Soñar al borde de la imposibilidad

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The guarantees to be a youth social leader in Bogotá are few; actually, surviving in the neighborhoods of the other city, for any of its inhabitants, is a real challenge. It must be based on the fact that the guarantees to enjoy a dignified life are in constant tension in the communities on the periphery of the capital, which faces the lack or deficiency of public services, the fragility of the educational system, and an informal economy for most, as can be seen in the Fichas locales of the District Oversight.

Every youth social leader agrees that money does not determine the execution of leadership, but it does delimit them. In different interviews, the young leaders expressed the need to abandon or suspend the processes for mere economic survival. The same survival that pushes some young people to seek money through violent dynamics, as explained in the document "Youth gangs in Colombia: conceptual approaches, urban expressions, and possibilities of intervention" of the Ministry of Justice. Among the different reports included in the document, the Center for Studies and Analysis in Coexistence and Citizen Security (CEACSC) indicated that in 2013 there were 120 gangs with an average of about 1,800 young people whose ages ranged from 14 to 25 years.

Society has determined the nature of Bogotá in the periphery and of the young people who inhabit it. Drug addiction, involvement with criminal groups and violence are the yardstick against which young people from the other city are measured. “You cannot ask those who are not given opportunities not to be affected by this. That is why I believe that a central emphasis at this time with all the work with youth, is to show that they are not the protagonists or those responsible for these phenomena, but that they are victims, and that the responsibility lies with society. The government has to deal with it that way”, explains Alejandro Acosta, director of the International Center for Education and Human Development (CINDE).

Senator Aída Avella recognizes these same social difficulties faced by young people and, nevertheless, places the responsibility for social change on them. “The hope of Colombia is you — the young people—. They are the people who arise with so many efforts and so many difficulties. The young people who have to walk to the university, the young people who have to sneak into the Transmilenio transport because there is no money to pay for it ”, he says.

Southern (of the capital city) youth social leaders believe in their processes as the opportunity for their communities, even if they are not usually the news. As Acosta indicates: “all these social leaderships are very important and it is what is not promoted, what is not linked to the construction processes, what the media does not show, what never stands out, but rather is pursues ”; the members of the Police do it, as if it were repression of poverty.

Tensions with the Public Force have a history on the southern edge of the capital. Its inhabitants speak of the complicity of members of the Public Force in the so-called ‘social cleansing’, and of the relationship they have with micro-trafficking gangs. In 1993, while the Forum on Human Rights "So that life continues to be Young" was taking place, Oscar Barón denounced the impossibility of being young and surviving in Ciudad Bolívar (southern locality of Bogotá). Arturo Alape, citing Guillermo Segovia's book "Violence in Santafé de Bogotá", collects Barón's testimony:

“We do not understand the origin of these behaviors of the public force and when we dare to look a little further, we perceive that they treat us as their enemies and then we ask ourselves, why?Is it because we are poor, is it because we are ugly, is it because we are young?, and then worried that they might continue to kill us, we investigated a little and almost came to the conclusion that our crime is to be young and even more so to live in Ciudad Bolívar and then of soon we are responsible for living in this Ciudad Bolívar full of deprivation and besieged by needs, so many and so orderly that people cannot take it anymore and organize themselves to claim their rights and live with a little dignity and then that's it, we are subversive, guerrillas, thus our crime is accumulating, the great newspapers of the distant capital declare us disturbers of the 'public order' enemies of the "Citizen Peace" allies of the guerrillas, criminals, junkies, gang members".

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When young leaders are asked today about the figure of the Police, they answer: "stigmatization" and frequently "distrust". In some cases, the Public Force has been one of the actors that frustrate community processes by considering them inappropriate or scandalous, as affirmed by the leaders María Fernanda Ríos and Gabriela Romero, members of the founding team of Casa Raíz in the locality of Bosa.

It is usual for cultural processes to take over the public space to generate more impact in their territories and to get people to pay more attention to their social stakes or protests. This often makes the Police criminalize the act of "taking the street", as does, for example, community theater. The Police, then, come to frustrate these processes and even arrest the leaders who champion these types of spaces, the leaders say.

"They immediately capture me and the Police themselves torture me," remembers Ánderson Betancourt, social leader of the locality of Usme, about the illegal detention he suffered by members of the Police in this locality when he was still a minor. The events occurred on January 28, 2015, when the community was protesting the ownership of a property that until then had been public in the Aurora neighborhood. When the situation begins to get tense, members of the Police take Ánderson and his father to CAI (Immediate Attention Center) de la Aurora, where they suffer cruel physical and psychological treatment.

“There they start hitting us with sticks, with batons. They also pulled me by the hair, they beat me against the counter of the same CAI that is there, then, threatening me, intimidating me that "why was I'm a big mouth", etcetera; the same policemen", he recalls. And although Ánderson denounced, and assures that two disciplinary complaints were generated within the Police, until the publication of this investigation (August 2020), after more than five years of the events, the Prosecutor's Office has not notified him of the status of his complaint.

Juan Ortega —Juanito—, a member leader of the Peace Managers, from Ciudad Bolívar, says that “the Police have a problem and that is that they always feel they have a lot of power, a lot of authority. So when we are in public space, on the double courts, when we are on the mountain, they always arrive with the prejudice that the social leaders, the youth of Peace Managers, belong to the common youth who consume psychoactive substances and others, and they are always ready to attack us, so we have had too many problems with the Police”.

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It should also be noted that the risk young people run on the outskirts of the city is due to the dynamics of violence that have historically been established in that territory, and that directly or indirectly put their lives in danger. On August 23, 2011, threatening pamphlets arrived at the headquarters of various theater groups in the localities of Kennedy, Tunjuelito, San Cristóbal and Bosa, allegedly signed by the Capital Block of the "Águilas Negras (Black Eagles)" gang. The form ordered the members of 12 theater groups to leave Bogotá. “Teatro del Sur was threatened by what is supposed to be the Black Eagles (...). The threat said that we had to leave because we were defending human rights or something like that” says María Fernanda Ríos, a member of that cultural space in Bosa.

On the other hand, micro-trafficking is the risk factor in which all the youth leaders and social leaders interviewed agreed. Community theater has been threatened not only by those who call themselves the ‘Black Eagles’ but also by micro-trafficking actors in the neighborhood and the locality. "We have a house that sells drugs half a block away (...) one is the one who is robbing them like the public, the clients because it is also a bit what the parents think a lot, right? I prefer that my son be there (in the cultural house) listening to music or doing what you make him do, that going out to the streets with friends who knows what they are doing, and of course, the children tell us many times, they tell us what they see, they tell us what they hear, what they are offered in the parks ”, affirm the young leaders of Casa Raíz.

Although the threats from the micro-trafficking actors are not direct, the fear is there. Darling Molina, leader of the Peace Managers of Potosí, thinks the same as the women leaders of Bosa locality in that the leaderships that they advance as young people are a counterproposal to drug trafficking, but “something like that whether they have intimidated us or they have said to stop doing what we are doing, no. But I think it is the same, it is not that it has hindered it —the leadership management—, but there are dynamics in the territory. It is like that there — an area with the presence of micro-trafficking actors — we are not going to do a tour or something as punctual" the leader acknowledges.

In the case of Potosí neighborhood, Ciudad Bolívar, in addition to regularly registering the presence of post-demobilization paramilitary groups in the media and the early warnings of the Ombudsman's Office, there are some unidentified actors protect the interests of individuals, within the framework of the territorial dispute that the community has for the Cerro Seco Ecological Park.

“Another person also arrives hooded, armed and therefore intimidating with dogs to make us go out and remove the (football) goals. Indeed we put our front, we stand very hard for our mountain and what we believe. (...) Finally, I always try to mediate. The whole situation gets a little out of control. The person in charge of the park arrives, this person arrives very rude (...) and makes a direct threat against me, in front of all the people around ”, says Yhoyner Nieto, mentor of Peace Managers de Potosí, who lived together to his community carrying out social leadership efforts in the popular soccer school of Peace Managers Potosí.

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Francisco Pulido, who at the time he was interviewed was the Undersecretary of Governance and Guarantee of Rights of the Government Secretariat of Bogotá, had identified the actors that generated a risk for social leaders in the capital, coinciding with several of the exposed by youth social leaders. “There are a series of events more associated with common crime than with the presence of organized armed groups, which are the ones that are generating situations of risk and threat. What are these factors?, issues such as micro-trafficking; the phenomenon of "tierreros" (landers), which is an extremely complex practice by which there are appropriations of properties by criminal organizations, and others such as mining extraction issues in localities such as Ciudad Bolívar on the border with the municipality of Soacha”.

The creation of the District Protection Route for Human Rights Defenders took into account the most constant complaint of the social leaders who are victims of some violent act: the ‘pimpineo’ between entities and the little support in the process. “We seek to avoid this by implementing a lawyer who is the one in charge of monitoring the case completely. If the complaint has to be made, we transfer to the Prosecutor's Office; if it is necessary to refer to UNP (National Protection Unit), we refer to it; if care must be taken as a victim within the framework of Law 1448, we articulate with the High Council for Victims; and the procedures that may be ”, says Pulido.

Since its creation in 2016, the Route served 628 male and female leaders until June 2019, and according to the information system of the Government Secretariat, from October 2012 to December 20, 2019, 1,327 attacks against leaders were introduced in all of Bogotá.

1 era gustavo bermudez de 38 años, quien pertenecia al sector sindical y era líder sindical de aguas y wilfredy gonzales noreña de 32 años, quien pertenecia al sector comunal, a la mesa autónoma de derechos humanos de la localidad de usme y a la asociación comunal de usme.

The Bogotá Government Secretariat, based on the information system of the District Protection Route for Human Rights Defenders, in which the complaints made by defenders are consolidated, shows the locations in which there are a greater number of records protection and reporting on risk situations of people between 18 and 28 years old, not counting the threats to the leadership of young people between 14 and 17 because, according to Francisco Pulido, minors are referred to the institutions that take care of this age population.

“The youth cycle begins from 14 to 18 years old, and it is until this moment that the country is of legal age. We in this cycle do not implement measures directly. We articulate it with the Childhood and Adolescence Police, we link with the ICBF (Colombian Institute of Family Welfare), within the framework of the measures that are in place to restore and guarantee rights in national law, ”explains Pulido.

According to the consolidated statement of the Government Secretariat, from October 2012 to December 20, 2019, a total of 104 threats, sieges, assassinations and other similar crimes have been filed against youth social leaders in the capital. The most affected localities are Ciudad Bolívar (14), Usme (14) and Rafael Uribe Uribe (12).

nivel de estudio de los lideres sociales agredidos


It was not possible to obtain information with all the public institutions linked to this issue, and others to whom we sent petition rights or to whom we requested interviews did not even provide some kind of response.

We sent a request for information to the National Protection Unit (UNP) requesting the number of social leaders who are under a security scheme, resident in Bogotá since the institution was founded, specifying data such as age, sex and gender assigned schema type. However, they appealed to the reservation of information. "In this context, it is not possible to send the requested information as it is part of the aforementioned legal reserve," answered Viviana Benavides Jiménez, a contractor lawyer for the UNP Citizen Service Group.

But Viviana Benavides interpreted the request in a particular way. We were not asking for sensitive data such as the identity or ID number of the leaders but anonymized data for statistical analysis. We filed an appeal but never got a response.

In the case of the Police, there is nothing to say. Nothing because they never responded to the request for information. Even though emails were sent, calls were made, there was no response. Only the tone of the telephone repeating over and over again until some telephone extension of the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and INTERPOL of the Metropolitan Police of Bogotá is lost in nothingness.


The local mayors assure to stimulate the participation of young people in social processes. They assure it because the Secretary of Government expresses it. Local institutions have a budget to encourage the management of cultural and artistic processes in which space is opened for social leaders to present their social initiatives. "We are going to support them with a resource of up to ten million pesos to develop and materialize them in this term -the government of Peñalosa-" said Pulido. This budget allocation is done by selection: they choose a portion of the initiatives presented to support them.

Alejandro León, from the Lenin Killers popular football school in Bosa, disagrees with the election system. He indicates that “they must put a ring and ‘break’ the one with the popular Preicfes with the one who has the football school and whoever wins has the money. They are contests, they are a lot of paperwork, they are things that "Oh, but that does not matter because it is very small", so I see there that the support is very sectorized and very small. To the organization or group that sees the big project, that it is seen that there are more than a hundred people, there yes”.

This type of criticism Francisco Pulido claims to understand them. However, it justifies the election system because "no resource is unlimited" and "we could not help all organizations, whatever their purpose." To this is added that to be able to access some of these economic stimuli, social initiatives must have legal status or in other cases, as Alejandro recalls, to be able to teach football, non-profit, according to a mayor's office they must have certified teachers in Coldeportes as instructors.

Darling Molina, leader of Ciudad Bolívar, criticizes these bureaucratic gestures, considering them exhausting when it comes to contributing to the social fabric of the communities. “It seems absurd to me. These are discussions that we have had —with the other members—, and it's like, well, that implies a camel, it implies time, thinking about ourselves, even resources to do it, but in terms of the real practice and the transformative in the territory, well, no is that it is influencing a lot. In other words, the mother is not going to evaluate whether she or her son participates or not if I have legal status, yes? I think it is more in terms of resources, of institutional recognition that could be favorable, but in an absent institutional framework like it is above —Potosí— nope. Not that it works much."

Many social organizations indeed decide not to work with government institutions because they do not feel identified with the current administration, because of political ideals, or because they have not had good experiences. However, Edison Rodríguez, manager for the community of the Secretariat of Social Integration in Ciudad Bolívar, is emphatic that “the same leaders recognize that when young people are not given something in return or are not compromised, they do not participate These are processes where, for example, a night meeting is going to be held to recover the Limas creek and the first night 20 peeled, the second night 10 peeled, and the third 5".

Also, Rodríguez points out, young people must take ownership of the treatment of community problems to take them to participatory dialogues and seek alternatives for change. But it is not easy for leaders to trust. For this research, young social leaders from Potosí, Ciudad Bolívar, told us that they were tired of feeling that those who approached their processes, used them. They openly hoped that this investigation would not do the same.

"I think I find the guarantee in the community because it is for them and they are the ones who have kept the process running," Jhon Fredy Moreno responds hesitantly. He had not asked himself in the strict sense what was the guarantee to do what he did, although he has always done his work in El Escenario for his community. Leaders don't stop to think these things, they are busy being leaders. And as if it were a secret agreement, every youth social leader responds the same: there are few guarantees, but those that exist are made possible by their communities and the impetus to build a city for whom the capital has been denied.

“As the community has saved us a love, an understanding, that supports us in mobilizations, in walks. They see us with the logo, with banners, with many things and they know 'there the boys go, follow their example'. So you are motivated by the community accompanying you in those things, ”says the youngest of the Potosí peace managers when, in the strict sense, she was not young but a girl: Valentina Torres, 13 years old in mid-2019.

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Like the entire world, the pandemic took this investigation by surprise. Today, with the health crisis, the socioeconomic situation worsens in the territories of southern Bogotá. COVID-19 forced the world to entrench itself in their homes, or at least those who had one because finally being able to isolate themselves is a privilege.

As the days went by and the district administration forced the Bogota citizens to be confined, the first red rags began to appear on the windows of Ciudad Bolívar; red rags that symbolize hunger. Based on the measurement of multidimensional poverty and the early warnings of the Ombudsman's Office, the Secretariat of Social Integration identified the poverty neighborhoods in Bogotá, where Ciudad Bolívar (72 neighborhoods with 80,865 homes), Suba (26 neighborhoods with 45,098 homes), Bosa (31 neighborhoods and 40,039 homes) and Usme (58 neighborhoods and 38,819 homes) occupy the first places to deliver humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, in early May, they began to evict invaders from properties in Ciudad Bolívar and although the district administration has spoken out saying that it has welcomed the disadvantaged population, some of the evicted people told the media that this was not the case.

The news, one after another, record how the pandemic affects the economy, housing, work and food security of the most vulnerable communities in the capital, while the mandatory isolations by localities continue and restrictive measures begin to be relaxed to bring closer to the capital to the “new normal”.

Against this background, the youth social leaders who were part of this research were forced to reinvent their ways of working for their community and, in practice, carry out new leadership tasks.

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First publication, July 7, 2020 and, second publication, August 13, 2020, © All rights reserved