirable' types floating about the area. And, at the risk of being biased, their focus appears to be on the ubiquitous 'extranjeros' (foreigners) in this part of town. That's largely due to the mistaken (on this writers part anyway) belief that many of us have lots of cash to spread around. Not unlike many things here, they're honing in on the wrong targets really. How about trying to get the city's and Colombia's wealthy ruling classes to start doing something meaningful for you?

So while huge strides have been made to make downtown Bogotá more welcoming to both locals and foreigners, there is a danger that authorities are taking their collective eyes off the ball. In fact, I'm beginning to feel safer in what is generally recognised as much more of a crime hotspot barrio, La Perseverancia.

One of the potential reasons for this noticeable increase in insecurity in the centre is linked to the attempts to clean up the notorious Bronx barrio a little further to the south. Despite the optics and political backslapping, it really has been a case of just scattering a deprived, disgruntled, and potentially dangerous bunch of people across the city. The real social problems at root are what need to be addressed. City and government policy thus far is akin to spraying a shot of air freshener into an overflowing sewer. 

Now, lest I be accused of always finding problems but rarely offering solutions, here are a couple of simple things that could offer at least some modicum of improvement.

Bogotá's 'darker' south.
Bogotá: Getting 'darker' and more dangerous by the day?
For starters, provide some basic shelters across the city for the many homeless to rest, wash themselves, go to the toilet. It's not the most welcoming environment for tourists and residents alike to witness homeless people 'relieving' themselves in public in broad daylight. With time these shelters could even be turned into something like soup kitchens – the costs shouldn't be excessive. Once established and, hopefully, being utilised, such places could start providing basic education and other training programmes, as well as offering drug addiction services.

Furthermore, for the moment at least, a more visible police presence, especially at night time, would be helpful. And on what should be a less taxing note, ensuring all street lights are in working order would aid in reducing the amount of dark corners for 'ladrones' (robbers) to hide behind.

Whether the political will exists to undertake such modest measures is questionable.

What is certain however, is that the heretofore favoured policy of ignoring or just moving the problem won't make it go away. Come on guys, get those heads of yours out of the sand. If not, the 'shiny' new positive image will continue to fade.

*For a previous post detailing one of these previous incidents, see Fighting for 'Free Bogotá'.

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