The Octopus, the Spider and the Braying Burros: Bogotá and Displacement

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán
Jorge Eliécer Gaitán greets the crowd in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo in El 9 de abril en fotos, Primera Edición: El Áncora Editores, Bogotá 1986.


By Azriel Bibliowicz

Colombia has long been a country of civil wars. From the 1810 cry of independence to the early 20th century, the country had suffered a series of armed conflicts between traditional political parties.

The 19th century ended with the Thousand Days War, which left its mark on the beginning of the 20th century. Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, we have not been able to end the 20th-century wars. We live as in the Middle Ages, when cities had become shelters from the wars.

In 2003, the National Museum of Colombia organized an exhibition called “Times of Peace,” a somewhat ironic title since the exhibit focused on the country’s various armed conflicts. Perhaps it got its name from featuring several peace treaties signed between 1902 and 1994. 

The exhibit included objects and photos from the Thousand Days War and from the 1928 banana massacre, which Gabriel García Márquez described in a painful, unforgettable way in A Hundred Years of Solitude. Other unhappy episodes continued to mark Colombian history—the assasination of popular leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán on April 9, 1948, and the subsequent looting of Bogotá, leading to the period in the 1950s, known as La Violencia, in which liberal and conservative guerrillas battled each other in the countryside. That period gave rise to the communist guerrillas of the 1960s, fueled in turn by the cold war; to the creation of peasant self-defense groups as a response to the communist guerrillas; then came the paramilitary groups, product of the Army’s dirty war, and the war against drugs—in which the United States also participated—then we suffered kidnapping as a form of financing the various armed actors and, finally, the culture of hitmen and widespread delinquency.

All these forms of violence constantly spawned displacement from the countryside to the city. In a span of fifty years, between 1936 and 1986, Colombia changed from being predominantly rural to urban. More than 70 percent of the population ended up in the cities—today calculated at 75 percent.

In the prologue of my book of short stories, Sobre la Faz del Abismo, I compare the country’s violence to the biblical legends of the Old Testament. It seems that a person living in Colombia is exposed to a primal reality similar to many of the problems encountered in the Hebrew Bible.  We confront crude, primitive, and contradictory circumstances--rough, inconceivable and incredible. The violence in all its forms imposes itself with an extraordinary force that is difficult to ignore and at times to understand. It’s no coincidence that recent Colombian literature has focused on the theme of violence and armed conflicts. Violence is an undeniable circumstance that imprisons us. But the big question we writers are always asking ourselves is how to treat the reality of violence in a literary manner.

In 2001, several anthologies were published dealing with violence and displacement, including Lugares Ajenos: relatos del desplazamiento and the anthology edited by Peter Schultze Kraft, La Horrible Noche: relatos de violencia y la guerra en Colombia. These and other works by artists and writers show how the conflict has been played out on the body of the peasant. Without a doubt, the violence seeks to stamp its contempt for life on the body of the Other, this Other that the society relegates and transforms into invisibility.

When I began to research Bogotá’s history for a novel I was writing about the city, a coincidence caught my attention: from 1936 onward, two migratory waves transformed the capital, one from abroad and the other from within the country.

Jewish migration into the city—although never more than 5,000 people—had an significant impact on the city’s commerce and development. My own family, like so many who came from Eastern Europe, began their migration fleeing from pogroms and the advent of World War II.

But 1936 also marked the violence in the center of the country and the beginning of forced displacement of peasants to the city, as an outcome of the land reform law of the Alfonso López Pumarejo government.

While studying the different waves of newcomers to Bogotá, I found that 1936 was a turning point, and that even if great differences existed between these two experiences of rootlessness, they also had a lot in common. Both migrations confronted racism, classism, contempt, mistakes, confusions and perplexities that underlay these displacements. Classism and contempt for indigenous people, on the one hand, and anti-Semitic xenophobia, on the other, were two sides of the same coin and came from both the liberal and conservative parties.

Between 1886 and 1930, Colombia had been governed by a conservative hegemony made up by a landowning class totally disconnected from the reality of the peasants. This elite considered the future of Europe to be German and Italian facism. The conservative party, supported by the Catholic Church, spearheaded the opposition to the land law, the first agrarian reform in the 20th century. It accused the López Pumarejo government of being Bolshevik and wanting to eliminate private property.

The land law (Law 200) declared that property ought to fulfill a social function. The reform gave the nation power to exappropriate abandoned land that had been fallow for more than ten years. It also asserted that the peasant could become the owner of the land if he had worked it for thirty consecutive years and could show he had made improvements.

Social researchers liken the situation of the Colombian peasants in the 30s to “the curse of  Tantalus,” a Greek myth in which the son of Zeus was punished by standing in a pool of water surrounded by fruit, but without ever being able to reach the fruit or drink the water, suffering from hunger and thirst; the Colombian peasant lived surrounded by coffee, but was not allowed to cultivate it for himself or reap the benefits of ownership. During the 30s, the landowners, in exchange for the work of the peasant and his family, rented them a small lot for basic sustenance crops such as yucca, beans and corn, but the peasants were not permitted to grow coffee, since that crop was considered land improvement.

During this decade, the theme of land ownership became critical, above all in the center of the country. The land law was an affront to the conservatives, who forced the peasants to abandon the countryside. It is important to point out here that many of the peasants were of indigenous heritage. Because of this, in my novel El Rumor del Astracán, one of the most painful scene occurs when Ruth, the Jewish immigrant and the novel’s protagonist, says to Alicia, a displaced migrant and coworker, that because they are both displaced, “she trusts her because being poor one understands many things. Their condition makes everything equal.” Alice replies, “My señora Ruth, excuse me, but you perhaps do not have money right now, but, believe me, you are not going to be poor your entire life. But we do not get ahead no matter how hard we work. You get rich. We remain an Indian.”

Racism, lack of social mobility and contempt for the indigenous have always characterized Colombia. A detailed and important study by Carl Henrik Langebaek, Los Herederos del Pasado: indígenas y pensamiento criollo en Colombia y Venezuela, analyzes and develops the complex and contradictory relationship with indigenous people from independence on.  It’s important to note that the vernacular maintains these contemptuous attitudes. To call someone an Indian is considered an insult in Colombia. 

It was not until reading Franz Fanon that I ended up understanding that all racism is one. In his words: “"It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: 'Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.' And I found that he was universally right—by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and in my heart for what was done to my brother." (Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove, 1952).

 When I wrote El Rumor del Astracán, I faced the challenge of how to show how anti-Semitism, as well as the discrimination against blacks and indigenous in the 30s, formed an integral part of the Colombian reality and reflected official policies. It was not a coincidence that the Colombian government shut its doors to immigration and particularly to Jews. We know today that more than 25,000 Jews asked for visas to immigrate to Colombia and were refused. Many of them died later in the Nazi extermination camps.

In the novel, I used a historically based but imagined anecdote to explain how the Foreign Affairs Ministry shut the doors to immigration. The story recounts the arrival of some British subjects to the Cartagena port. The British government had previously requested visas for them. The Colombian government, thinking they were Englishmen with white skin, approved the visas. Rumors began to circulate in Cartagena that Lord Mountbatten’s nephew was among the passengers, but that for reasons of protocol, the government wanted to protect his identity. The rumors flew and more than one family was offended that they had not been invited to a supposed welcome banquet. When the boat arrived, it “was greeted by a band and a fleet of national warships. First the ‘God save the King’ was played and then the [Colombian national anthem] …the mayor with the keys to the city was the first to climb the stairs.”

A few minutes later he furiously ran down the stairs, shouting, “The British subjects are Jamaicans. The boat is full of Jamaicans! The British subjects are a bunch of Negroes.”

The mayor did not let the passengers get off the boat and sent them back home. Because of that event, immigration to the country was closed off, and resident visas prohibited until further notice.

This imaginary incident allowed me to demonstrate that immigration restrictions in the 30s were not just aimed at the Jews. Without a doubt, at that historic moment they needed all the human solidarity possible, but the xenophobic policy of the government considered all those of African and Asian origin to be abject and loathsome degenerates, and evidently the Jews, no matter their country of origin.

However, Colombia has been seen as a country that may wink at the rules—they are acknowledged, but not necessarily implemented. So the Jews and foreigners who arrived in the country and managed to enter, even with falsified documents, were never deported. Contraband has always been part of the reality of the country; the only thing that changes is the product.

From the 1930s on discrimination and classism in Bogotá have defined the city. In those years, the population not only was differentiated by skin color, but by clothing.  Those who wore a three-piece suit and leather shoes were of the doctor class, and those who used wool ponchos or shawls and walked barefoot or in espadrilles were ruanetas, indigenous people or peasants. When the Jews arrived, they extended a type of credit that  made it possible for the most humble and insolvent to dress like “doctors.” As former president Alberto Lleras Camargo explained in an article, this transformation of the credit habits of the city caused what he called “a humble revolution, a change in the face of a nation of peasants into something better, less picturesque, more uniform, but also more egalitarian.” People could no longer be distinguished by what they were wearing.

Bogotá of the 30s was a cold, isolated, rainy, closed-off and provincial city with a poor population fleeing from the violence. The displaced people—whether peasants or Jews—ended up in crowded rooming houses. It is not a coincidence that among the well-known literary works of that period were those of José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo, one of the first writers to describe urban life in Colombia in his novel La Casa de Vecindad, which portrayed the squalid conditions of these rooming houses.  This awful reality was later portrayed in a 1994 prize-winning movie, La Estrategia del Caracol, directed by Sergio Cabrera.

With the April 9, 1948, assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the city was consumed in total chaos; the stores and comercial establishments along Seventh and Eighth Avenues were looted; more than 140 buildings were burned down and the streetcar tracks torn up. And the Bogotá elite began to ask, “Where did these people come from?”

The answer was in the overcrowded rooming houses. Displaced people had been living for years piled up in the back of stores and in subhuman conditions—in rage and despair that  exploded in 1948. As Fabio Zambrano Patoja recounts in La Historia de Bogota del Siglo XX, between 1936 and 1948, Bogotá doubled its population, from 350,000 inhabitants to more than 700,000. Moreover, in 1958, ten years after the April 9 magnicide, Bogotá tripled its urban area. And the population would double more or less every ten years. Thus in 1958 more than a million people lived in Bogotá, and in 1968 the city had around 4.5 million. The city expanded in a disorderly manner like an octupus with many tentacles.

In 1951, architect Le Corbusier was invited to draw up a city plan. But his projects coincided with the military dictatorship of General Rojas Pinilla, who turned his back on any proposals for regulating the growth of the city. Instead, Rojas Pinilla approved the creation of a special district and annexed a series of municipalities, casting aside any plan for territorial order. The integration of Usme, Bosa, Fontibón, Engativa, Suba and Usaquén resulted in the urbanization of thousands of acres of farms that once cultivated wheat, barley and other products. In the face of the number of displaced peoples who continued to arrive in Bogotá from the countryside in the 50s because of the violence, the need for housing sparked speculation with the land which, in turn, got in the way of organized planning. The farms were divided up and sold as lots without much state control. Moreover, Fenalco (the National Merchants Federation) and the Association of Urbanizers and Parcel-Makers fomented this urban chaos. In the following decades, the landowners of the plains surrounding Bogotá found a new form of wealth, and many of their farms were “planted” with bricks instead of crops.

And even though the state was not responsable for this division of land and out-of-control growth, it did play a role in the stratification of the city to foment evident and marked class differences. The south was officially chosen as a place for the working class and the north for the wealthy. After April 9, when downtown was perceived as dangerous, the Bogotá elite began to flee “from the horrible riffraff—guacherna.” The phrase brings out the prejudices in the language of the city. Guache means “man” in the Chibcha indigenous language, and guaricha means woman. However, in the dictionary of Colombian terms, guache appears as a shifty man and  guaricha as a prostitute. Without a doubt, a classist and segregationist attitude dominated the environment, feeding the repudiation of the displaced population.

To understand the tentacular expansion the city was suffering, it is important to point out the role played by the bus companies in this process. On April 9, streetcars were burnt and rails dug up, which I doubt was mere coincidence, as the private bus companies had already begun to compete for control of transportation. After the Bogotazo of 1948, they controlled urban transportation. In the 50s, a series of bus routes proliferated toward the south and west.  Farms like the huge Vuelta del Alto were bought by developers to construct working-class neighborhoods. The Ontario Bernal y Hermanos farm owners dried up a lake and urbanized the land clandestinely and illegally, turning it into the working-class neighborhood El Carmen, which was legalized finally forty years later. The clandestine developers depended on bus lines to open paths and to take residents to their jobs throughout the city.

With the swelling population of displaced rural people and lack of housing, some developers simply turned over lots without sewage, drinking water or light, and people built their own houses. Many families could not rent rooms in rooming houses because they had too many children, but if they found steady work, they could buy a lot on credit. These displaced rural people felt they had  to have a bit of land to plant their gardens and did not want to continue to pay rent, in spite of the complete absence of social and municipal services on the plots.  Those who bought lots dreamed of constructing two floors to rent one out and guarantee an income.

In many cases, the new plots were outside Bogotá jurisdiction. A close relationship existed between the bus companies and the clandestine property developers, many of whom became city councilmen and promised to get basic services for the area in exchange for votes.

Only in 1974, twenty years after this erratic sort of settlement began, did minimum regulations for urbanization and services get established. However, the fact that the rules had been written didn’t mean there was a will to carry them out. It is not mere chance that 51% of the city will end up being a product of these spontaneous and informal urbanizations.

Colombia is now said to have the ominous number of six and a half million displaced people, the second in the world in displacement after Syria. Among Colombia’s displaced people, 87% come from the countryside, and it is said forced descampesinación is taking place: peasants can’t be peasants if they have no land, and twenty million acres had been taken by force out of productive agricultural use.

One of the consequences of forced displacement has been the theft of land from peasants and the concentration of large landholdings. Nowadays 0.4 % of landowners own 46% of Colombia’s rural land.

In 2009, between forty and fifty families arrived in Bogotá daily, some 203 persons, of whom 70% were displaced. ln 2014, about 13 million Colombians lived in poverty and eight million in extreme poverty. Reduction of inequality remains stagnant.  

The sprawling growth of the city also required constuction materials such as gravel, clay, sand and stone, and in the city’s south, brickworks sprang up, employing many child workers. The movie Los Chircales, made between 1965 and 1972 by Jorge Silva and Martha Rodríguez, was one of the first documentaries to denounce this exploitation of child labor.

The mountains surrounding the city were also exploited by serving as quarries. And in many cases this was done in a clandestine and illegal manner, leaving an open scar in the city’s southwest sector. Slowly, the city’s wetlands began to disappear. Bogotá originally had more than a million acres of wetlands or lakes, now they are down to 1,616 acres, and still continuing to dry up from blatant misuse. The city has paid an enormous environmental cost, and the resulting gullies permeate the southern areas.

Illegal squatters continue to invade the southern mountain slopes of Bogotá, where part of the displaced population and other poor people have settled. The illegal invasions are very complex, because the poverty-stricken include displaced people, the needy, beggars and bandits. Land invasions and the variety of shady business by different groups of dispossessed in some cases reminds us of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Three Penny Opera.”

Claims resulting from land invasions are accumulating in the courts, which are so slow that they can take up to 12 years and thus have ended up legalizing many occupants. Mayors in each locality must initiate the processes of restitution for these lands, showing that the state is the owner of the property and certifying that it is for public use, but this happens quite seldom. The invasions and the increasing number of displaced people continue and cause all types of social problems as they surround the city with belts of misery.  

Because of the lack of social services and the needs of the people, the “spiders” and the “braying donkey fleet” have begun to thrive. The donkey fleet is a procession of burros, one after another. transporting water to the huts of the recently arrived squatters. Every three weeks, the burros carry water-filled plastic jugs originally used for cooking oil to the makeshift neighborhoods for modest prices.

Over time, the “spiders” begin their work—connections made from hoses that take water illegally from the aqueduct. Neighbors organize to make the connection with plumbers they’ve dubbed “engineers.” To be sure, older neighboring communities complain, and the illegal connections lead to confrontations with the police. In 1970, it was calculated that the amount of water stolen by clandestine urbanizations and squatters was 20% of all the water provided by the Bogotá Aqueduct and Sewage Company.

In the beginning, the invaders lighted their shacks with candles which, on more than one occasion, caused a fire. That let up when another kind of “spiders” showed up to make illegal connections to electric lighting through makeshift cables and wires to electrical posts.

The number of people displaced by the violence just kept growing. The indifference of the political class and the weakness of the state left them to get by as best they could to resolve their problems. All this fomented Bogotá’s inequality and class segregation. The war, combined with the lack of a policy for integral rural reform and the permanent opposition of the landholding class, has created runaway urban growth and poverty.

Sadly, the “spiders” and the “braying donkey fleet” will continue their rounds providing the newcomers and the displaced people the basic necessities of life. And as we said in the beginning, even more sadly, the wars of the 20th century in Colombia have not come to an end in these first decades of the 21st. If this violence doesn’t stop, forced displacement will continue to spiral out of control.


Azriel Bibliowicz is a novelist and professor at the National University in Bogotá, where he was one of the founding professors of  the School of Film and Television. He also created and then directed the Master’s in Creative Writing program there until 2012. He obtained his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1979, and has been a visiting professor in sociology and literature in the United States and Europe.