Ignoring the fear or shutting yourself in: People in Bogotá respond to the growing insecurity

Murders have increased by 11% compared to 2022, and the issue of security has become central to the electoral campaign

The police is present in Corferias, a place where local, national and international events take place, on July 27, 2023, in Bogotá.NATHALIA ANGARITA

Three shots were heard at 2.00pm on Monday, July 24, at the corner of Carrera Séptima and 85th street, in an exclusive area in the north of Bogotá. “Somebody was killed,” the people at the Primax gas station said. A few feet away, the lifeless body of businessman Carlos Alberto Ortega lied at the entrance to the parking lot of the Bodytech gym. In a matter of minutes, the murderers escaped, the gym closed, the relatives arrived and the police blocked the traffic. The crime quickly made headlines in the national media, with politicians instantly giving their opinions. There was something out of the ordinary in this incident: it had happened in a wealthy area of the city.

This year, the Colombian capital reports an increase of 11% in the number of homicides, and although this mostly affects the poorest neighborhoods, it is also evident in those with private surveillance. This has brought the issue of insecurity to the forefront of the October mayoral elections: while the right proposes more prisons or more drones, Bukele-style, the left proposes more economic opportunities so that young people do not fall into crime. Meanwhile, the experts say that the proposals are nothing innovative. The winning candidate will not necessarily be the one with the most effective platform, but the one who manages to calm the fear and anxiety of the people of Bogotá. EL PAÍS went to three areas of the city — a wealthy one, a poorer one and a commercial one — to listen to the opinions of the residents of the capital, understand how the homicides disturb the peace and find out what proposals the people would like to hear.

A tribute of flowers at the place where a client of the Bodytech gym was murdered on July 25, in Bogotá.
A tribute of flowers at the place where a client of the Bodytech gym was murdered on July 25, in Bogotá.NATHALIA ANGARITA

In the north of Bogotá, the pandemic and the Venezuelans are to blame

The perception of insecurity on 85th street depends on “political taste,” says Sebastián Martínez, a trainer at a gym next to BodyTech. “There has always been a feeling of insecurity in Bogotá, but my clients didn’t talk about it as much when Peñalosa [a right-wing mayor] was in office. They mentioned it more with Petro and now with Claudia [two left-wing mayors].” Martínez lives in Mosquera, a working-class municipality west of the capital. “Here, micro-trafficking is not exposed like in working-class neighborhoods, where sometimes you can’t go through a street.”

North of the city, some believe that crime rose after the pandemic. Others mention the increase in the migration of Venezuelans, who sometimes serve as a scapegoat for politicians like Mayor Claudia López. The only thing that generates consensus on 85th street is the rejection of López immediately stating that this murder was the work of a hitman. “She didn’t give it the benefit of the doubt,” says a storekeeper. “Claudia washed her hands,” says a client of Martínez’ gym. “I feel that she is justifying something that should not be brought to light without an investigation,” adds a Bodytech employee. This area of Bogotá has no sympathy for the politician. Still, the mayor’s statements helped everyone be more at ease. “I’m not afraid. Those crimes are clear targets, and I’m not that interesting,” remarks a Bodytech client.

Sebastián Martínez, a worker in the area of Carrera Séptima and 85 street.
Sebastián Martínez, a worker in the area of Carrera Séptima and 85 street. NATHALIA ANGARITA

Despite the initial fear, activity in the gym remains the same. A Chinese client did not even hear about the crime, while others from the working-class areas of Engativa and Usme said that they barely talked about it during their routines. The consensus seems to be that people should not fret about things too much because life must go on and the news cycle continues. No one can live in fear.

Even Angela, a housekeeper who was very scared at first, went back to her routine of sitting in front of the parking lot to wait for her friend Jimmy, who cleans windshields on 85th street. They will take the bus home together. Although he witnessed the death of the businessman, he is not afraid, as he trusts another type of security – one that is more spiritual than official. “I was not scared, because I am with God,” he said. “I’m not affected by this. God is my guide.”

In the western part of the capital they want more police and more weapons

Another homicide that shook part of the city took place on July 17, when two men on a motorcycle stopped at the corner of 70th street and Carrera 87A, in the working-class neighborhood of La Florida, in the locality of Engativa, to rob an older woman and her daughter, who had just received money from an acquaintance in a nearby shopping mall and were taking it home. The thieves were surprised when Jairo Leal Mojica, a man over 60 who was waiting for them on the platform, tried to stop the robbery. They shot him and fled; he died. The police and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later. A reward of 20 million pesos (about $5,000) is currently being offered for information on those responsible.

“The police officers are like crows: they only show up when there’s a dead body,” says Kenny Roger Nixon, who owns a fish market near the place where the crime took place. He explains that this street, which is residential but has several small shops, is known for the motorcycle-riding thieves who frequently stop pedestrians to steal their cell phones. His words are confirmed by two women who sell plants and detergent, respectively, in that same street. Given the insecurity, the three of them close their businesses earlier than they would like. “Here, we’re living like in the days of Pablo Escobar: you get scared when you hear a motorcycle, except that it usually comes to rob you, not to kill you,” adds Nixon. When a cell phone is stolen, he says, the police do not come.

Security cameras are useless, say the sellers, if the police do not deal with the thefts and the district attorney’s office does not investigate them. Nixon proposes changing the law “so that anyone who wants to can arm themselves,” an American-style solution. The plant seller, who prefers to remain anonymous, has less drastic solutions: to improve the street lighting, starting with changing the burnt-out bulbs in the lampposts. “The police are no longer enough. Claudia is completely clueless,” she says about a mayor who has been asking the national government for police reinforcements. “I go out into the street with God and the Virgin, because I can’t sit around and wait until there is a police officer for each one of us,” says the detergent saleswoman.

The place where an elderly person was murdered during a robbery in the La Florida neighborhood, in the locality of Engativá.
The place where an elderly person was murdered during a robbery in the La Florida neighborhood, in the locality of Engativá.NATHALIA ANGARITA

In the commercial epicenter of Corferias, the military make an appearance

Agroexpo is the most important agricultural fair in the country. It has been held for more than 45 years. Its last edition took place in Corferias, a convention center in the center-west of the city, and lasted 10 days. On July 19, after the day’s activities were over, two men were murdered by hitmen in a case that is still under investigation. The killers escaped on a motorcycle, according to the police, as the victims, businessmen Andry González and Rui Alexandre Morais, died. The incident took place around 10.00pm at a taxi stand located right in front of the entrance to Corferias.

Given the time and the fact that it was a Wednesday, not many people were there to witness what happened. Many workers in the area were already home at that time, and heard about it in the news. “What they said in the office is that nothing was taken from the men. They shot at them and fled the scene,” said a woman who asked to remain anonymous. A police squad was patrolling the area last Thursday, and two of them confirmed to EL PAÍS that the day after the murder they were ordered to work extended hours and double the personnel guarding the convention center.

Homicidios Bogotá
Police are present in Corferias.NATHALIA ANGARITA

Aside from the dozen men in uniform, the day goes by with apparent normality. When asked about their perception of insecurity, most workers in the area point out that it is not a new issue. “We are in Bogotá, we are in Colombia,” said a young man who distributes flyers for a telecommunications company, suggesting that the national reality normalizes this type of situation. He has been on the outskirts of Corferias for two weeks and, paradoxically, finds those streets safer than those in other neighborhoods. “Here, you see people keeping watch. Soldiers were here the day before yesterday, for example.”

Across the street there is a parking lot for the clients of the Olímpica supermarket. There, near the entrance, a group of men in the logistics uniform of Corferias rest leaning against a wall. When asked if they noticed any changes in the flow of visitors after the murder, they said that the news had probably not been spread enough. “The day after the death of the two guys, it was even more crowded,” said one of them.

They are right. The Bogotá half marathon took place last Sunday, July 30, and Corferias was chosen as the place where the thousands of participants had to pick up their kits. Diego Devia, a doctor who spent months preparing for the race, was astonished when asked about his feelings regarding the security in the area after the murder of the two businessmen. “I had no idea, that’s why I came so relaxed,” he confessed.

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