The newest building in Bogota’s central Plaza Bolivar is the Palace of Justice, a light brown marble structure that dominates the 350-year-old square to the north. It was constructed in 1989 to replace the structure that was destroyed four years earlier in the aftermath of an infamous siege by members of the M-19 guerrilla group. The battle to retake the building left 120 dead on both sides including 11 of the 24 Supreme Court Justices who were taken hostage.
I slowly turned my attention from the building towards the early 19th century cathedral 45 degrees to its right, trying to imagine the chaos than must have enveloped the square on that November day three decades ago. My reconstruction was interrupted by a gentle tug on my camera strap from behind.
I turned quickly to find a slight man, dressed in a dirty loosely fitting suit jacket, sporting a friendly smile.
“Hey! Want to take a picture of me?” He said. “A perfect souvenir of Colombia!”
The man was as dirty as his clothes, his thick dark hair greasy. His beard and mustache were gray as the day surrounding the scene except for the patch that covered his upper lip, stained by years of tobacco abuse but given shape by his round genuine smile.
“I’m a beautiful man,” he said this time in English. “Take a photo.”
I had a pocket full of change and some small bills.
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
He took a step back, and smiled again. This time it reached his eyes. He raised his soiled right thumb and I snapped three quick shots.
His spiel was standard fare; he was hungry, he hadn’t eaten all day, he needed money, he wouldn’t spend it on drink. He then asked for a thousand pesos.
I emptied my pocket of change and handed it to him along with a thousand peso note. Combined, a little over two thousand, less than a dollar.
“That’s what I pay my models,” I tried to tell him. I began to walk towards a vendor who was selling grilled sausage and asked him to join me. But he had already begun walking in a different direction, toward another stand where two young women were selling bootleg CDs.
“I’m beautiful man,” he said to one of them. He then turned towards a couple. Each held a camera in their hand.
According to government figures, nearly 10,000 people live on the streets in the Colombian capital, a city of about seven million. (Given that just about every day I’ve seen several dozen people lying in alleys, parks, and parking lots in just a few small areas of the city, that figure seems suspiciously low.) And like the marginalized elsewhere, Bogota’s homeless have been easy targets, whether on the receiving end of harsh “cleansing” ordinances by local governments, or the victims of straight up violence at the hands of other residents.
Or, in the case of the Escándalo de los falsos positivos, or False Positives scandal, one of the more sinister war crimes in Colombia’s recent horrific history, they’ve been targets of extrajudicial execution by US-funded and trained armed forces.