It is a world of misery where cardboard, marijuana, and crack are everything. They live in street carts or on the street. They eat a mixture of leftovers that a woman sells for 200 pesos and calls “combinado”. It is survival of the fittest. Carrera Once is dangerous even to street thugs and cardboard after midnight. There the underworld gathers.
During the day children and teenagers wander around under the effect of synthetic glue. They buy it for 50 or 100 pesos. They say it calms hunger and cold.
The men, consumed by poverty, endlessly smoke crack lying on the sidewalk. The air is stifling. Store owners throw hot water on addicts in an attempt to get rid of the smell. The homeland of the street thugs. It is 11 a.m. on August 16. “The Kid”, a white-skinned criminal native originally from Cali, takes a second drag from his Pielroja cigarette filled with crack. He says, “They killed Mastrangelo yesterday for being disrespectful, because here one must walk straight, no two ways about it. If they think you’re not paying respect…
The Kid, a lanky man with a beard of a tangle of hairs stuck to his dirty skin like leather, tells the last chapter in the life of Juan Guillermo Parra, one of many whose existence went unnoticed in a world of cardboard, marijuana, crack, and knives.
That’s the Cartucho Street in Santa Fe de Bogotá. A world of misery, hunger, and crime that starts at Transversal 9 and runs east, spanning down Carrera 12 to Calle 10 (see box).
In that stretch of street featuring foul odors, brick or adobe houses and recycling centers with damp interiors of lime walls are crammed with over a hundred cardboard recyclers, street thieves, and crack addicts.
The Kid, lying in the mud left by the rain last night, takes a third hit from his crack cigarette, holds the smoke in his chest, and continues, “I almost did not get any crack in today because you have to bring paper and bottles, and the owners do not like the smell. But I am not the only one walking around hopped up on crack all day.
From 7 a.m., huddled, reclining, or leaning on the walls of the recycling centers are fifteen or twenty ragged men, looking lost wit wasted faces, endlessly smoking crack.
The smell is so pervasive that sometimes, as if they were birds of prey, store owners throw boiling water on addicts to keep them off the sidewalks.
It is a futile effort because, unlike the drug dens that exist in other streets in the sector, smoking crack there is not hidden. It is normal. The glue dealers who manage stores have gotten used to the smoke. They even know that the money they paid to The Kid, the Conspirator, and others to bring loads of paper and bottles ends up in the pockets of the two women on the corner selling crack.
There a packet of crack costs 200 pesos. In the black market of Santa Fe, it costs 500 pesos. It’s the same with marijuana. Enough to get high for one day costs 50 or 100 pesos, while in other places in town it costs 300.
Silently, the drug dealers mingle among the crowd of cardboard recyclers on the corner of Carrera 12 and Transversal 9a. Their safety is in the hands of street kids, cardboard recyclers, and addicts, with the rare police sweep preceded by a word of warning: Cagada! Elsewhere trade is more open. On Carrera 11 between Calles 8 and 9 you hear “How much?” or “How many bags?” It is a scary drug market and also the main means of income for a forgotten society.
In this area a large bag of crack sells for 3,000 pesos. The buyer divides its contents in small quantities and resells it in El Cartucho or elsewhere.
The Kid, who has already put out the crack cigarette with saliva, says, “At 6 o’clock I go for a bag. If I did well, I’ll pay 7,000 pesos. I sell it or share it with friends.
The other side of this is the children and adolescents whose livelihood is pickpocketing. They are permanent addicted to synthetic glue, usually mixed with bazuco or marijuana.
Glue dealers buy commercial blue for 1,000 pesos a bottle and sell it in small amounts for 50 or 100 pesos on scraps of paper or in bottles. The business is lucrative. Each bottle earns 3,000 pesos in profit.
These are children who have lost all hope. They call them “pegantosos” because they huff glue all day. They say it calms hunger and the cold. They get high without knowing that in a few years their lungs will be totally destroyed.
On Carrera 11, closed to pickpockets and street children because it is the meeting place of the street gangs, is Casaloma, the top drug den.
Its entrance is a dark, damp alley. At the end is a room with cement floor where you see silhouettes of men playing dice, taking pills, or smoking crack. The smoke is so think you are hardly able to distinguish one person from another. Some men sit on the floor staring at the wall, corroded by time, undeterred by what happens.
In this black market, official complicity is evident. The Kid, who has relit his crack cigarette, points to an impeccably dressed man with green corduroy jacket and pants the same color, and says, “He thinks we do not know, but he’s a cop, the husband of a woman selling crack.”
But it is not alone. Every day at 4 p.m., two men arrive, recognized by the inhabitants of the cartridge, as agents of F-2, seeking vendors. They come for the tax. Each drug dealer pays a fee of 2,000 pesos a day.
Aware of what is happening there every day, the commander of the Metropolitan Police, General Fabio Campos Silva, promised to launch an investigation to identify those involved. Given the proliferation of dealers, it is almost impossible to identify anyoe. Because those who depend on the sale of cardboard paper and bottles supplement their income by selling crack and marijuana.
Sometimes the cardboard buyers make pacts with the crackhouses and buyers because they prefer to avoid being there. It also has a price, because whoever helps you will take a percentage in cash and drugs, and finally delivers the addict his part.
The sale of cardboard is one of the means to survive. Cardboard is considered a diamond in the rough. “They pay sixty pesos a kilo” says The Kid, who now smokes another crack cigarette, “And a bale of paper is 300. A glass bottle of champagne is worth 700, and aguardiente is 30.”
Those with better luck rent a wheeled cart for 100 or 500 pesos per day. For them, this is their only capital. A vehicle of this type is worth 7,000 pesos.
Generally large cardboard centers loan these carts for their own benefit, and pay a daily wage of 100 pesos to the collector. In the area there are thirty storage warehouses. “If one bottle is worth 700 pesos,” says The Kid, “one wheeled cart comes close to one million. That’s a business.”
Also abound is the sale of stolen goods as well as rusted objects in more than one hundred local shops embedded in the walls of El Cartucho homes.
When hunger is unbearable, go to the Calle 9 with Carrera 13. Doña María sells a combinado, an overheated mixture of leftovers collected the night before in the downtown restaurants of the capital.
It costs 200 pesos. It has everything: rice, lentils … but that requires true hunger, so today I brought my own pieces of chicken. The Kid opens his black bag full of greenish bones and small insects, and says God cares for him.
That is the world of El Cartucho, a society that creates men like Gabriel the Monster, who was killed in August 1990 by a stranger who shot him five times. The Kid says he was the law here. He had killed more than one, at least a dozen.
In a small corridor of Santa Fe a scrawl of graffiti on the white wall of a store on Carrera 12 which crudely summarizes the situation: “The home of the gangsters. Begging God …”
Every Wednesday the Metropolitan Police accompanies a woman in a van into El Cartucho. The people who sleep in wooden carts, where they also have casual sex with street women, wake up and flee in panic from what they always believe is a raid.
Not this time. The van’s cargo is loaded up with six canteens of lemonade, bread, and chocolate. Also shoes, shirts, and old coats collected by this woman who for years has come to this place for a chance to redeem those who have nothing.
The van is parked on Carrera 12 and the agents, the same ones who come on cold nights to sweep the area of criminals, shout and call out to these men consumed by misery to pick up what they have brought. The line is endless.
For them it is also the only chance to decry the hits and abuses they suffered from those who sometimes enter El Cartucho and mercilessly beat those who suffer the misery of belonging to the dredges of society.
Then those voices are heard: Officer, look how you left me for being out here, or see how that one guy was taken last night. Do you know where he is?
I think the janitor of the building thought I was crazy. He opened his eyes and looked at me open-mouthed. I had found a couple. I managed to hear: Oh, some crazy.
So I concluded that everything was fine and rested my fears about the warning I received on the night August 14th, when we were in El Cartucho with the police. Only go in with us. If not ….
The idea did not seem good to me. I took an old sack of gray cloth I used to clean the apartment to give myself an aura of dirt. Black and brown shoe polish made good stains. Then I plunged into a garbage dumpster and acquired the smell. I tore the pocket of my shirt and four buttons; only one remained.
I removed a piece of cloth from the bottom of my right pant leg. I unhooked the waist button and fastened it with a shoelace.
Shoe polish also served for facial makeup and the greasiness of the hair. I went to the park on Calle 26 and Carrera 7. There I began to wallow. Dirt on the face finished the job.
I walked down Calle 26 to Avenida Caracas. Women who saw me changed sidewalks or gripped their purses.
An accidental injury to my finger brought a new element: blood mixed with dirt.
I tried to enter a street cafe at Calle 23 with Avenida Caracas, but could not. The owner shouted, “Son of a bitch, out of here, don’t come fucking with people here.”
The fear was dissipated when a ragged man approached me and said, “What happened to you? You see what that fucking crack does. Go back home, you still have people who love you …
Still in disguise, I got the worst scare in my life when a blue-eyed man pulled out a large knife and asked: “What movie are you working on?” Without taking his eyes off, he stabbed the knife hard into a wooden cart and left.
El Cartucho is finished. A five-year effort restored dignity to not only the hundreds of people living inhumanely, but also to all of Bogotá’s citizens.
This year the last house of the area known as El Cartucho fell, and wit it 40 years of shame was demolished. It was in downtown Bogotá, in the old elegant neighborhood of Santa Ines. It was named for the calla lily flower, the figure of which the two streets of its origin resembled.
El Cartucho converged in the worst human dramas. Hundreds of people were killed there (it is difficult for authorities to know how many). Women, children, and elderly lived trapped by despair and oblivion, victims of drug, rape, and pain. During those years, all our indifference ended up contributing to this tragedy. State entities practically abandoned Cartucho residents and transients to their fate, although it was just three blocks from the Palacio de Nariño and an Army battalion barracks, and five blocks from Congress, the Mayor’s Office, and Social Welfare office, and directly opposite the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.
There were many factors that allowed such deterioration. One of the leaders of the area already dead, Ernesto ‘El Loco’ Calderon, says that the eviction of the El Cortijo garbage dump shifted recycling activity to that sector. Around the same time, the marijuana and cocaine gangs found that the grand old houses of Santa Ines had become rentals. It was the ideal location for sites of consumption (crackhouses) and distribution of drugs, especially crack cocaine.
There lived a million-dollar economy in drug trafficking, garbage recycling, and the existence of thousands of indigents. In El Cartucho they lived day by day. The lease of a room is paid daily. The most common food, rice with pasta or ‘el miti miti’, costs 500 pesos. 200 pesos buys a piece of soap or tube of used toothpaste, and a crack cigarette (bicha ) costs 500 pesos. In the last decade illegal arms and false documents also flourished.
These dynamics ultimately trapped the 10,000 inhabitants who, according to the 1999 census by Urban Renewal, ‘lived’ in 602 properties in the neighborhood. In addition about 3,000 people, for various reasons, were there every day. El Cartucho children and school teachers coexisted along with graphic artists, market vendors, abandoned elderly, single mothers with their children, and recycling families who came to sell their collected garbage. Many were paid in drugs; they slept and ate right there. Also living in the area were homeless, thugs, and sobanderos around the building of Legal Medicine. Some public bodies launches social services, probably well intentioned, but with the serious consequence that sent a message of tolerance and ‘understanding’ in the face of dehumanization and criminal impunity. Various NGOs, religious organizations, universities, media, researchers — all with the most diverse motives — put the people to work in their activities. Without questioning the good will of some, the end result of all of them was still ‘living’ in El Cartucho. No one seemed shocked by its mere existence.
In 1998, the then-mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, made the political decision to radically intervene in the district. His main reason was that it was urgent to save the thousands of people trapped in there, especially children, women, and the elderly. You had to give them the life choices they had always been denied. It was also crucial to prevent crime and drug trafficking from continuing with ease and impunity. It was also necessary to recover the entire downtown area for city, where more than one million and a half citizens live, work, and pass by every day.
It was a decision that involved great risks, because public opinion was incredulous and filled with fear. In addition there were threats from the illegal sectors affected. Nobody had done anything similar in another Colombian city, and there were few similar experiences in the world, to know how to deal with such a situation.
The intervention of El Cartucho had two levels. On the one hand, urban renewal was completed this year. It involved complex censuses of the population, identify properties and their owners, submitting bids and compensation, and planning and building the Tercer Milenio Park. The other level was an ambitious program of social and humanitarian intervention, for which the diversity of social phenomena needed to be addressed had no precedent. In a context of zero tolerance for crime, respect for rights in the performance of duty, an approach to the population with full transparency was initiated.
In addition to special programs for the relocation of typographers, food sellers, and recyclers, a program to care for street dwellers who came in and out of El Cartucho was designed and implemented. In the last five years, under the two previous administrations, over 1,500 people who had made these streets home have been rehabilitated. Transient accommodations were built in various places, where specialized personnel attended to 1,000 families as a prelude to their relocation to normal neighborhoods of the city. Today about 300 of them have managed to buy housing. Amar centers launched for 850 children who were not attending school or daycare. Due to the conditions of their parents, nearly 600 children had to be removed from their homes (if you can call the dens where they lived ‘homes’) and protected. 800 elderly were placed in social programs. More than 3,000 people have found work. More than 5,000 were assisted in training and guidance in various trades.
In total, the city has invested more than 18 billion pesos in social investment for the people who came out of El Cartucho, in addition to 20 billion invested in rehabilitation for the capital’s drug addicts.
Today, incredibly, some voices are calling the recovery of El Cartucho a waste of resources, and reduce the effort to the simple aesthetic desire to build a nice park. They wonder if it was not better to have left the area as it was. Sure, it was easier, cheaper, and less risky. But it was inhumane.
Consumption and sale of illegal drugs and street life are both hallmarks of the great cities of the world, a product of uprooting, disruption, and social and family violence. That is why we citizens must be alert and defend these social achievements against the risk of new ‘Cartuchos’ popping up around the old one or elsewhere in the capital. It was correct for the authorities to intervene to the full extent of the law, but also with social and humanitarian responsibility, against sectors where this social scourge is detected before it becomes unmanageable.
This year Bogotá may say that it no longer has a ghetto hell in its bowels, where a child once died in the street, curled up in a fetal position, and no one noticed for two days. And a four-year-old boy was castrated. Instead there is a park where children may play, the elderly can bask quietly in the benches, and the only remaining Cartuchos are flowers as a testimony of the shame the city lived with for four decades.