Colombia’s Guide to a Sustainable Crime Enterprise

PHOTO: A man smokes bazuco (cocaine base) in an outlying area in downtown Bogota known as Calle del Bronx.GUILLERMO LEGARIA/GettyImages
A man smokes 'bazuco' (cocaine base) in an outlying area in downtown Bogota known as 'Calle del Bronx'.

In recent years, drug dealers have created a terrifying new form of criminal enterprise in Colombia. Micro-traffickers in Bogotá and other cities have taken over small neighborhoods to establish hubs commonly referred to as “ollas” (roughly translates to pots), where money flows, drug dens never run out of addicts, and overlords control every economic aspect of living.

The Bronx, a notorious four-block olla in Bogotá, was taken over by the army last month, and the disturbing details of the criminals’ modus operandi have just been unraveled in the past week.

“I said that the Bronx was going to end,” Luis Martínez, a police general, told Semana. “And they put out the word that they would pay ten million pesos ($5,260) for each dead cop. We both declared war.”

According to a police probe, five kingpins controlled the Bronx. Each of them ran organizations of several thousand members, had small personal armies, and bands of drug dealers, merchants, and runners that watched over the streets. Oh, and hundreds of homeless drug addicts inhabited the neighborhood’s dilapidated buildings. A closed TV circuit oversaw their territory, warning them of intruders or suspicious men (an undercover police officer was murdered there a few months ago).

Gangs offered a variety of services to their clients, who were mostly drug addicts and alcoholics. They sold drugs, adulterated alcohol, food, and weapons. They rented rooms, taxed the people who entered, ran brothels, sold fake IDs, and rented guns so that drug addicts could go out and commit robberies.

The gangs had essentially set up a sustainable drug use cycle, which guaranteed limitless pay for an endless demand of narcotics. Here's how it went:

A homeless drug addict hears about the Bronx and decides to go there. In the outskirts of the neighborhood, he is charged a $1 fee for the permission to get high in the neighborhood. Once inside, he can buy a joint for another $1; a gram of cocaine for about $3 to $6; or a gram of bazuco, a drug similar to crack cocaine, for approximately a $1. Once he has the drug, he can rent a room to get high in for slightly less than $2. Afterwards, he can buy a bottle of cheap whisky for $6, a bottle of aguardiente for $3, or a bag of leftover food called a combinado for somewhere between 12 to 24 cents. Prostitutes cost $3 to $6 (the same price as a fake ID or a stolen cell phone). When he runs out of money, the addict can rent a gun for $28 a day. With it, he can leave the neighborhood, rob as many people as he can, and come back to sell the cell phone he just stole, or spend the cash he pocketed in drugs, alcohol, food, etc.

The gangs also sold grenades ($28) and pressed marijuana ($130-$160/kilogram). Each year, they raked in more than $44 million in profits.

According to the police, the business was so ingenious and was going so well that, before he was captured two months ago, Óscar Alcántara González, one of the leaders of the gangs in the Bronx, was planning to set up a similar neighborhood in Quito, Ecuador.

Last April, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his defense minister to clear out 27 ollas in twenty of the country’s cities in roughly two months. As the deadline came to an end, army and police operations yielded more than 1,500 arrests across the country.