On May 28, just five months into his term as mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa decided to put an end to the horror of “El Bronx” ordering a 2,000-strong special reaction force to seize and shut down two streets of infamy.

The Bronx was the name given to the capital’s worst drug zone, lodged between derelict buildings of Los Martirés district and controlled by a heavily armed gang of micro-traffickers known as “Sayayines.” Whoever betrayed the Sayayines was tortured, their bodies dismembered in the Casa de Pique (chop–up house) known to have operated there.


Located on the fringes of colonial La Candelaria and bustling San Victorino, the operation to take back the Bronx was a tight-lipped secret, commanded by General Hoover Penilla and incorporating the elite of both the National Police and Army.

The raid began pre-dawn. By the time it was over — some 18 hours later — the true dimension of the horrors began to surface. Every living soul was evacuated and teams of forensic investigators were sent in to comb through buildings festering with garbage and overrun by rats.

A month later, the streets of the Bronx remain the largest crime scene this city has ever known and completely barricaded with 24-hour security presence. The existence of torture rooms has been confirmed, so too satanic rituals, which took place with desiccated snakes.

A team from The City Paper was granted high-level access to the streets of the Bronx under strict assurances from our part that we would not enter any building and adhere to the orders of our police escort. We agreed.

The streets were empty, the stench of urine and rot overpowering. We took every step carefully to avoid heaps of broken glass, decomposing cats, scurrying rats. We looked in on seedy bars where children were sold for sex, now in utter disarray, the broken bottles and smashed jukeboxes confirming the disgrace, the shame.

The enemy of the Sayayines were informants who tried to seep in under the guise of being one of the 3,000 indigents who everyday swelled the underbelly of this inferno. The informants confirmed that many went missing in the Bronx, their bodies doused with acid so as to leave no trace.

As the addicted freebased heroin and crack in doorways at night, the cries of those who were being tortured reverberated through the brick walls, a grim reminder that the only way out of the Bronx was silence. The Sayayines fled with the operation, abandoning their fortress of sadism. The armored doors remain, however, so too the secret tunnels, statuettes to the Virgin Mary, and perverse totems. If there is hell on earth, it was called the Bronx. This was the conclusion we took away from a sunlit walk to a very dark place where thousands of lives were destroyed.

There are survivors of this painful place, some 1,900 men and women, who are now sheltered and facing rehabilitation in community centers across the city. They are living proof that at the end of hell, there’s hope.