Cities that pass death sentences on the poor: Colombia 'cleanses' its thieves, beggars and prostitutes

TWICE a week, a council van arrives at Bogota's southern cemetery. It passes the rows of white crosses and stops beside a large pit. Two men unload nine stretchers carrying bodies loosely wrapped in black plastic. Casually, they tip the naked corpses into the waterlogged ditch. There is no priest, no blessing. This is the way the rejects of Colombian society are buried. They are called los desechables, the disposables; treated in death, as in life, as human refuse.

In growing numbers, the unemployed and homeless, thieves, street children, tramps, prostitutes and homosexuals are being murdered by the police and hired death squads. Colombians call it 'social cleansing'. Father Rigoberto, a priest who works with the destitute in Bogota, has watched the toll rise in his district: 'It used to be one every three weeks, but in the past three months it's multiplied. It's now three or four a week.'

Amnesty puts the numbers killed by social cleansing in the thousands. It happens all over the country, but is worst in the big cities: Bogota, Cali, Medellin, Bucaramanga and Pereira. The Jesuit Centre of Investigation and Popular Education in Bogota has recorded 500 social cleansing deaths in a year, but its director, Francisco Le Roux, says the true numbers are far higher.

The President of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, acknowledges that the people even he refers to as the disposables are being killed, but says it is a low priority compared with all the other drug and guerrilla violence. 'It is not so important. It is not a high percentage of the 25,000 killings we have in Colombia. It is an important problem, but maybe the country is more worried about other problems.'

The burgeoning underclass has created virtual anarchy in parts of the cities. Social cleansing is society's response. Colombia has enjoyed 40 years of economic growth, but the gap between rich and poor has widened. With no social security, one in five Colombians - 6 million people - live below the poverty line. Many have crowded into the cities.

Urban infrastructure is at breaking-point. The Cartucho, a district in Bogota where 3,000 people live, has no running water and no sewerage system. The people, like the crumbling houses, are black with grime. Families live, eat and defecate in the streets. Lunatics roam the pavements.

The Cartucho is the prime drug-dealing centre and den for the capital's muggers and thieves. The police rarely come, and never on foot. Barbado ('the bearded one') has lived in the streets for 40 years. His home is a polythene shelter. 'To the rest of the country we in the Cartucho are the dregs of society,' he says. 'Plainclothes police come by in cars and mow us down, then drive off.'

Colombia's police have long been known to be corrupt and ineffective. The 1991 constitution tried to improve the country's human rights record, leading to police complaints that they could not arrest thieves unless they caught them red-handed. So some take the law into their own hands.

Hernando Villa, the deputy attorney-general who is responsible for human rights, concedes that justice for the underclass is unlikely. He admits: 'Most of the violations of human rights are the responsibility of the police, but very few are punished.'

With the crime rate soaring, the rich shelter behind bodyguards and high fences. But the ordinary middle classes, trying to run businesses in the city centres, can't escape. One shoeshop in downtown Bogota has been cleaned out twice, and the shoemaker had to hand- make every single shoe again. There is no insurance and the police seldom find the robbers - so shopkeepers are taking their revenge.

An emerald seller boasted how he organised four social cleansing operations in the past 18 months. For each job he collected pounds 3,000 from fellow store- owners to pay a hired assassin. A total of 32 'disposable' people were killed. His patience had run out, and he did not worry if innocent beggars were killed as well. 'They're like animals. Here we clean up animals, too, especially dogs. When we kill the mongrels sometimes we kill an Alsatian by mistake. So it happens with people, too.'

The assassin hired for this operation calls himself the Black Hand. There are, he claims, 20 death squads cleansing Bogota of about 12 people a week. His last job was in a tourist area plagued by thieves. He shot three and 'the rest disappeared'. He claims to have killed 200 disposables at pounds 300 a hit in the past two years. His trademark is seven bullet holes. 'The seven shots mean other people know this was a clean-up and not just an accidental killing.' He says he is doing society a favour: 'The disposables do bad to society and give the country a bad image.'

Those whose way of life and appearance offend include the innocent armies of recyclers who trudge the streets making a meagre living out of the contents of dustbins. Two years ago, at the Free University of Barranquilla, recyclers were lured on to the campus to collect cardboard, then murdered by security guards. Their bodies were cut up and sold to medical students for dissection. Police found 14 corpses and countless body parts in vats of formaldehyde. The university's financial adminstrator was alleged to have set up the fund to pay the killers. He and the security guards were all released on a legal technicality. Homosexuals are targets, too. Five hundred have been killed in six years. There have been no prosecutions. Transvestite prostitutes who work the streets at night are particularly at risk.

With Britain the second largest foreign investor in Colombia, human rights activists such as Francisco Le Roux argue that only external pressure will force the authorities to take action. 'Ask as a condition of your investment for a change in social behaviour, so the poorest and the weakest are accepted by our society,' he says.

The brutal Colombian solution to crime is not even effective. As the emerald seller laments: 'For every five of the disposables who are 'disappeared', another 10 pop up.'

The author reports on the Disposables for 'Assignment' on BBC 2, Tuesday 7.45pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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