A virtual journey to Bogotá’s “El Bronx” remains online

A year after Bogotá’s infamous El Bronx ghetto was cleared out by 2,500 armed forces you can still see glimpses of its former inglory on Google Street View. Today, the crime enclave stands empty and half-demolished, but its ghostly spirit lives online thanks to the multiple lenses of Google’s car camera, that some bright spark drove through the barrio in 2015. Until June, it has not been updated.

It seems a strange decision by Google – and certainly not one designed to encourage tourism to the city – to record a zone, which at the time, was considered off limits even to police. But the technology giant did it anyway, presenting a grim, yet fascinating picture with many a devil in the details, such as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, which draws you into this canvas of medieval misery.

To take the virtual tour, head south down the Avenida Carrera 14, then hang a right at Calle 9, and the muddy street with drab brick buildings suddenly explodes with human life as recicladores pick through piles of rubbish and addicts lie piled up on fractured sidewalks, some still clutching pistolas – crack cocaine cigarettes.

Street dwellers lie half-covered in crusty blankets while toughs in baseball caps patrol the shadows – perhaps El Bronx’s dreaded Sayayins assassins, you imagine. Close by scruffy men struggle to haul outsize sacks of rubbish from their wooden handcarts to the gates of the recycling centre. They will have spent 12 hours scouring the city’s detritus for anything to resell, maybe for enough pesos to buy soup and bootleg chirrinchi. One man sits crumpled with his head in hands. A guy with a grey beard nestles in a wooden box. Another, asleep or unconscious, or worse, lies with his hand thrust down his trousers.

On one street corner lies a pile of humans, perhaps 20 or more, prone or comatose by their handcarts. Behind them, in contrast, a young girl dressed in pink stands alert in the doorway of a tenement building with broken or boarded windows and a sign saying ‘Rooms for rent, with beds.’

To take these shots the Google car carries a roof-mounted 8-lens camera, then digitally stitches the images into a montage, sometimes to strange effect. One man appears to be a floating legless above the muddy street. A ghostly motorbike glides by with no front wheel. A pair of disembodied hands clutch a tinto just under the camera car.

Then a bustling side-street opens up, but the Google car can’t enter, perhaps because of the barrier of yet more piles of rubbish, old sofa chairs, wood and plastic sheets and people huddled in groups or kneeling over deals. Above, rises the labyrinth of tenements crammed with 5,000 residents ruled by four major drug gangs whose uninterrupted supply of cheap highs made it a magnet for addicts and street people from all over the city.

The truth is, that for most of Bogotá, El Bronx, was the ghoulish “Independent Crime Republic” as Mayor Peñalosa referred to it, where drug dealing and child prostitution went unchecked. Then, evidence of torture, murder and dismemberment in so-called ‘chop houses’ in which the dead were fed to starving dogs, or buried under the concrete floors. Despite the fear, the mere mention of El Bronx generated in the minds of Bogotanos, the horror filled just four streets, and Google Street View patrols just one.

Not that El Bronx was not used to the camera. Over the years, various photojournalists filmed its grainy humanity, as they did its predecessor El Cartucho – another notorious barrio bulldozed in the 1990s. What is remarkable, however, is how in one fleeting pass, the Google camera can capture so much misery.

When Google set out in 2007 to photograph eight million kilometers of world streets, it was seen as more as a mapping exercise rather than an aesthetic endeavour. But lately, opinion has shifted, as people realize the remarkable social value of the drive-by capture. Now, it is even considered an art form. And nowhere is this more visible than El Bronx. There’s some accidental genius at work here. Google’s unflinching Street View channels Bosch’s fantastical imagery, his paintings of hell with its lost souls, dismembered limbs and the bodies fed to hybrid creatures. But even in his darkest visions, the Dutch master painted in some light to lift us out: a child playing a lute or men playing cards.

And so it is with the Bronx. Entwined in its dystopian diorama, courtesy of Street View, are vignettes shocking by their normality: a schoolgirl walking by, a mechanic cleaning car parts outside his workshop, a small boy reaching up to the arm of a man – his father?– selling green mangoes from a handcart. By a storefront, a man with a rucksack crouches down to talk to a young woman propped against the wall. He may be an outreach worker, maybe from a charity or the city council’s own help scheme.

Except now it is all gone. And, probably before long the Street View images as Google re-boots its Bogotá image bank and replaces El Bronx with a shopping centre and car park.