The first I heard of Comanche was when I passed the Camara de Comercio building in Chapinero and saw a makeshift scaffold erected with the bust of a man on top. There he was, Comanche and his supposed date of birth and death. I searched around online and before long found the information I was looking for and started to recognise the importance of this individual. To explain Comanche one needs to look at Bogotá in the 1990s and understand the significance of the barrios known as El Cartucho and the Bronx.
Bogotá in the 1990s
The horror stories of 1990s Bogotá make today’s gripes about the city pale in comparison. Between July 1992 and August 1993 there were 8089 violent deaths registered in the capital alone. These deaths were divided as such; 1000 listed as NN (Nomen Nescio or John Doe) and 622 as Desechables (Discardable/ disposable), the rest are not specified. One can assume that most of the 1622 are people from the streets.
While the official figure for 2015 (as of June) for deaths amongst street dwellers is 30, a number still far too high, just imagine the fear in 1992/93. Or even in 1991 where newspaper reports show there to have been 500 street dwellers killed across seven Colombian cities by “social cleansing” groups in the first semester of the year.
The homeless were killed as they slept on pavements downtown and under bridges and the road between Bogotá and Choachi which climbs the Cerro de Guadalupe became a dumping ground for their mangled corpses. As if those doing the “social cleansing” were not content with murdering alone, the bodies of those killed were left with signs stuck to them labelling them as, “prostitutes, rats, homosexuals, drugs addicts,” and so on.
The Bronx and El Cartucho
The place known as El Cartucho no longer exists; this so-called “cardboard” city was a slum in the most basic sense of the word. But, the name did not come from the “cardboard” used by those inhabiting here, at one time it had been a decent upper class area just a stone’s throw from the Palacio de Nariño in area known as Santa Inés and there were a plethora of cartucho flowers (Zantedeschia aethiopica) to be found here. However, with the Bogotazo in 1948 and the wealthy abandoning downtown, things changed. People here just barely survived, it was, just as with the Bronx, an area for the desperate, the down on their luck and the savagely unfortunate all with one thing in common…basuco. Similar to crack, basuco is made from cocaine paste residue and cut with sulphuric acid and kerosene.
El Cartucho was cleared out by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa towards the end of the 90s and in 2000 the Parque del Tercer Milenio was unveiled here. The homeless dwelling in El Cartucho were not re-homed or re-housed, just pushed elsewhere. Adjacent to El Cartucho was the Bronx, where it was believed that 90 per cent of all drugs sold in the city found their source. Mayor Petro ordered the demolition and cleaning out of various parts of the Bronx with questionable success during his tenure.
Who is Comanche?
The ongoing exhibition in the Camara de Comercio – which runs until July 8th – goes some way towards explaining the identity of El Comanche but more importantly, this individual puts a face to the underbelly of Bogota’s society as he was a leader and spoke out for the rights of those on the streets. Comanche’s real name was Jerónimo and he arrived in El Cartucho at the age of 18 from Cali. I couldn’t find more details than that about his past. What is certain is that he survived knife fights, addiction and the health issues associated with his situation for some 50 years. Some say he died aged 68 and others aged 58, all the same, that’s plenty of years on the streets. Comanche became a leader in this community of the destitute. He became the voice and the image of the unseen and unheard and addressed their plight. Finally, Comanche succumbed to a heart attack in 1996.
The Comanche Exhibition
As someone who wants to learn more and investigate more thoroughly, for me the Comanche exhibition goes nowhere near far enough into the reality of life on the streets in the 1990s. I wanted to read about the reasons as to why these people had arrived in El Cartucho and where they had come from and who was behind the killings. It does show the horrors of the social cleansing in the form of partially reproduced national and international articles in the press of what was taking place. And this is chilling. The images of course are the most telling and draw some light on a heinous practice that still occurs today. The exhibition is small and perfectly formed and important, but not enough.
Special credit to the authors of the exhibition CALDODECULTIVO
CaldodeCultivo — Unai Reglero, Gabriela Córdoba Vivas y Guillermo Camacho —
Escultor: Andrés Bonilla Gutiérrez