The first time I heard anything about people in the sewers in Colombia was back at the beginning of the 90s when ABC Primetime Live did a piece about all the children living down there. It became a fairly big humanitarian story in the media for a while, with other networks in America and Europe sending in crews to cover it and folks setting up charities abroad. And rightfully so, the situation at the time was a complete nightmare.
The sewers were filled with packs of kids living waist-deep in shit and taking in copious amounts of glue and crack in order to cope. This was at the height of Colombia’s Dirty War and the whole reason the street kids had gone down into the sewers in the first place was to get away from the violence. But then the paramilitary death squads who had chased them off the street started to come into the pipes and shoot them or douse them in gasoline or rape them. Ten-year-old girls were giving birth and trying to raise babies in the middle of sewage (the early onset of puberty having been brought on by the constant molestation by adults and older kids as well as the general stress on their bodies). It was about as fucked as things get. Then, as happens with news stories, it fell off the radar and I guess people kind of thought the problem had been resolved if they thought of it at all. But what had actually happened was about six months after all the stories had aired, the death squads went in armed with the whereabouts of the sewer-kid hotspots and carried out massive reprisal killings.
There was some talk in the government about cracking down on the death squads, but it was limited by the question of who exactly would execute these crackdowns. By all accounts, soldiers and off-duty cops made up part of the ranks in most squads. So the situation just stagnated while the world turned its attention elsewhere.
When we first went into the sewers and started talking to people, nobody wanted to be anywhere near our camera. Having heard stories about the last time cameras came down, they were all sure that the police would figure out where they were hiding from our footage and come in to beat the shit out of them (the fact that they were all cracked out of their skulls probably didn’t help with the paranoia either). We took great pains to obscure the locations of their sewers, but the only reason any of them talked with us was because we went down with Jaime Jaramillo, the guy who took ABC down in ‘90 and runs a foundation for rescued sewer kids called Children of the Andes. We had mixed feelings about Jaime, or “Papa Jaime” as he prefers to be called, when we first met him. He sort of comes across like aDuckman caricature of Geraldo: earnest beyond belief, always mugging for the camera and repeating the same well-rehearsed speeches about the kids’ living conditions (“Their only food is trash, their only music the honking of the city bus…”), calling us at our hotel when he’s on the local news, etc.
Even his back story is a little rich: He was a successful oil executive in the 70s who had a crisis of conscience one day when he saw a street girl get run over by a bus and decided to devote himself to helping children. He and a colleague were also kidnapped right before this happened, and their captors blew the other guy’s head off right in front of Jaime‚ but he generally just tells the bus story. Oh yeah, and he’s also really big into yoga and gives all the sewer children acupuncture when he visits them.
The thing is, though, he is seriously one of the only people in the country who‚’s done anything about the situation in the sewers. We all snickered at the meditation tapes and the Evel Knievel jumpsuit, but once we actually got down into the pipes not only did all the kids know and trust him, they ran to him like he was made out of crack.
I like to think if he was doing the same kind of thing in America, he‚’d be a douchebag on par with the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition guy, but in Colombia everything is so hairy and out of control it really takes someone with an enormous level of self-confidence to think they can have any impact on the situation. It sounds sort of gay, but someone who has basically convinced himself into becoming a superhero. In any case, he gave our cynicism a run for its money.
Watch Sewers of Bogota tonight on the Vice Guide to Everything on MTV at 11/10 central.