BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Twitching and ill at ease in their current surroundings, Maria and Pablo Camargo describe their addiction to basuco — the base cocaine which has many of Bogotá’s 15,000 street-dwellers in its grasp.
Maria, who looks much older than her 24 years, began smoking basuco at 16. Her 22-year-old brother Pablo started at the age of 9. An escape from the hardships of life which left them on the streets, they now eke out a living in downtown Bogotá by collecting discarded recyclable material for resale, or begging at traffic lights to feed their addiction.
Both Maria and Pablo are being treated at the Mobile Health Centers for Drug Addicts (known by the Spanish acronym Centro de Atención Civil, or CAMAD) — an initiative led by Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro and the city’s secretary of health, Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo.
But times have been hard for the siblings.
“One month ago, I relapsed and started smoking basuco again. My brother relapsed 15 days ago,” said Maria, who was one of the first addicts to be treated at CAMAD.
City official: Drug addicts in a state of ‘neo-slavery’
Bogotá is no stranger to homelessness, and the downtown Candelaria district where foreign tourists enjoy the city’s museums and coffee shops is precisely where Maria and Pablo spend their days. It is here that many of Bogotá’s less fortunate — living on the periphery of society — struggle on a day-to-day existence of addiction and crime.
In a move to address the problem of homelessness, Both Petro and Jaramillo have people like Maria and Pablo in mind when discussing the problem of homelessness.
“Drug addicts are in a state of neo-slavery, subjecting them to exploitation, sexual and otherwise. We must be strong in the battle against the drug trafficker but at the same time offer our full assistance to the patient, since this is an illness,” Jaramillo said.
Government statistics show that violence and petty crime, long associated in Bogotá with homelessness and drug addiction, have fallen. Health officials say this is a result of the work of the CAMADs in helping to get addicts off the streets.
Some locals opposed to CAMAD initiative
In the last four months, more than 2,500 people have been treated in the two existing CAMADS. As Jaramillo said, “some Colombians think we are wasting our money, but we need to get the message across that these are people who deserve our attention.”
The CAMADs, staffed by doctors accustomed to working in slums plagued by crime and addiction, best resemble mobile ambulances that cater to the health needs of impoverished people. The aim is to reduce cases of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Bogotá’s police department is involved, too. According to police sources, a two-gram fold of basuco costs between 1,000 and 3,000 pesos (55 cents to $1.70). Police Maj. Alba Alvarez said it no longer makes sense to crack down on only consumers, but to also focus on the capital’s 453 dealing centers.
“In the 1990s, Colombia went from being a drug-producing country to a drug-consuming one,” said Alvarez, though he acknowledged that many Bogotá residents remain opposed to these treatment centers. He suggested that this is due to a lack of accurate information about what the CAMADs actually do.
Turf wars in the Bronx
Dr. Dario Fernandez, who heads the CAMAD in a neighborhood unofficially known as the Bronx, has encountered firsthand the confusion created by the installation of the health unit.
“Locals approached to ask why we dispensed drugs in a district already rife with narcotics,” he said. “The CAMADs do not hand out narcotics. We provide medications under prescription. We treat those who are most vulnerable.”
Bogotá’s Bronx is a byword for urban decay in the capital. Located a few blocks west of the presidential palace, the once-fashionable district — named after the New York borough of the same name — is today inhabited by an internally displaced population forced to move to the city due to rural violence. In December 2012, a notorious drug gang active in the Bronx threatened to burn CAMAD down.
Nevertheless, municipal authorities hope to open five more CAMADs this year, in key areas including a prison. Said Jaramillo: “Bogotá has to be the leader in a network dedicated to dealing with drug dependency.”