Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Bogotá covering the environment and social and gender issues.
Once home to crocodile pits where drug dealers disposed of victims, the Bronx in Bogotá awaits an ambitious revitalization and its few remaining residents face an uncertain future.
“At 5am the police arrived. They kicked our doors down, and drove us out. We grabbed whatever we could carry, but we had to leave most of our belongings behind.”
The speaker, Omar Lopez Franco, is one of just five people left in the Bronx, two notorious streets in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, just a stone’s throw from the Presidential Palace. The Bronx was left to rot for more than 10 years by the government, until 2,000 odd police descended on the zone and shut down the entire area in 2016.
Now, as the infamous streets await bulldozing and a comprehensive regeneration as a creative center for the city, just a handful of residents remain in what was formerly the capital’s most notorious drug zone.
“When I first moved here it was a good neighborhood, all paved well and pretty.” But, Omar explained, everything changed when El Cartucho, an area near the Bronx which was overrun by drugs and criminal gangs, was cleared out by police.
El Cartucho’s tenants then descended on the Bronx, which soon turned into a place of urban legend, where residents policed themselves.
“The police used to come at the start, but for over 10 years, they never came here,” said Omar.
Described as “a living hell” by Colombian newspapers, as many as 3,000 people lived in the streets, which were controlled by a heavily-armed gang of micro-traffickers known as “Sayayines,” who sent anyone who crossed their path to the Casa de Pique [chop house].
Bodies were disposed of by crocodiles kept in basements; a 100-meter long underground tunnel was used to smuggle drugs, weapons, and kidnap victims in and out; underage girls were kept as sex slaves; and torture rooms were equipped with the most macabre of instruments.
“Loads of people came here to take drugs,” Omar described. “Smart people in all their finery. And then after three days here they’d be in clothes borrowed from people living here.”
When police evicted residents from the area, Omar and his wife, who died last year, slept on the streets until they begged to be allowed back into their home.
Omar now lives alone in his rotting, decrepit room. The only reason the building is still standing, he says, is because the landlord hasn’t made himself known to the authorities and so they have been unable to buy the land. “As soon as the owners turn up, the government will buy the building off them and I’ll be thrown out.”
Bogotá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa has ambitious plans for the redevelopment of the now cordoned-off and police protected area. It’s part of a wider regeneration initiative for the capital, which focuses on establishing ten art districts in the hope of galvanizing the creative industries in Colombia.
“We are going to create a truly spectacular, beautiful space—for fashion, for events, for sport,” said Peñalosa.
The mayor’s office has invested 190,000 million COP (approximately $66.5 million) to fund the first phase of the project, which covers planning, design and construction of the district, including a new SENA university campus. SENA, which stands for National Service of Learning, is Colombia’s public institution offering vocational courses. This campus will offer solely creative industry courses, such as sound engineering and graphic design. Construction is scheduled to start in December and be handed over to SENA by the end of 2019 for the start of phase two. The entire area is expected to be finished and open to the public by 2021.
Peñalosa has also brought on The Orange Economy, a Bogotá-based private sector organisation founded in 2013 to kick start the creative jobs economy, and to attract foreign investment.
“The new Bronx Creative District is an important flagship project to galvanisz the creative industries in Colombia,” said co-founder of the group Juan Diego Ortiz.
“We are laying the groundwork not just for much-needed urban regeneration, but also to see these sectors of the economy undergo exponential growth.”
The wider regeneration around the new SENA campus is crucial to the long-term prosperity of the district.
Incubators for start-ups, subsidised office spaces and access to mentoring and tax advice will occupy the once drug-infested streets, as well as a catwalk for fashion and design shows.
“The plan is to use this as a blueprint to be rolled out in other major Colombian cities during the next 18 months,” added Ortiz. “We hope we will be able to create a model that will be a best in practice example of using urban regeneration to stimulate economic growth in these sectors.”
The budget also includes purchasing the land and enrolling former Bronx inhabitants in social service programs. Of the thousands of people that were living in the Bronx, more than 1,300 are in social welfare programs provided by the government, with 800 in employment training. However, many—including Omar—declined help, preferring to remain on the streets, and there are no records of what happened to many former Bronx residents.
The sextagenarian—he is unsure of his exact age—will be evicted when building work finally starts, and, in an unusual arrangement with the government, will receive minimum wage for two years. Along with the four other remaining residents, Omar receives public health insurance, a pension, and now for the first time holds a cedula—a national document proving citizenship.
“I really want to leave, but my family is in Valle and my only daughter is old now and lives in Medellin,” Omar explained. “I don’t have anyone in Bogotá, so I stayed here.”
“We are taking back this district of the Bronx,” said Peñalosa. “We will have cultural events, concerts, parties and fashion shows.
“Very few people will remember the horror of what preceded this, because it will become one of the best places in Colombia and Latin America.”