Editorial: The scourge of vandalism and incivility take hold of Bogotá

It’s Tuesday and another riot is breaking out at the Universidad Pedagógica. As the Avenida de Chile (Calle 72) fills with waves of tear gas scattering office workers on their lunch break, the street is quickly littered with shards of broken glass and the burned detonators from potato bombs. A water cannon inches its way towards the gates of the state-run university, known for educating Colombia’s future educators, and rapid response anti-riot police – ESMAD – form a human barricade behind shields.

For many who live and work near the financial district of Bogotá, the hurling of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) into an open street has become an almost weekly spectacle, fueled by anti-socials, who are willing to inflict serious injury on anyone who just happens to be near the university’s walls.

But besides the inevitable traffic gridlock as vehicles are re-routed out of the zone, lost income for many small businesses on the periphery of the Pedagógica, these rolling riots would simply not be tolerated by authorities in other major cities, resulting – most likely – in the temporary closure of the institution or its relocation.

Bogotá has been subjected to vandalism in recent months disguised as protest, as was the case in April, when a peaceful march led by farmers, and heading toward the Plaza de Bolívar, was hijacked by delinquents who proceeded to spray paint the facades of colonial landmarks, the bronze doors of the Cathedral and deface the statute of Liberator Simón Bolívar. The extent of the damage caused outrage among Bogotanos, and tourists could take home with them an almost justified perception that the Colombian capital is over-run by incivility and gangs of hooligans.

The incident in the Plaza de Bolívar reinforces an image that Colombia’s youth are in a free for all – and value free fall – to the detriment of so many who are studying hard to graduate from college or have landed their first job. And just walk near any TransMilenio station, at almost every moment hordes of youngsters can be seen clambering through open doors to avoid paying the ride.

There are many root causes for vandalism in society, beginning with the break-up of the family nucleus, drug addiction, peer alienation and lack of meaningful activities to overcome boredom. In Bogotá, many of these are becoming more acute among youth, compounded by a street aesthetic that glorifies graffiti as an art form, and much of which is perpetrated by those who disregard private property. The vandalism to old buildings and sold as an attraction to outsiders visiting Bogotá is part of a greater social problem called entitlement.

And this is where I fear that a generation of Colombians is losing the most important battle in their lifetimes. If one is capable of putting aerosol to antiquity, or willing to risk life and limb to skirt a $2,400 peso bus fare, how can one possibly compete for a job in a highly competitive and globalized workplace? As one billion young Indians, and a similar number of Chinese, master a third language by the age of 20, the potato detonators and TransMilenio tricksters have the cultural literacy of adolescents – and that’s not being fair to so many adolescents.

Then, the most recent case of senseless vandalism in the city targeted five brand new TransMilenio articulated buses that had only been operational for a few days and now, have to be taken out of service affecting some 22,000 commuters.

As Bogotá heads towards an important mayoral election in October (by August we’ll know the names of the official candidates), there are many issues at stake, from security to mobility and air quality. But one also needs to be addressed: how to recover our public spaces from the levels of disorder, decay and intimidation. In a New York Times column on the history of vandalism in New York, author Heather Mac Donald writes: “New York’s conquest of subway graffiti in the late 1980s was the first sign in decades that the city was still governable; that triumph over lawlessness paved the way for the urban renaissance that followed.”

Let’s hope that among the many qualified candidates there are real solutions to protect not only our streets from the scourge of vandals, but a will to clamp down on those who put people in harm’s way, without denying anyone freedom of expression and the right to protest.