Our green SUV bounces up the dirt road on the edge of El Pozón, a vast impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Cartagena, a major port and tourist center on Colombia's Caribbean coast. We stop beside a field of several acres dotted with makeshift black and blue tents hurriedly built out of scrap wood and plastic sheeting. The entire field is covered with ankle-deep mud from an intense thunderstorm that just passed through.
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I step out of the car along with Maria Bernarda Perez, the coordinator of Cartagena's new emergency social development program. As we approach the camp, men with machetes, followed by women and children, stream toward us, all calling for help. They crowd around us and Bernarda explains that this group of families built the camp on private land and had just had a confrontation with the police who tried to force them out.
About a quarter of Cartagena's 900,000 inhabitants live in extreme poverty, meaning that a family survives on less than $2 a day, Bernarda says. Many heads of households have not completed school, children do not attend school and families suffer from malnutrition. This camp is a far cry from the nearby colonial center of the city, kept spotless for the tourists and political leaders who unwind in its historic downtown.
Bernarda advises the adults in the camp to register for the government's aid programs and then turns the floor over to me. A hundred eyes stare at me expectantly. I ask them where they are from and a young man steps forward. He explains that most of them, like him, have fled violence in rural areas far away. "A refugee seeks the city for protection, for security," he says. "Not for work, there's work in the countryside. Life is difficult here." Janeth Pedrosa, a 38-year-old lifelong resident of El Pozón, holds her battered red umbrella over my head as I take notes. Everyone wants to tell me how they ended up there, and I am soon overwhelmed as they shout out their stories. Despite the fact that I introduced myself as a journalist, many assume I work for the government and plead for assistance.
Everyone in the camp is not a refugee, some were born in Cartagena but barely can pay their rent and often go hungry. The group "invaded" the empty lot four days earlier when each claimed a small plot of land with a makeshift tent. They hope to eventually build houses on their plots. The squatters tell me that when the police showed up that afternoon they shot tear gas and threatened to destroy their ramshackle camp. But they won't budge. "We are not going to leave," a man tells me. "We don't want violence, but we are not going to leave."
The group follows me as I wade through the mud and into the camp. Children rush ahead, eager to show me the dirt floors under the thin plastic roofs, the old mattresses or chairs they've brought along. Each family's small lot is neatly marked off with rope. After a few minutes of taking pictures I climb back into the SUV and the crowd parts as we drive away. Bernarda points to a few wooden shacks as we drive out and explains that soon the families in the field will construct similar houses. This same "invasion" process has formed slums around every large city in Colombia.
Even though its private property, if often ends with each family legally owning a piece of land, Bernarda later says. Often the landowner doesn't act quickly enough or the police fail to drive out the squatters. With the law on their side, the group then chooses a representative to negotiate with the landowner on a price that each family will pays for a lot. About 30 years ago squatters formed the whole neighborhood of El Pozón. Now it has about 35,000 inhabitants with a developing center that has paved roads, shops, schools and even a hospital under construction. Bernarda hopes that the city's new Pedro Romero program will help many of El Pozón's poorest residents.