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Pastor Beltrán, professed admirer of Nayib Bukele, begins his war on drugs in Bucaramanga

The new mayor of the Colombian city issued a decree restricting the consumption of drugs within a 60-meter radius of parks, educational centers and historic areas

Jaime Beltrán
Jaime Beltrán in a photograph shared on his social networks on August 5, 2023.Campaña Jaime Beltrán
Juan Pablo Vásquez

Christian pastor Jaime Beltrán has begun the implementation of his so-called “padlock plan,” a proposal to combat insecurity in Bucaramanga. In the week of his inauguration, the new mayor of the Colombian city announced a decree restricting the consumption of psychoactive drugs within a 60-meter radius of parks, educational centers and historic areas. Surrounded by members of the National Police and accompanied by music and religious hymns of praise, according to some media reports, he promised to “return” these spaces to the children and families of the city. However, the measure is not an innovation. Another decree issued more than three years ago, almost identical in its content, proposed a similar prohibition.

Beltrán, a professed admirer of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, chose an emblematic location in Bucaramanga to unveil the initiative: San Pío Park. Located in the Cabecera neighborhood, one of the most privileged in the departmental capital of Santander, San Pío is a green lung that serves as a daily meeting place for thousands of people who practice sports and attend religious services. The number of visitors peaks on weekends due to the restaurants in the adjacent streets and in the nearby San Pío X parish, which stands on the park’s eastern end.

On more than one occasion during the mayoral campaign, Beltrán declared that this and other areas had become marihuanódromos — places for marijuana consumption. “You go to places like San Pío Park and you find more [drug] consumers than children playing,” he said in October during an interview with the weekly magazine Semana. On his X account, on January 5, the pastor noted that the area “has been invaded by drug dealers and consumers in full view of children and families” and suggested that this was his motivation for signing the decree prohibiting drug consumption in the periphery of public spaces. Paradoxically, Beltrán’s decision is a replica of a series of provisions taken by the administration of his predecessor, former mayor Juan Carlos Cárdenas.

In November 2020, lawyer José David Cavanzo was serving as Bucaramanga’s Secretary of the Interior. During a short trip undertaken by Cardenas, it fell to the then-secretary to serve as acting mayor for four days, during which time he issued decree 403 of 2020, which established a restriction on the “consumption, carrying, distribution, facilitation, offering or commercialization of psychoactive substances [...] in public spaces or open places.” The resolution also empowered the police to impose fines. Between 2021 and the first half of 2023, 7,709 summonses were issued to those who violated this mandate.

“Check and you will realize that both decrees [that of 2020 and the one issued by Beltrán] include almost the same thing, apart from a few modifications,” Cavanzo said. The main change the lawyer referred to is the power for police officers to impose fines, which was repealed last December by the national government. Minister of Justice Néstor Osuna adjusted the laws in accordance with the rulings of the Constitutional Court, which concluded that the carrying and consumption of drugs “cannot be administratively sanctioned,” awakening a wave of indignation among conservative sectors.

This is precisely what Beltrán recognizes in his decree, admitting textually that the 2020 decree “must be repealed since it does not comply with the recent jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court and the regulatory legal framework established by the national government.” In other words, Beltrán’s decree represents an adjustment and not an innovation, if compared to that issued by Cardenas. Now, police are unable to issue fines and must limit themselves to ordering consumers and dealers to withdraw from the perimeters of parks and educational centers. “The new mayor wants to make a show of authority and hog the news, but he is not doing anything new,” added former secretary Cavanzo, who will serve as a councilman for the right-wing Radical Change party for the next four years.

The four-year mayoral term has only just begun, but Beltrán’s stamp is evident from the outset, especially in the way he publicizes his actions. The pastor took a measure from his predecessor, adapted it to his security discourse, and turned it into his first major decision in local government.

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