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Bogotá’s economic disparity spreads from the southeast side of the city like a rash, climbing up the hillside of Ciudad Bolívar. The higher you go, the more primitive — and desperate — life is. This is where the victims of Colombia’s displacement gather — the peasants, indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians. A short bus ride from the polished glass of Bogotá’s financial district and the serpentine affluent neighborhoods of the Andean foothills, it stands as a stark statement of a country entrenched in dichotomy. Juan Mejia Botero, a documentary filmmaker born in Bogotá, has spent the last decade of his life recording the stories of the marginalized and voiceless of the capital city.
Mejia is the founder and social documentary director for the production company Human Pictures. He started his work on The Battle for Land in the slums of Bogotá in 2002, partnering with AFRODES, the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians. The film, shot between 2008 and 2012 and expected to be released in 2016, follows people fleeing the lands of Colombia’s Pacific coast to slums like Bogotá’s Ciudad Bolívar and the neighboring Altos de Cazucá in Soacha. Mejia believes that before the world jumps to the conclusion that Colombia is now a glimmering, reborn nation, there needs to be a straightforward look at the reality of many of its impoverished citizens — those living on the periphery of the urban and rural areas as well as the periphery of Colombia’s conscience.
“I love Colombia, and Colombia is a very beautiful country, and I’m very happy that people are seeing that,” Mejia said. “And I’m happy that people are coming, and I’m happy that we are shedding our Pablo Escobar skin. But the fact of the matter is, there are two Colombias.”
I spoke with Mejia in New York City, where he is finishing the theatrical cut of The Battle for Land. He showed me the academic cut of the film, which had just won a 2016 Honesty Oscar for Best Picture. The 90-minute documentary is part animation, part live recordings of people’s stories, told in the rural lands from which they fled and in the slums where many migrants now reside.
When I visited Bogotá, I dallied through the comfortable side of the city, the new darling of tourism and travel media. I stayed in the polished parts — the places of culinary revival, the places experiencing stability as the longest civil war in the Western Hemisphere nears resolution. But despite this veneer of prosperity, there is another, deeply corroded side of the Colombian coin.
“You go to Bogotá and you stay in la Zona Rosa, la Zona T, la Zona G, and you’re like, ‘Colombia is growing, Colombia is flourishing, look at this, this is incredible,’” Mejia said. “But you just — I mean, it’s not far. You just go a few blocks one way or a few blocks the other way, and life is different.”
It is here that the recently displaced have set up temporary lives for the indefinite future.
Drive southwest from the city center and you’ll pass the slums. They rise as half-finished, red-brick shacks piled one on top of the other (if a building is “in construction,” the government cannot collect property taxes), winding their way into the deep corners of the mountains, as far as the haze allows the eye to see.
“If you go to Ciudad Bolívar, it has pavement, it has running water. It’s poor, but it’s more developed,” Mejia explained. “The higher neighborhoods don’t have running water, they don’t have sewage. Ninety percent of the streets are not paved. People have electricity, but they just steal it from the grid lines.”
It is here that the recently displaced have set up temporary lives for the indefinite future. Most of them come from violent areas of the country — “the rural, forgotten, neglected regions of Colombia,” Mejia said. They come fleeing from terror and lack of opportunity — or most frequently, both; in Colombia, the two are often intrinsically intertwined.
The mass displacement of Colombia’s marginalized is rooted in bloody civil wars that started in the 1940s with La Violencia, a conflict between Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative Parties. The armed conflict between political parties evolved in the ‘60s and ‘70s into a guerrilla war, with groups like FARC, M-19 and the ELN declaring their fight against the state. When guerillas started extorting wealthy landowners, they hired armed mercenaries to defend their properties, forming paramilitary groups. Then, as coca cultivation and the agro-industry grew, the paramilitary began to expand their violence in the late ‘80s. To beat back the guerilla presence and secure more land, the paramilitary deployed a tactic of eradication for all guerrilla supporters.
“The paramilitary’s modus operandi was, ‘Let’s go look for the communities that support the guerrillas, and through terror we’re going to debilitate that base.’ It led to horrible violence,” Mejia said. Massacres took place on soccer fields, in remote villages and along river banks. The paramilitaries sought out violent crime, hoping to gain notoriety. Word quickly spread, and people fled. The displacement, lasting decades and still continuing today, has sent hundreds of thousands of people into the peripheries of the country’s urban centers. “It’s a pretty precarious existence,” Mejia said. “It’s a degree of poverty that’s comparable with some of the poorest places.”
“In Colombia today, there is no less violence; it’s just as bad, or worse. And there is still a lot of displacement going on, and those slums in Bogotá, they’re not getting smaller.”
To build relationships with these people, Mejia began his project working with AFRODES — helping with translation, archiving documents and running filmmaking workshops with the children of the Altos de Cazucá slum. “This made the process of documentary filmmaking — which is already really long — even longer. But it paid off in the end in terms of safety, and also in terms of the content and the access that we could achieve. And at the end of the day, for a filmmaker, the main thing is access.”
Mejia said that if he didn’t have the support of AFRODES, the community would have been closed off to a mestizo man from Bogotá with a camera asking politically charged questions. “Nobody’s going to talk about the violence, because people are afraid. In areas where there is still an armed conflict, people are very careful about what they say and who they say it to, because they don’t know who to trust.”
After months of workshopping with the children, Mejia gained the trust of community members, allowing him and his crew to document their lives with the intimacy and vulnerability necessary to create a compelling visual narrative. Despite this access, the crew still worked under the strain of life in an unstable neighborhood. “You see the graffiti by the paramilitaries all over the neighborhood,” Mejia said. “You feel their presence there all the time.”
Mejia, who was living in Bogotá, would travel by bus into Altos de Cazucá, carrying his cameras in sacks or beat-up old bags. He filmed the documentary on a Panasonic AG-DVX100 (chosen for its less-conspicuous nature) and worked with a crew of two to three people. They stuck to a strict schedule of arriving in the early morning and leaving before 5:00 p.m. When staying overnight to film, they would remain in people’s homes and did not venture into the street. The team also had to be judicious about how they framed their work. “When we were shooting this film, we had to portray it in the most apolitical way possible. When asked, ‘Oh, what is this about?’ We’d say, ‘It’s about the poor displaced people.’ You frame it like a Save the Children infomercial. When you frame your work like that, it’s not deemed as politically threatening. It’s deemed as charity work. And a lot of the time that was our facade.”
Mejia’s and Human Pictures’ purpose, though, was not to create “poverty porn” that glosses over the reasons why the impoverished were suffering. His aim was to show how Colombia’s armed conflict has deeply violated the lives of displaced victims of violence and greed. In Colombia, that is an extremely political, and controversial, position to take. It’s also a critically important one.
“Colombia has managed to clean its image without cleaning its death.”
“I’m torn, because I want Colombia to shed its image to some degree,” Mejia said. “But I don’t want to do it at the expense of pretending this other reality is not there. In Colombia today, there is no less violence; it’s just as bad, or worse. And there is still a lot of displacement going on, and those slums in Bogotá, they’re not getting smaller.” Though the rate of homicide in Colombia has dropped from an extremely high 78 per 100,000 persons in 1991, it still rests, at latest calculation in 2014, at 28 per 100,000, nearly five times the rate in the United States. Many homicides today are also aimed directly at leftist groups, like the Patriotic Union, as well as at community leaders, land claimants, labor leaders and members of peasant movements. According to Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), murders of social leaders, political party activists and union members increased by 35 percent in 2015 compared to 2014 (from 78 to 105 deaths). Mejia’s main contact while working on the film, AFRODES then-president Geiler Romaña, is exiled from Colombia and now lives in Washington, D.C.
This dire reality should not discount the progress that Colombia has made in welcoming visitors and presenting their diverse nation to the greater world. Bogotá, in my time there, radiated the modern good life. It is a metropolitan city with the beauty of green Andean hills looming mystically in every vista. The city has culture, world-class gastronomy, youthfulness and vitality. A certain sect of Bogotans live good, stable lives. But take a quick look at the city’s periphery, and the deeply conflicted and extremely violent side of Colombia comes into full view. Mejia and his team worked to expose these inequalities and injustices, and tell the stories that tourism, and often the state, would gladly ignore. This work, he hopes, is a move toward the country’s healing — as Colombia cannot afford to continue disregarding the skeletons filling its ever-expanding closet. If it does, the violence, however segregated to the edges of cities and society, will likely continue.
“The state is content with having moved the conflict to areas where life is valued less,” Mejia said. “These are poor peasants, indigenous and black people. And those are lives that they can manage to lose and it won’t be a scandal. If this type of shit was happening in the center of Bogotá, it would be a huge deal. But Colombia has managed to clean its image without cleaning its death.”