Friday, September 30, 2011

Colombian Drug Trafficking

Steve and his team of artists have continued the process of conducting research and interviews for the BOGOTÁ PRISON PAGEANT at the national women's prison in Bogotá, Colombia. The women are in prison for many different reasons, but one of the more prevalent crimes is that of drug trafficking. In the movie "Maria Full of Grace," the mulas (women trafficking drugs - mules is the literal translation) swallow the cocaine in packages made of condoms. It seems that this method no longer works, since anyone suspected of carrying drugs is x-rayed at the airport.  Now the traffickers have ways of blending the cocaine into clothing, shoes, whatever. You can open a suitcase and everything looks perfectly normal, but then you'll find that all of the fabrics are actually made of drugs. Most of the mulas are paid and know what they're doing, but it does seem that some are tricked into carrying drugs. Apparently, one tactic in international trafficking is to send a group of mulas to the airport at the same time and set one of them up to get caught who is either knowingly or unknowingly carrying a smaller amount of drugs. The narcos pay off the police and the airport, and the set-up mula gets arrested with the smaller amount. The other mulas who've got the bulk of the stash pass through safely and fly off to deliver the goods.

In an interview with one of the mulas, she described this process to Steve and the artists, giving them one of their favorite lines:

"Cuando la policía detuvo, me sentía absolutamente ningún miedo. Solo pánico."

"When the police arrested me, I felt absolutely no fear. Only panic."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Getting into Prison

As Steve and his team of artists can attest, it's not so easy to get inside a prison (which is probably a good thing, ultimately). We already posted photos of the group of artists waiting to get into the national women's prison in Bogotá, Colombia to do research and interviews for the BOGOTÁ  PRISON PAGEANT. After this waiting game, they have to pass through several checkpoints, and collect a series of stamps (sellos en Español). Here are photos of some of the artists' favorite sellos that they have been sporting over the course of the past few weeks:

This last one is a mouse.

Also trying to get into prison is this beautiful doggie. This dog's owner is presently locked up in El Buen Pastor women's prison. Every morning the dog comes to the gate of the prison sits outside and waits. Some of the guards give him bread and snacks. He hangs out all day, then goes somewhere at night, and is back at the gate the next morning. It is unclear how long this has been going on.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Updates from Bogotá - Domestic Drama

Things have been going great down in Bogotá, where Steve Cosson is working with Colombian artists on conducting research and interviews in El Buen Pastor Women's Prison about the annual beauty pageant that they put on there. The winner is being crowned today -- more on that soon!

In the meantime, there's been some drama around the apartment. Steve's recent Facebook status was:

oh dear lord. I am presently trapped on the balcony of my rental apt here in Bogota. I guess when I rented the place I should have specified that I wanted a door to the balcony with handles on the inside AND the outside. It's funny how sometimes you don't realize there's no handle on the outside until you shut the door. I'll be here for an hour until the landlord comes with a key. It's cold and I have to pee. Please share amusing thoughts to stave away the panic.

55 comments later, he was rescued by our Project Coordinator Ella, though the food he had cooking on the stove wasn't so lucky. The resolution, as per FB:

A few more details now that I"m back home in my smokey apt. When the moment of rescue came I heard "steve steve" from above looked up and there was Ella, her friend who lives in the building, and the doorman looking over the ledge of the balcony above with three different sets of pliers... they got lowered one by one on Ella's yarn. The third one worked. Got into an apt filled with smoke. And the landlord arrived 2 minutes later. Of many things I learned today - in Colombia the doormen don't keep spare keys because nobody trusts their doormen enough. And the smoke detectors are only in the halls... so basically you can asphyxiate to death in your own apt and if the fire gets really really really bad and makes it out in the hall then some alarm goes off.

So we're happy to report that with no fires or injuries, Steve was successfully returned to the interior of his apartment.

Meanwhile, out in the hall: This poster has been posted around Steve's apartment building. Transcription and translation below.

Jerónimo perdió su osito de dormir en el edificio: 
Jeronimo lost his little bear in the building.

Si lo encuentras por favor retornarlo al apt. 2105: 
If you find it, please return it to apt. 2105


Muchas Gracias!
Many Thanks!
(El señor Berns sabe)
(Mr. Berns knows)

Pretty reminiscent of another poster that has popped up in The Civilians' world: 

Lost Back-Pack
Valuable Contents: 
2 Beanie Babies 
and a toy dolphin
mostly needed back/ 
If found, please call

That's right - this is a snapshot of the original poster quoted in Gone Missing, complete with absolutely adorable illustrations. It's hanging in our office now. We'll let you know if Jeronimo finds his bear, and we can only hope that the beanie babies and toy dolphin have safely found their way home.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bogotá Prison Pageant: Intro to the Investigation

From Steve Cosson in Bogotá:

I've been here in Bogotá for a couple weeks now leading the investigation for our new Bogotá Prison Pageant show (working title of course. Saying that title out loud kindof feels like coughing).  I'm just now getting a chance to catch my breath – both literally and figuratively.  Bogotá is about a mile and a half up in the air which I'm aware of every time I have to climb stairs. The city is quite a metropolis—it stretches North and South with the Andes bordering the city on the East. The wealthier people live to the North, the poorer to the South. I'm living somewhere in El Centro which as you might guess is in the middle of the two – 31st street to be exact at the intersection of two main drags – Carrera 7 and 13. Carrera 7 is almost completely dug up with construction which is a big drag. Por ejemplo, last night jack hammers were working till about 1 am.  Apparently the construction had a lot to do with corruption and kickbacks of Bogotá's last mayor.  Which is part of why he is no longer mayor.

But why I'm here: I'm leading a group of 5 Colombian actors/theater artists in an investigation of the annual beauty pageant that takes place each year here at El Buen Pastor, a women's prison. Sadly there is no pageant at the men's prison.  After much to-ing and fro-ing with the national prison bureaucracy we got access to El Buen Pastor about ten days ago and the group has been visiting each morning conducting interviews with the inmates – some contestants some not.  El Buen Pastor has 9 "pavellones" or cellblocks.  Though a straight translation would be "Pavillion" which sounds much more fun.  It's really not a fun place. The beds are concrete slabs and often women sleep on the floor.  The prison was built to hold 1,000 and currently holds 1,800. Each cell just has bars on the windows so it's fairly exposed to the elements. Oh, did I mention Bogotá is COLD. Or at least for a cell exposed to the night air it gets down to 40 degrees. From these 9 pavellones there are 12 contestants.  Three of the pavellones are grouped together since the population of each is fairly small.  So from the six, a "reinita" or young queen and a "reina madre" or older/mother queen is elected. 

There's a lot of pressure on each of these women to compete and win, of course. But unlike a traditional beauty pageant the emphasis is on the group and not just the contestant. So each pavellon (aka patio) has to work together to build a float according to a theme, and a group of women from each patio learn a traditional dance and make costumes to accompany the presentation of their reinas.  

The theme this year is "the planet." As one of the psychologists of the prison told us, the administration wanted to raise awareness of environmental issues and global warming (see here for The Civilians play about all that). So of the six patios each is assigned a region of Colombia (determining their dance and costumes) and a planet-related theme:  air, water, fire, earth, living planet, dead planet.  We spoke to one of the queens having to represent the "dead planet" and initially she was fairly bummed at her patio's theme. I've been informed though that as of yesterday she figured out how to make a really killer outfit that's both glamorous and scary so now she is psyched.  

The theme is also key for the "Desfile de Carrozas," or the Parade of Floats.  Here for example are the carrozas for the National Miss Coffee pageant: 
(Did I mention that beauty pageants are a big deal here?  There's a pageant for just about any place, food, product or abstract idea you can imagine).  The carrozas at El Buen Pastor are a big effort – weeks of work to make spectacular floats out of shopping carts, recycled materials and some paint. 

I'm hoping by the time of the Desfile de Carrozas that I'll get permission to take photos.  So far no luck there.  

Here however, are a couple photos of our team of interviewers waiting to enter the prison. This is a fun ritual they get to do every morning at 8AM.  In future blog postings I'll be introducing you to the Colombian Civilians.  

Un abrazo!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bogotá Theater Groups Threatened with Exile or Death.

by Steve Cosson, The Civilians

The right is eager to consolidate power and re-take political control. And apparently, that requires threatening teenagers, stilt walkers, mimes and musicians.

Shortly after arriving here in Bogotá I learned of a crisis here in the city that seems perfectly surreal but is in fact very real and worthy of some international attention. (I find myself in Bogotá in order to lead the research of a new Civilians project about a beauty pageant that will take place in a few weeks at El Buen Pastor, the national women’s prison. More on that to come in future blog postings here.)

Here’s what’s going down. On August 23, a group of twelve theater and arts groups were threatened by the very sinister-sounding “Bloque Capital D. C. de las Águilas Negras” (The Capita District Sector of the Black Eagles). The groups received a note saying such things as: “Today we begin the social cleansing of all the dirty organizations that stand in our way... we are not playing around you motherfucking disgusting sons of bitches. Don’t make us finish you off one by one.” In short, the groups were ordered to leave Bogotá or be killed. The full text in Spanish and English follows. 

The Aguilas Negras are essentially a right-wing paramilitary group. Under former president Uribe the paramilitaries were officially disbanded. However, many of these groups have reformed and are sometimes described as "neo paramilitaries" or “emergent criminal groups.” In this instance however, the origin of the threat from the Aguilas Negras is likely not criminal but political which has everything to do with upcoming elections this fall.


The groups primarily work in the working class/poor south of Bogotá, often with a focus on social service, providing activities for youth, etc. The work is populist, often street theater: parades, dance, masks, stilt walking—a kind of spectacular visual theater that’s a tradition in the area. The key factor in this is most likely the youth. While not necessarily political companies, the groups tend to be left-leaning and the right-wing perceives them as competition in the effort to gain recruits among the young.


In response to the threat, the threatened groups and other cultural organizations of Bogotá have convened several large meetings. At a recent convening one of the threatened teatreros commented that while all the groups felt very concerned they could not imagine who would want to kill them. In referring to the text of the death threats, part of which stated the the Aguilas Negras will attack “these motherfucking organizations of shit who pretend to be defenders of the human rights through artistic expressions that are against the policies of our government.” The teatrero commented that the threatened groups could not understand how the defense of human rights could inspire a death threat, nor did they understand what the Aguilas meant as “our government.”

On August 30th, the day that the groups were supposed to leave Bogotá, the groups instead organized a festive parade through the streets of downtown Bogotá calling on fellow citizens and cultural groups to come out in support. Here are some photos and a short video I took of the march:

You can see a bit more of the march in this video, created by others attending:

The march was followed by another large convening. The Police have opened an investigation into the threat and have offered protection to the threatened groups. Part of the investigation’s purpose is to determine who exactly is making the threats as there is a history of various groups using the name “Aguilas Negras” to intimidate their enemies. In this case, whoever might be using the name, it seems to many here in Bogotá that this crisis is happening as part of the lead-up to the fall elections which will elect a new Mayor of Bogotá, state governors and numerous city councils. After the failure of a left-leaning mayor here in Bogotá, the right is eager to consolidate power and re-take control. And apparently, that requires threatening teenagers, stilt walkers, mimes and musicians. Recent newspaper articles here have argued that the threats may be coming from “delinquent groups” comprised of former guerrilla, narcos and paramilitaries who wish to continue control of the local drug trade and that the artistic groups may “present an obstacle.” Just my opinion here, but I can’t see how dancing teenagers pose a threat to the drug trade. The political theory carries more weight.

In the meantime, the artistic groups argue that they do not feel sufficiently protected. And while the police continue their investigation of the threats, it’s vitally important that the international community work to shine a light on this situation and remind the police and the government of Colombia that the world is watching.

Please consider writing or sending an email to the entities listed below. Many national and international human rights groups are already aware of the issue. However, the more international attention we can garner, the greater chance that these threatened groups will be safe. Letters and emails sent directly to officials here in Bogotá truly make a difference. Through The Civilians and other US organizations, I will also be organizing a letter for publication. If you would like to help in that effort please feel free to contact

Here is a scan of the death threat (click to enlarge):
English translation:
Today we begin a social cleansing of all the dirty organizations that stand in our way.

3.1 To formalize a release in the south-center and south- western areas of the city to the motherfucking organizations of shit that pretend to be defenders of the human rights through artistic expressions that are against the policies of our government.

[List of the the threatened organizations]

We don't care whether you're protected sons of bitches, it won't do you any good. You have 8 days to leave the city, motherfuckers.We are not playing around motherfuckers, disgusting bitches don't make us finish you off one by one. The Capital Section of the Aguilas Negras.

Please help by writing any or all of the contacts below to let them know that you are concerned for the safety of the theater and artistic groups in Bogotá and that you urge the Colombian government and police to do everything it can to protect the  groups and to investigate the threat.

Volmar Antonio Perez
Defensoria del pueblo
Calle 55 No 10- 32
Bogota, Colombia

Hernan Jaime Ulloa
Programa presidencial de derechos humanos
presidencia de la república
carrera 7 No 6 – 54
Bogota, Colombia

Mariella Barragán
Secretaria de Gobierno Bogota

And here are some links to recent articles about the threats:
And an overview of the heirs to the paramilitaries: