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Where the Asphalt Ends : Bogota’s Periferies

At the southern end of Bogota, Colombia, in the cold, wind-eroded mountains, millions of people displaced by 60 years of war try to build the world of their dreams despite threats from armed groups and abuse from landowners.

« People have come here from different regions due to various conflicts, the ones in the 40s, in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s ... » says Mauricio, director of the community schooling project Cerros del Sur, built on the highest point of the Potosí-La Isla hill, a dividing mark for the south of the city. We arrive here in a taxi that leaves us on the street that divides Potosí from the poorer and less well organized neighboring hill, Caracoli, where the paramilitaries’ word is law. With difficulty we climb the hill’s dirt paths to the door of the school, situated at 3000 meters above sea level.

One hour from the center of Bogota sprawls the immense suburb Ciudad Bolivar, at one million strong the most populated of the city’s 20 « localities. » Almost all the dwellings bear traces of the do-it-yourself construction that characterizes nearly all of this zone. Arriving in the Jerusalén area, where a belt of hills marks the city limits, the houses get poorer and poorer although almost all are made of bricks. Public services seem more precarious here : only the main streets, the avenues, are asphalted ; shops and public transport are scarce ; flat land gives way to steep hills. We are coming to the outskirts of the outskirts.

First surprise : the school has no bars, not at the main entrance nor on the windows : unthinkable in Bogota, especially in the periphery of the city. Mauricio says that this was the wish of the handful of Salesian teachers and students who started the project in 1983 committed to a popular education ideal : « We don’t know if the school is part of the community or the community part of the school, given that together they have grown and grown in to each other. »

Thanks to more than 20 years of communitarian work and spirit, in whose formation the Cerros del Sur school played a determining role, the neighborhood is one of the few to have all the public services : asphalted streets, water and electricity, piped gas, transport, schools, nursery, and parks. « Other neighborhoods that started at the same time have not gotten this far. To achieve what you see here, you need people who are outstanding at collaboration, » points out an old neighbor, Pedro Vargas. [1]

With some 15,000 inhabitants, Potosi is one of the 10 sections of the Jerusalén neighborhood (population 150,000), itself one of the 320 neighborhoods that form Ciudad Bolivar, one of the 20 localities that make up the city’s total of around seven million people. The capital is growing at a dizzying rate, mostly with the migration of those displaced by war. Since 1985, violence has created three million displaced people, of whom 23% came to Bogota, almost all living in very poor neighborhoods at the southern or south-eastern edge of the city, where more than half of inhabitants are direct or indirect victims of six decades of wars against the peasantry.

Twenty Years Building a Neighborhood

Up until the start of the 1980s the slopes of Potosi were bare. All the Jerusalén area housed barely 8,000 people who had no water, electricity or drainage, telephones, transportation, sanitary facilities, or schools. Further on from the hills, there were M-19 guerilla camps and some FARC and ELN [2] presence. In a few short years it was populated with families who arrived from the countryside or those who couldn’t keep paying rent in the center of Bogota.

They had to walk five kilometers with pots and buckets to get water. They bought their plots of land from « pirate developers » who took all their savings, and, to finish paying it off, television sets, irons, and other appliances. Because the sales were illegal, the police came at night and burned the cardboard and asphalt sheet settlements, considering them an invasion. Unlike in the majority of Latin American and Colombian city peripheries, where most families invaded lands illegally, in Bogota the buying of individual lots predominated, with families building their own houses.

According to one of the testimonies, the construction of these neighborhoods is « the prolonging of a struggle for land that for decades has covered the countryside of our country, expressed in the urban sphere in the form of struggles for homes. » In this way, « a small part of us thousands of rural and urban immigrants who lived through expulsion, exodus, and misery, trawling the streets and sidewalks in search of land and a roof, found in Potosi-La Isla, through our own efforts, something of what we were looking for. » [3]

In March 1984 the Cerros del Sur institute was inaugurated, founded by Evaristo Bernate. Three hundred children attended classes at the school, which was run in three prefabricated stalls of just 40 meters, and a group of self-taught volunteer teachers. Many of the children sat on the floor or on a brick and they wrote on a wooden block that served as a desk. Formally, it is a private institution but the parents don’t pay because the ministry of education grants them scholarships.

The goal of the project is not just to educate, but also to organize the life of the neighborhood, for which each teacher takes charge of a specific sector to « create community organization with the neighborhood leaders and find solutions to the difficulties faced. » From the start, the neighborhood’s Communal Action Committee was run by people looking for « a place for social climbing and personal benefit, » allying themselves with the city’s traditional politicians. Those were the very politicians who had sold and resold illegal lands in the peripheral neighborhoods with the protection of the authorities.

As the community organized itself alongside the school, the conflicts began. In 1986 the « communitarian mothers » group was formed. Most of the children stayed in the house while their parents went out to work. There were fires and some accidents, so a group of women decided to begin taking care of the children collectively in their own houses, without official help. They themselves built a place for 60 children, including bathroom and kitchen, and in 1987 they took the offices of the Family Wellness Institute to achieve the funds to pay salaries.

In this way they have achieved everything. First the Jardín Alegría kindergarten, then the school, and later secondary education in Cerros del Sur. The traditional politicians began to be displaced and they reacted, as is usually the case in Colombia, accusing the teachers and neighborhood activists of being « communists » and « guerilla fighters. » There were dozens of police raids. With all this, in 1987 the neighborhood chose Evaristo as president of the Local Action Committee. In the following years, and thanks to multiple pressures among which stand out the dozens of takings of state and municipal businesses, the whole neighborhood got electricity and water.

But it was not the government that built everything. The neighbors had to do most of the construction. A group of young people organized parties to raise money for the park, and later worked in its construction. The highway was important for public transportation to reach the area. Toward the end of 1987 more than 200 neighbors went out with picks and spades every Sunday for three weeks, to make the main road. At every step of the way they were met by new problems. There were serious fights between businesses for the monopoly of the neighborhood’s transportation, with acts of violence, but now one single bus route goes there from the center of town, without the service being in the hands of a monopoly.

Later they built a communal shop to keep essentials cheap and not have to leave the neighborhood to buy them. The Medical Attention Centre was created at the beginning of the 90s. Later, the community radio and the young people’s dance and sport groups. In a short time, Potosi became the most organized area and encouraged the rest to come together in JERUCOM, the union of all the Jerusalén committees. This became a reference point for all of Ciudad Bolivar. On May 11, 1991 Evaristo was assassinated, just like so many other social and neighborhood leaders in the country in those years. It seems the murderers were those who felt displaced by the community work that the director of the Cerros del Sur institute encapsulated. His death remains unpunished.

Creating Community

Evaristo’s death provoked a crisis that was overcome by the strength of the neighbors, who had already achieved many of the services they were seeking. The community school became « the center all flocked to, not just looking for education but also for the discussion of the community’s problems, acting like an axis articulating initiatives for everyone’s benefit. It is the principal meeting place for discussion and planning of community activities. »

They created new concepts. They conceived pedagogy as touching on all aspects of life, not just what goes on in the classroom. « This is also part of the pedagogic project : how people take school, how they appropriate it for themselves, how they make it feel their own, how they make it part of their own lives. » The goal is that « the student achieves a profound influence over their own life, which brings them to begin processes of transformation in themselves and in their community. »

This concept of education is very similar to the one that sustains Brazil’s landless people’s movement. « In this way, » states a text by Evaristo, « school is more than the classroom or building. It is the neighborhood as a whole. We should learn through varied social practices : in the classroom, but also through the construction of houses, the management of water, the demands for and takings of the public service buildings, street openings, etc. »

In the 90s in Ciudad Bolivar there was a climate of intense community organization. Although some services had been achieved, the higher uphill neighborhoods had great shortages (80% without public drains and sewage), and lack of education (90,000 missing spots), and healthcare. With the implementation of the neoliberal model a new problem arose : violence. Some 300 young people were murdered every year as part of « social cleansing » ; petty criminals, drug addicts, and gang members, but also social and political activists, in a place that in 1993 had about 600,000 inhabitants. Parallel to this there was a cultural reawakening with meetings, workshops, talks, and shows.

The Civic Unit was created, consisting of 65 Ciudad Bolivar organizations that called a strike for Oct. 11, 1993. The strike was a success in that the municipality accepted nearly all the demands and created commissions to assure the completion of the terms of the signed agreements, with the communal organizations participating. Mauricio’s evaluation : « With the first civic strike in 1993, the administration was forced to negotiate with all the Ciudad Bolivar committees. From this moment on a lot of money began to arrive, with high levels of corruption, which spoiled things somewhat. When that money arrived, so did the NGOs that live off misery, and an atomization was produced, and this whole organization was broken, also along with the murder of many leaders. The organizational net ripped. »

Even so, in Potosi things kept moving forward. The Communal Action Committee was replaced in 1998 by a Community Council, with the aim of raising participation levels. In the traditional committee a steering group of seven members was chosen but the council added various representatives from its 17 work areas. In this way it changed from a seven-person directive to a kind of 50-people-plus open assembly. Now, « all decisions are taken in a group, not according to the wishes of the president or of any one person, but according to the wishes of the majority. »

Although they feel isolated due to the crisis of the social organizations in the area, since the Bogota mayor’s office was won by Luis Garzón of the Polo Democrático party in 2004, relations with the authorities have greatly improved. The community work has been deepening and now they embrace productive projects called « food security. » Mauricio mentions the creation of a community diner that sells very cheap lunches to 400 people and some more breakfasts to children.

In the school there is a working garden area filled with organic cultivation techniques, forming part of the food security project that has been developing and is now to be extended to private house land plots, where families are beginning to cultivate small amounts of organic products, and to other school spaces and wastelands in the neighborhood. The urban agriculture began just five years ago and now a market area is being installed to avoid intermediaries so that the farmers can sell their products straight to the neighbors. This project will rely on the support of the city’s council program Bogota Sin Hambre.

Slow Change

With the help of Cerros del Sur teachers, students, and alumni, the community organization develops. Every issue it works on implies coordinated block by block organization with weekend meetings in the community school. One of the latest successes was getting building resources to improve 500 homes, with the support of architects to redesign the interiors of the houses. The most important issues they work on are human rights, sports, community child-rearing, education for people with special needs, culture, street paving, and housing.

« South American champions have come out of this neighborhood, which shows that it’s possible for the kids in these neighborhoods, the ones who are seen as delinquents or drug addicts, to have bright careers, » Mauricio says with pride. In general, kids from neighborhoods like Potosi fall victim to paramilitary groups, who in this neighborhood alone have killed between 200 and 300 young people since the beginning of the 90s.

Asked about the most important changes in his neighborhood, Mauricio explains : « I arrived here in 1987. There has been a clear improvement since then in living conditions. Now there are public services, there is almost full enrolment in primary school and nearly full in secondary. But the most noticeable change is cultural. Before, problems were resolved with machetes, and it’s not like that anymore. People have had the chance to finish their studies and enroll in higher education, reducing the consumption of drugs, domestic violence, and robberies. There has been an obvious improvement in community organization. There is more autonomy. »

He gives the example of the neighborhood next door, Caracoli. We climb to the school’s basketball courts to observe it in the distance. The differences are noticeable. The streets are not paved, the housing is much less secure, mostly just one floor of improvised materials. As stated in an article published by Semana magazine, a winner of the Rey de España journalism prize, « Caracoli is a pile of sad and unfinished houses » and it lacks elemental services.

In Caracoli, barely 200 meters from Potosí, the paramilitaries are in charge. « They proposed getting their groups involved here and the people rejected the proposition, » Mauricio assures. « The paramilitaries base their work and resolve their drug and robbery issues on the strength of arms. You leave or they kill you. That is their style in every case. If you have a store you need to pay them protection money. »

One of the biggest changes relates to domestic violence, almost the norm in Colombia. « Women can now go out and study but this is just one side of the story, because although now women are in other spaces, this has provoked ruptures in the family and there are many single women. Machismo has been reduced a lot ; there are many young single mothers. You can see 12 and 13-year-old girls pregnant, although in our school there are many less than in other neighborhoods. Our sexual education program still needs development, » Mauricio concludes.

Before we descend to the avenue where the taxi left us, we walk through part of the neighborhood : the play park, the diner, the community mothers’ house. Mauricio explains other projects that are newly up and running. One of these trades clothes, toys, and shoes and gives the money earned toward special needs education. A group of young mothers has created the Potosi Cultural Corporation, in whose dance hall they hold art classes with young and elderly people together to « rescue, value, and feed our culture and offer them a possibility of a different life. »

In Potosí, like in La Victoria (Chile) and Villa El Salvador (Perú), it is impossible to hide the poverty. But community organization has dignified life and made not just public services but also a high level of collective and personal autonomy available to Potosi’s residents. It’s no small achievement, when you consider that they’ve done it themselves.

For More Information

  • Corporación Taliber « Potosí-La Isla. Historia de una lucha », Bogotá, 1998.
  • Personal interview with Mauricio Sanabria, Bogotá, Nov. 1, 2007.
  • María Isabel González Terreros, "Escuela-comunidad. Historia de la organización comunitaria en Potosí-Jersusalén, Desde Abajo, Bogotá, 2004.


[1Corporación Taliber, « Potosí-La Isla. Historia de una lucha, » p.9.

[2M-19 was a nationalist guerrilla group. FARC is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia and ELN is the Ejército de Liberación Nacional.

[3Corporación Taliber, « Potosí-La Isla. Historia de una lucha, » p.9.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.