Ask anybody what they know about Colombia and most likely they will mention drug trafficking, kidnapping, robberies. Those who read about its capital, Bogotá, will talk about dangerous neighbourhoods as well.
Indeed, there used to be a zone called Bronx in the heart of the city which was (and may still be) one of the most dangerous places in the world. A group of traffickers controlled everything. One could see child prostitution, people killing for a small bag of drugs, blood on the walls, equipment for torture. They talk about acid barrels and crocodiles used for making people disappear.
But this was the past. Three years ago, the government started to clear the place out and as always, my curiosity was stronger than my fear so I entered to see what it is like today. I don't say everything has changed. You can still see drug addicts getting high at noon, women or transgender people almost without clothes waiting for customers, man walking with knives in their hands, just in case...
Many of the inhabitants work in recycling, repairing cars, watching the warehouses. And obviously, many are involved in illegal businesses and criminal activities, too.
I was introduced to, let's call him Juan José, who has a warehouse business there and who explained us the rules of the district.
"I've been here with my business for 20 years. The neighbourhood had been one of the most dangerous ones in Latin America for a long time and we still have many problems: drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness... But in spite of all this, I feel completely safe here. Everybody knows everybody. I can leave my car outside and nothing's gonna happen while I can't do the same in my "richer" neighbourhood. During all these years, nobody has robbed me or broken into the warehouse. The police doesn't come here though. There are two guys who run the district, who take care of payments, security and obviously, drug trade. They see everything, they have their watchmen on every corner. They already know you are here, and since you're with me, you're safe."
He showed us around the neighbourhood (mostly by car though, for our own safety) and we stopped to talk to Rocky, a young man who is being rehabilitated with his help.
"My mum was a drug addict and a dealer. My brother has never touched anything, he has always been a good boy. I, on the contrary, got into drugs at an early age and spent years on the streets. Life on the streets, that's tough. There are fights everywhere, you can get killed at any moment. I couldn't bear it anymore. Seven years ago, a man I knew introduced me to Juan José. He gave me a job, gave me trust, friendship, psychological support. Now I have a place to stay, my addiction is less strong, I'm on the right track. But it's really hard to leave drugs completely behind. Before, I used to do it every day. Now I do it only every 3 days. I go to work, go back home, lock the door, and do it. I don't want to party, I don't want anybody to see me. I do it only because my body asks for it."
We also met Mauri who was so happy for this that he even offered us a shot from his bottle of alcohol, freshly purchased at the pharmacy.
He shared some details of his life:
"I fell into using drugs when I was 12. I come from a good family who sent me to a good university, I learnt languages, graduated and went to work in Europe. But I just couldn't give up drugs. Sometimes I went to work, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I went there high. This resulted in my getting fired. So I started to rob people to have money for more drugs. I did it all around Europe for several years, I lived in Paris, Stockholm, Madrid and Budapest. I did it until one day, the police caught me and I was deported, having to leave my wife and kids behind. I haven't heard from them since then. Now I don't use drugs anymore but the alcohol, I can't live without that."
He hasn't left behind his sense of humour though, telling a bit too-nice-to-be-true stories.
"I got this baseball cap from Fidel Castro, trust me!"
To finish the exploration of life in "Bronx", we paid a visit to Costa and his small farm in the middle of a road.
"People call me Costa because I come from the coast. I came to the capital, built my house between two street lanes and nobody bothers me. My family wants me to go back but I like it here too much."
"I've got everything: I receive some money for watching the neighbouring warehouses, I have my house (behind) and a garden with potatoes, oregano, aloe vera, coffee and many more. I'm preparing my lunch right now, it will be a potato."
These are the different faces of "Bronx" and the neighbouring areas which hopefully will be calmer every year, letting its people to live a normal life without drugs, without fear.