Kelly, Imperial College London

Public Health in Colombia 2018

Kelly, studying for a PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London, tells us about her time participating in the 2018 Public Health in Colombia course.

One of my favorite activities of the program was the Bogota Graffiti Tour. Jeff, a professional anthropologist from Colombia, took us on a free two-hour walking tour of the historic district of La Candelaria. Nothing was off-limits: we talked about history, politics, and Justin Bieber.

Jeff began the tour by defining graffiti. It turns out, graffiti is more than spray paint on urban walls; it is an art form that has to do with self-expression and leaving one’s mark. It can be any scratching, painting, covering, or other mark placed on public or private property, typically without permission.

The laws and attitudes toward graffiti in Bogota are different than in most other major cities in the world. Here, graffiti is a cultural practice, but it was not always this way. In 2011, the laws surrounding graffiti in the capital city were changed, making graffiti a civil infraction rather than a crime. Instead of going to prison, artists caught doing graffiti illegally have to pay a fine. This change was prompted by public outcry over the police shooting (and subsequent cover-up) of an unarmed boy caught doing graffiti.

This is why there was such uproar in 2013, when Justin Bieber was given a police escort to do graffiti in an unauthorized zone in Bogota. Just two years earlier, a boy not much younger than him was shot in the back by police for doing the same thing. But the Bogota graffiti community got the last word; after Justin left, local artists descended on the space for a 24-hour graffiti-thon to cover up his graffiti.

Not all graffiti in Bogota is illegal, however. Here, facades are not considered “public spaces,” like in the U.S. That means, an artist only has to get permission from the business- or home-owner in order for their graffiti to be legal (except in La Candelaria, which is a historic district. In this case, the approval of City Council is also required). In fact, the City Council actually sanctions and funds some graffiti projects in the city, via competitions. Artists submit designs for consideration and the winners are given money and wall space, a far cry from seven years ago.

Another highlight of the program was the site visits. My favorite site visit was to the Secretary of Mobility to learn more about the road safety. We got to see the control center, where analysts monitor traffic conditions in real-time on giant screens. We also went on a bike tour of the city. Bogota, like other major cities, struggles with traffic congestion due to motor vehicles and is trying to promote more walkable, bike-able cities. There are several km of bike lanes in the city, and on Sundays from 7 am to 2 pm and on public holidays, several main roads are shut down for the Ciclovía, a bike highway of sorts. The bike tour was a much more intimate way to see the city than from the windows of our private bus.

Another great site visit was to the Institute for Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences to complement our morning lecture on the epidemiology of intentional and unintentional deaths. One of the functions of the institute is to identify bodies of deceased people. There are three ways to identify a body in Colombia, the easiest being by fingerprint. At age 7, every Colombian receives an identification card; they are fingerprinted and registered into a national system. However, if a body is badly decomposed, the index finger is amputated and treated with chemicals to improve the quality of the fingerprint. After donning appropriate personal protective equipment, we got to see fingers from dead bodies!

Another interesting aspect of the institute was their role in discovering the “false positives” scandal in Colombia in the early 2010s. This scandal involved a series of murders related to the armed conflict between the government and leftist guerrilla fighters (the FARC). The military lured civilians to remote areas by promising jobs or other economic opportunities. They were then kidnapped, killed, dressed up as guerrilla members, and presented to the authorities to increase body counts and receive benefits and other promotions. As many as 10,000 people were killed in this manner. The institute helped discover the practice after noticing that the forensic evidence did not match up; for example, men who were killed by gunshot did not have any holes in their uniforms.

Colombia indeed has a violent past. But there is so much more to this country than the armed conflict and with the recent peace agreement, it is trying to move forward. It has a ways to go – Colombia is still a developing country – yet there is so much to love here. Above everything it has character, from the geography and climate, to architecture, street art, and food. I would encourage everyone to visit. Try the food. Take the transmilenio. Talk to people, and go dancing!