Monday, 23 June 2014

Ley seca – Bogotá's deprived spit back

This blog tends to look out for the underprivileged. So when the 'have nots' strike a blow against the 'haves', especially in a place riven with inequality such as Colombia, it's usually something to support. It's not often that happens here of course.

Millonarios fans 'celebrate' the club's birthday.
'I predict a riot.' Millonarios 'fans'. (Photo from

However, Bogotá's 'unwashed' masses have come up with a cunning plan to fight back against their wealthier 'superiors'. In fact, it's rather ingenious considering the power to use this 'weapon' isn't directly at their disposal. What they've mastered is akin to confronting a serial killer face-to-face and getting him to turn the gun on himself. Wonderful.

You see, some of my more hard-pressed Bogotá brethren have discovered a way to deprive the rest of us of the chance to occasionally, in a legal way, 'let our hair down'.

This is how it works: Come up with a reason to have either a celebration or a protest, take to the streets en masse, let things become a little boisterous, violent even (attack public transport vehicles, vandalise buildings and such like), and then wait for the authorities to play their part. That latter step is the key one. For once the city authorities act, and act they will, the standard response – what they see as a panacea it seems – is to introduce ley seca, that is to say alcohol prohibition.

With that, all law-abiding citizens (there are some I have been told) must make alternative plans, had they previously been thinking of socialising with a tipple or two in a bar or club. Meanwhile, those whose actions managed to get ley seca kicked into gear toddle back to their lightly policed barrios to enjoy a few beers practically as normal.

It's not a case of everybody being punished for the crimes of a few; it's a case of the wrong people being punished while the perpetrators lives are barely impinged.

Like many things in Colombia, the law in theory operates very different in practice. As regards ley seca, it's one of those rare occasions when something here works against the more affluent sectors of society. In the wealthier parts, breaches are unlikely as licensed premises fear sanctions. Moreover, in more exuberant locations it's not easy to operate clandestinely, as opposed to a small tienda bar with only one entrance/exit, where the owner very often lives in the same building.

Also, in a country where there is a 'healthy' underground market for a wide range of drugs and many of those involved in it come from working-class neighbourhoods, adding alcohol to the list isn't a major inconvenience for those 'in the know'.

The idea behind this alcohol prohibition is to aid in maintaining public order when the powers that be feel some people may 'lose the run of themselves'. It's introduced on a national scale for elections, while local authorities also have the power to enact it when and where they see fit. It's in the latter instance that we've had the most recent introduction of it in Bogotá.

Celebrating in a non-violent way after Colombia's opening World Cup win.
'Celebrating in peace.'
There are a number of reasons why city officials felt it was warranted. After Colombia's opening World Cup game, the victory over Greece, celebrations for some people got a little bit out of hand – besides the fact there was an election ley seca in place a few hours after the game. Nine deaths were attributed to the over-zealous football revelling. Of course at least nine people die in this city most weekends for various reasons, but we tend not to hear about them.

Then, a day before Colombia's second match, fans of Bogotá's Millonarios football club took to the streets to celebrate its 68th birthday – hey, when you're going through a tough time on the field of play, you have to find something to cheer about. That these 'celebrations' got out of control is putting it mildly.

Thus it was to the tried but not very well trusted ley seca that city mayor Gustavo Petro turned to, allowing Bogotanos to 'celebrate in peace', or so the slogan went. Did it work? Well it depends who you ask and what part of the city you're referring to. You kind of get the feeling that authorities are happy with themselves for being 'proactive' (just don't tell them they're being reactive) and taking 'effective' measures. Meanwhile for a nice chunk of the population the drinking continues, just in a slightly different manner.

Of course we're not condoning breaking the law, nor the thuggery and vandalism that a small number of citizens engage in, all in the name of 'celebrating'. But, to reiterate, ley seca misses its intended target.

Properly, rigorously enforcing current permanent legislation is one approach in the short-term.

Longer-term, education is the answer.


  1. Searched ley seca bogota to figure out what the reason was today...Bogota airport, nearly 10pm in the lounge and I can't have a drink? How pointless is that? If I wanted to be falling down drunk already, I would be. No such issue today in Medellin however, left the bar immediately for the airport once the game was over.

    1. It's a silly thing for sure. The 'forbidden fruit' just makes many people want to consume more. So far I've been quite content, ley seca or not -- I have my ways around it!