BOGOTA, Colombia — We sit and smell compressed filth in the recess of a Bogota sewer wall as a candle stub sputters in a nearby cranny. The cramped space is the home of Rolo and La Gata, two of the thousands of young vagrants living on and under Bogota's streets.
Rolo, a 27-year-old drug abuser, has promised I can spend the night here if I don't bother La Gata, his 16-year-old girlfriend. Still thin and weak from her miscarriage two weeks ago, she huddles beside us on the rotting mattress.
Though no one has an exact count, hundreds of homeless such as Rolo and La Gata have chosen to live in Bogota's storm sewers. Their underground existence makes them all but invisible--an advantage in a city where the killing of street people by vigilante squads has skyrocketed.
Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of one of the homeless walking down an embankment leading to the sewer culverts, some of which extend hundreds of feet under Bogota's avenues and parks. One afternoon, I made contact with Rolo and La Gata by simply following their path and shouting at a culvert entrance.
"Listen. I'm a journalist. I'd like to talk to you."
A dog barked savagely. Shadows moved, and then Rolo suddenly appeared. I explained that I wanted to spend a night and a day with him to better understand how he lives. His answer--"Come tomorrow night"--seemed too quick, intended to get me off his case fast.
Now, on the appointed night, Rolo's face is all dirt, whiskers and reflected flickering light, exaggerating the wild gyrations of his eyes. His voice is quiet but sharpened and staccato from smoking a lot of basuko, a raw, impure cocaine sold on Colombian streets.
Rolo raises his lip above a gap of missing teeth and tells me why he can't keep his promise and let me stay.
"We have problems with the police, OK? You spend the night, and they might think that there is something up, OK? They might cause problems, OK? Say we're dealing with foreign terrorists, OK? You should go now, OK?"
I squeeze through the opening of the sewer recess Rolo calls home and grip the cold concrete shelf while trying to get my footing on a margin of slick tile below. Inches away flows the underground stream of runoff rain water, mixed with garbage on its way down from Bogota's hills. Edging my way along the wall toward the sewer entrance, I find it hard to avoid the piles of excrement left by Rolo, La Gata and the eight other human beings, ages 8 to 28, who live here. Above ground, the garbage-filled streets of the capital seem clean by comparison.
In the thin light of the following morning, another of the sewer dwellers, Miguel Antonio, apologizes in a backhanded way for Rolo's behavior. He jokes about how his companion was "panicking," or smoking basuko last night.
The drug, according to doctors, sends users flying into heart-pounding ecstasy, then careening into paranoia. As Miguel Antonio assures me, Rolo's fear of police seeing him with a foreign terrorist was "pure story." He was just too stoned to deal with an outsider.
All of Bogota's estimated 10,000 vagrants and urchins have real reason to fear, however. Those who have gone underground seek not only shelter from cold nights but also escape from the murderous, self-proclaimed "cleanup committees."
Human rights activists and the street people accuse police of participating in the squads, which roam Colombian cities torturing and killing petty thieves, prostitutes and gamins.
The latest report by Americas Watch, an independent human rights group, calls such murders a growing problem in a country already plagued by violence.
In one of thousands of such cases last year, a street child was murdered in a working-class section of Bogota. Beside his body, authorities found a sign that said, "We Are Cleansing the Neighborhood."
At least 89 such "social cleanup" murders took place in Colombia between May and August of this year, according to a count by the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace, a Roman Catholic human rights group.
Miguel Antonio says he has lost many friends and acquaintances to the death squads. There are neighborhoods such as La Paz, just east of here, where the gang won't venture out of the drainage system because if "the people don't kill you, the police will."
As the 28-year-old talks on lazily, people in cars on the street above look down at us standing at the sewer entrance. One of them leans out of the window and shouts something about the Nazis having been right. Miguel Antonio does not answer the man but instead ducks back into the storm sewer on his one leg and a crutch. Once inside, he attends to the important matter of readjusting the filthy pair of gym shorts he wears on his head for warmth.
Soon, hard-core boredom sets in. The day moves as slowly as the basuko and marijuana smoke that lingers around the wall recesses. To smooth the jagged drop from a basuko high, several of the group glue-sniff themselves into a woozy-eyed haze.