Officials in Colombia evicting poor families during coronavirus outbreak
BOGOTÁ—Lucía Cupitra stood on a patch of turned earth in one of the city`s poorest neighborhoods and spoke of the day last month the government came.
Cupitra, 33, a single mother of five from the Pijao indigenous people, had fled her small town in west-central Colombia after refusing to pay protection money to a local guerrilla group. Here in a tin shack on a hillside in Bogotá’s sprawling Ciudad Bolívar, her family had found a measure of safety — and, if not comfort, at least running water, electricity and a working toilet.
Then last month, Cupitra says, government security forces came, forced her family out of the makeshift dwelling and razed it.
“They threw us out like dogs. They didn’t give me any notice,” she said. “I begged them to give me time, but most of my things were destroyed.”
Authorities in the Colombian capital have imposed a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Mayor Claudia López has taken to the streets with a loudspeaker to tell people to stay home. The country has reported more than 30,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.
But that hasn’t stopped authorities from evicting hundreds of families from the informal Altos de la Estancia settlement since the beginning of May.
Residents of the unauthorized settlement, many of them refugees from the country’s half-century civil war, say the evictions have reduced their number from 1,000 families to about 100.
City officials, who have razed similar settlements elsewhere, say they are protecting the people from precarious terrain prone to landslides. They say the land will be turned into a park. They’re offering families money to cover three months’ rent elsewhere.
“This land, sadly, cannot be inhabited, and on various other occasions it has been reclaimed,” said Nadya Rangel, Bogotá’s secretary of housing. “For over 23 years this has been happening.
“Letting people stay there is putting lives at risk,” Rangel said.
Members of the community show videos of heavily armored riot police firing tear gas and destroying houses. Some who refused to leave were still inside their homes when the demolitions began. Some have been injured by police projectiles, they say; children have been terrified. Some say authorities threatened to place their children in social services agencies if they didn’t cooperate.
Cupitra was offered shelter, she said, but it turned out to be “complete lies.”
Much of the settlement has now been bulldozed, leaving shoes, foam mattresses, clothing and toys in the mud and rubble.
López has drawn criticism from the local media and humans rights groups for allowing the evictions during the lockdown. Aides did not make her available for an interview.
Amid the growing scrutiny, authorities have adopted less aggressive tactics, employing negotiators, arriving without riot police and offering 250,000 pesos a month for three months — about $60 — to cover rent elsewhere.
“This doesn’t necessarily have to be violent,” one official shouted to residents Friday.
Residents who decline the money still lose their homes.
María Isabel Raveles, 35, reluctantly accepted. The single mother came from Colombia’s northern Córdoba region seven years ago, built her house here and has lived in it with her sons, now 10 and 8, ever since.
The dwelling was destroyed in 10 minutes. The family watched in horror as the demolition team dragged pieces of tin roof and furniture up the hill to a dumpster.
“If I didn’t take the offer, they would destroy it and leave me with nothing anyway,” Raveles said. “After [the three months is over] is the problem. What do I do then? I’ve no work to keep paying.”
Rangel, the housing secretary, said she is thinking of ways to help evicted families become financially independent and to create jobs for them after the pandemic.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director for the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, said it was “inhumane to evict people in the middle of a pandemic.”
“Funds for rent are only a Band-Aid,” she said. “Once that runs out, they will have no place to turn to.”
Cupitra, fearful for her children’s health during the country’s coronavirus outbreak, has sent them to live with relatives and friends. She is staying in a makeshift camp with 60 other people some 300 yards from the site of her former home.
“It’s really sad that they don’t care about the pandemic, to throw us onto the street, knowing they would be putting our children at risk,” she said. “They didn’t think of us at all before doing this. The government’s given us no solution. It’s as if we weren’t human beings . . . worse than animals.”
“I just want a dignified place to live for my children and not to be fighting in the street,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I want to give them a good future.”
Photo: Photo: Raveles, in a mask, carries belongings from the home she shared with her two sons for seven years. Source: Nadège Mazars/The Washington Post.