Limpiezas in Colombia: Social Cleansing

Posted on 06. Mar, 2010 by in colombia

I’ve heard of police and military carrying out extrajudicial killings of thieves and indigentes. The issue came up after I noticed a significant difference in the streets around 7 de agosto.

I always hated going to 7 de agosto because it’s crawling with bazuceros, stumble-bums, and drunks. After countless times, I never stopped getting uncomfortable. I thought pictures or video of the area would be great for this blog, but I could never imagine stopping to take out a camera around all those dirty junkies.

I recently noticed a stark difference in 7 de agosto: there are no indigentes. None. Why was I so nervous? All the people around here are normal working Colombians – definitely not rich but nothing to be afraid of.  None of the filthy addicts and beggars I came to associate with the neighborhood were around. What happened? Where’d they go?

I brought the issue up with some Chapinero neighbors and they all agreed the scum of 7 de agosto have disappeared. They said there must have been a limpieza – a social cleansing. Squads of police, military, paramilitary, or just vigilantes sweep through picking up the undesirables. They bring them to the mountains and shoot them, then dump them in the gullies where nobody will ever find them. Social cleansing is a documented practice in Colombia and much of Latin America.

I usually use the word, indigente, to describe these people. Some are bazuceros and others borrachos, but they’re all indigentes. There’s another word in the local slang: desechables – disposables.

In a well-known case from Barranquilla, private security guards for the Universidad Libre carried out a massive for-profit limpieza. They drove vans around the city looking for vagrants. They told them they had loads of cardboard they needed to get rid of, which the vagrants could have if they just came and picked it up (recycling cardboard is one of their primary money-makers). Once the guards had the vagrants away from the streets, they killed them and sold their bodies to the university’s medical department. It was a major scandal. Source: Deadly ‘social cleansing’ hits Latino poor.

Every article I found about social cleansing featured a quote from a citizen defending the practice. From that last article, a restaurant owner in downtown Bogota said:

The social-cleansing violence stems from a lack of legal guarantees. We pay our industry and commerce taxes and the government is supposed to keep the streets lit and provide a safe atmosphere for business … But the government does not keep its part. It is incapable of fulfilling its role as the regulator of peaceful coexistence among citizens.

Here’s a 1994 NY Times article on social cleansing in Colombia: Vigilantes in Colombia Kill Hundreds in a ‘Social Cleansing’. That article confirmed that the groups announce their sweeps in a given neighborhood. They warn the junkies when and where they’re coming with signs plastered all over the streets. So the junkies who (A) can read and (B) are sober enough to read have a chance to escape. Here’s a quote from a political science professor at the national university:

No state is viable with 30,000 homicides per year … Only 3 percent of those crimes go punished. Social-cleansing organizations spring up as a substitute for real justice.

I’ve had some harsh words for the addicts of Bogota. Apparently, a lot of people dislike them more than I do. If I hated going to 7 de agosto because of them, imagine how those local business owners felt. It wouldn’t be hard to take up a collection between those businesses to finance such a sweep. Maybe the business owners weren’t involved, but a group of police and military who felt it their civic duty. However it happened, the change in 7 de agosto is undeniable.

Here’s a recent tweet of mine (twitter.com/colinpost):

A beggar came up WITH A BOTTLE OF GLUE IN HAND. He asked for change in between huffs. Unbelievable.

Social cleansing is obviously wrong and should be condemned. But to play devil’s advocate, I had often looked at some of these people and wondered why they don’t just kill themselves. It seems some locals took that thought a step further. I just went to 7 de agosto today and concluded I’d have no problem whatsoever bringing my camera to take pictures or video. The only problem is there’s nothing interesting to take pictures of.

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21 Responses to “Limpiezas in Colombia: Social Cleansing”

  1. Paul

    08. Mar, 2010

    I am also an expat living in Bogotá, although I live 40 blocks north of Calle 66 in Calle 116, which is a very safe slightly upscale area of the city. Like you I feel very uncomfortable on the few occasions I have to venture into less salubrious barrios, frequently wondering whether it’s wise for me to be there, even though I can easily pass for a Colombian as long as I don’t open my mouth. However, I could never excuse the wholesale slaughter of indigents merely because they are unsightly and pose a potential threat. I know that I also benefit from their removal but I would rather live in my gated community and restrict my shopping forays to the well protected malls of Andino, Unicentro and the tiendas in strato 6 neighbourhoods, rather than know that in order to make me feel safe hundreds, possibly thousands of people are being murdered. I can see where you’re coming from but I’m sorry I just can’t agree. My advice is if you don’t belong in 7 de agosto, which it would seem you don’t, then don’t go there and so spare your conscience.

  2. Drew Cummins

    08. Mar, 2010

    It sounds like an absolutely deplorable action. I saw nothing in your piece to suggest you would feel any different than I do concerning this, so I am unsure about the previous comment referring to any lack of agreement. I am disturbed that this is not known more here in the states. I’ve always questioned what seems to be lesser value on life such countries appear to have, but have generally associated it with the cartel killings seen in present day Mexico or the the 1980’s. I didn’t recognize that it was something that could just easily be adopted by “regular” citizens.

  3. Ward

    09. Mar, 2010

    Good read Colin. Colombia has a long way to go yet…

  4. Mike

    10. Mar, 2010

    I find the comments here fascinating. One person wants to withdraw to his gated community, and the other lives in the the nice safe US of A. I hate to break the news to you guys, but this is not about you. It is about the average everyday Colombians that these people prey on. The Colombians have the misfortune to have a government that is not doing its job. When that happens you get vigilantes. And, whether you approve or not, that is the rational answer to this type of situation. Is it nice? Hell no, but icky or not people want stability and order in their lives. If the only way to do this is with vigliantes, so be it. Ugly but bettter than the alternatives. And if most Americans have lost the guts to make icky choices, I truly Thank God that there are people on the planet that don’t believe in that ‘lose their soul’ pap.

  5. Michael

    26. Mar, 2010

    Good call Mike. I find nothing wrong with the idea of social cleansing…in fact I wouldn’t mind the police combing the streets of detroit or other dangerous major cities and doing the same.

  6. George Hutchinson

    13. May, 2010

    Let’s all go around to LA, NYC, Detroit, London, Paris, Madrid, Cairo, Johanasburg, Shanghai, Oasaka, Seattle and San Francisco and Mexico City and join in this barbaric practice of these obviously mentally ill people. and kill them. Lets study the practices the Nazi’s employed to rid their society and utilize social cleansing that then when on to anyone who wasn’t blonde haired and blue eyed Aryans. You’re obviously much better than other groups of prople. Unless that is untill something is found wrong with you, Nazi cowards.

  7. George Hutchinson

    14. May, 2010

    I get very upset over these social issues pervasive in every country. But I have to keep cool, I can’t change the world. But I was surprised to find that this very intresting website with it’s very cool and professional set up, was also a smut site. I read the orgy bit. An orgy from what I understand is a bunch of people having a go at each other whenever and fucking like there was no tommorrow.
    That to me is just gross and seems like a petri dish of bacteria and then coke, booze and pot. I’m no angel but my bits ain’t going anywhere near a bed sheet in that enviroment. That sort of stuff belongs in some sort off smut space for those to enjoy with out getting involved, your possible demise in a situation where it is very easy to go out of control. And in this case the American embassy sending some dead Americans ass back in a casket. Chill out is my advice there, here or even in the back streets of Munster. But hey
    to each his own. But there is a time and space to divulge where you get off and where to expose one’s professional expertise. You crazy gringo. So peace and safety to your risks.

  8. Samuel

    26. May, 2011

    sometimes vigilante justice is highly appropriate, and just because they didn’t have badges or gavels doesn’t make them totally illegitimate in their decision to execute.

    I would prefer social cleansing not happen, and would not care to personally be a part of it (either side!) but I bet a lot of the people that carry it out would prefer it not to be necessary either, but it happens because action is, in fact, often necessary.

    I’d rather limpiezas than having good family-men business owners get shanked by crackheads and little children get accosted, and worst of all, these miscreants pulling others down into their mire/lifestyle.

    I wonder if some of the limpiezas were once wictims of those they now ‘cleanse’

  9. Colin

    11. Jun, 2011

    Samuel, you’ve touched on something a lot of people don’t take into account. The limpiezas are largely financed by struggling, small business owners.

  10. John Rivers

    16. Aug, 2011

    Fascinating info. Thanks!

  11. Karma

    25. Nov, 2011

    I find the whole situation unfortunate and disturbing. Because what it means is that rather than getting to the root of the issues that exist in the society superficial bandages are being applied. How many people will have to be killed before the society realises that is obviously not the solution and it is only a temporary measure. Which is only going to cause more collective dysfunction. This does not result in stability especially when you have a situation where natural disasters happen which leads to more homelessness and more poverty and more desperation. So unfortunately many more will have to be killed.

  12. Robert Jorge

    03. Jan, 2012

    Yep, it is disturbing. I have known or heard about the social cleansing for years. But the 2 years that I lived in Medellin recently, made me much more aware of this filthy truth.

    I ended up falling in love with downtown Medellin, despite a few bad experiences. I met an ‘indigent’ who actually had lived in the US years past. He is the typical story from that part of town … deported because of drugs, lives next to the Medellin river, tries to sell Chiclets around Cr53 – 54 with Cl 52. He admits he has a terrible drug habit. But he is a nice guy. He doesn’t deserve to be whacked and forgotten about. And every month, he would tell me: “Hey, I wasn’t around for the past 2 or 3 days, because ‘we’ heard that the cops or the paracos were coming through to clean the streets. (kill and dispose of homeless people) Once a month, every month, for a year, he told me this.
    I knew several street kids downtown too. Little boys of 10, 12, 14 years of age I suppose. My best buddy was Phillipe. He would run up to me with a huge hug and we would go get some soup or a chorizo. Well, one day, he disappeared. I would like to think perhaps a social agency grabbed him up and rescued him. My gut tells me he got whacked. He was 12.

  13. Corbin

    07. Nov, 2013

    They have a terrific mechanism for dealing with this kind of thing in Cuba called peligrosidad social predelictiva. This way anyone who might commit a crime is just thrown in prison, no need for mass murder. It’s often necessary! Maybe we can give it a try in Detroit!

  14. HalfGringo

    21. May, 2014

    You are one sick paramilitary like man! I´m glad you´re presence in this country doesn´t add to another scumbag who takes things into his own hands like he was the highest judge. Colombians from the ultra-right represent the worst this country will ever have and you seem to not be aware that you are echoing their chorus call.

    On another note you have succeeded in confirming the stereotype of the tourist who thinks the world should be at his feet.

  15. Marlena

    04. Feb, 2016

    This is really disgusting. People are homeless for a variety of reasons and much of it was because the system failed them. People sniff glue to keep away hunger and cold. Some of these people may have been abondoned as children in the 90s. I found this blog to look up ways to connect w my Jewish ancestry. Instead I found a piece excusing the murder of innocent people. ANY reaction other than horror, disgust, and a call for people and the government to stop these killings is DISGUSTING. Shame on you for making excuses for genocide. Homeless people are people too. If you don’t like seeing homeless people better to look to the policies of the United States to blame then executing people on the street. I can’t believe you had the gall to “play the devils advocate” when it comes to genocide. And the same for anyone who reacts with anything less than pure HORROR. Shame on you.

  16. Marlena

    04. Feb, 2016

    Also why do people keep using the word “justice” in this article? Murdering homeless people as they sleep because *some* homeless cause crimes and others take drugs or sleep on the street is NOT vigilante justice. It’s sick and cowardly.

  17. Manuel

    21. Aug, 2016

    “I had often looked at some of these people and wondered why they don’t just kill themselves. ” Really? REALLY?!!

    This is a sick and disgusting blog post, and many of the comments are too. I prey that all of you learn some empathy for our brothers and sisters who have been fucked over by our society, and wind up addicted on the street. I’m relieved that the last few commenters call the author out for this bullshit.

    NO HUMAN BEING IS DESECHABLE!!!

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