Colombia: The challenge of narcotics hotspots
In 2013, Colombian authorities eradicated 77 areas of drug dealing and consumption from the streets, but the country is still seeking a long-term solution.
The narcotics hotspots in Colombia’s major cities, known as ollas, continue to be problematic for authorities in the Andean country.
Throughout 2013, these narcotics hotspots, filled with micro drug-trafficking operations – mainly dealing in a form of cocaine paste known as bazuco – were a constant source of concern for authorities in Colombia’s cities.
Bazuco, which also is known in the streets as bicha, is made from a mix of cocaine paste and toxic substances such as kerosene, brick dust, sulfuric acid and talc, among others, according to Fundación Creser, an addiction treatment and rehabilitation center in Bogotá.
It’s a stimulant, just like cocaine, but unlike cocaine, bazuco is smoked in rolled cigarettes, producing strong hallucinations and creating a significantly stronger dependence for the user.
In April, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the National Police to expedite operations to shut down the 27 largest ollas in 20 cities nationwide.
In two months, the authorities carried out 173 raids, arrested 1,380 people, seized 65 firearms and uncovered a new criminal network that uses the homeless to carry out robberies and sell the drug.
“A total of 70.6 [metric] tons of cocaine has been seized, with 77 ollas and 637 [points of sale] eradicated,”
However, the problem of ollas remains, according to Rodolfo Escobedo, a researcher and analyst with Fundación Ideas para la Paz, an NGO that studies the social impact of these areas.
“The ollas are an issue of supply and demand,” he said. “When progress is made through these operations, they’re only dealing with the supply, not the demand.”
For years, ollas in Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla, Medellín and Villavicencio, among other cities, have perpetuated a vicious cycle of crime and drug consumption that directly affects people living in the streets.
Criminal groups operating like mafias initially encourage addiction to substances such as bazuco by giving it away to the homeless, authorities said.
This creates an addiction, causing the homeless to do whatever it takes to get more of the drug.
Once they run out of money, they roam the streets begging or stealing so they can buy more of the drug. Sometimes, criminal groups will provide the homeless with knives and guns to attack and rob people in other neighborhoods, according to police.
El Bronx, an area in downtown Bogotá, exemplified the type of olla where mafias get rich by taking advantage of homeless addicts.
There, a gram of bazuco cost about $2,000 Colombian pesos (US$1). A fragmentation grenade could be purchased for $50,000 pesos (US$25), a revolver for $300,000 pesos (US$150) and a room for getting high could be rented for $3,000 pesos (less than US$2).
The criminal groups rented and sold revolvers, charged taxes for those who wanted to get high in the area and tortured and murdered their rivals with impunity.
But in April on Santos’ orders, authorities removed the homeless from El Bronx and in similar ollas in other cities, such as El Calvario in Cali, Zona 30 in Bucamaranga and Zona Cachacal in Barranquilla.
However, the action provided only a temporary solution, according to Jorge Rojas, the secretary of Social Integration for the City of Bogotá.
The homeless moved to other ollas and points of sale and, since December, have started returning to El Bronx. Rojas said Bogotá is currently experiencing a social emergency that can’t be solved with repressive actions.
“It’s very sad to have to watch a police intervention without a social intervention,” said Priest José González, the director at Fundación Samaritanos de la Calle, which has worked with the street population in Cali for more than 10 years. “They’re only dealing with one side of the coin.”
The solution to the problem of ollas in Colombia’s major cities lies beyond police intervention.
“It’s not about giving an order to eradicate a street or an olla,” Rojas said. “It’s about intervening with certain criteria, starting with prevention and then direct care, which means ensuring care, social inclusion and respect for their rights.”
To respond to the emergency, Bogotá is seeking to introduce in February an ambitious plan costing more than $5 billion pesos (US$2.5 million). The initiative includes social and educational plans, meal plans, therapy sessions and free medical attention for the people living in the streets through agreements with institutions such as the Red Cross.
The plan seeks to implement general structural changes that will contribute toward a true eradication of the ollas. If it works, it could be replicated elsewhere in the country, according to Rojas.
“What happens in Bogotá is watched with keen interest by the mayors of the state capitals and the Federal Government,” said Rojas. “This is a much more complete intervention that requires an immense capacity on the part of the state to act synergistically, in order to be able to act decisively.”
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