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  Breaking Borders

El Calabazo, a member of one of four gangs that control parts of Bogotá’s Barrio Egipto neighborhood. Photo by Kevin Raub.

Exploring Colombia's Barrio Egipto—a neighborhood that foreigners are warned not to go anywhere near.

Meandering up a steep incline through Bogotá’s notoriously dangerous Barrio Egipto neighborhood—just steps from the city’s tourist-flooded historic district La Candelaria—I found that things seemed relatively normal. Kids are playing. Oldtimers are milling about. Women are carrying the groceries home. It all seems so mundane until motorcycle police come whizzing around the corner and down the hill toward our group. I see a policeman’s eyes light up. He hops off the back of the motorcycle even before it comes screeching to a halt. “You’re foreigners?” he exclaims in not only amazement but also genuine fear (for us, not himself!).

Our brave leader, rife with tattoos and healed bullet wounds, dressed in a ball cap and button-down denim shirt sealed to the top, is nicknamed “El Calabazo” (“The Pumpkin”). He is a member of La 10ma, one of four gangs that control parts of this crime-ridden neighborhood. He tells the police not to worry, that we are safe with him. The police balk at the idea. El Calabazo insists. “OK, whatever… “ the policeman relents. “You’re responsible for their safety.”

And that is precisely the point. We are in the midst of what is surely Bogotá’s most fascinating new city tour, a walk around Barrio Egipto—a neighborhood that foreigners are warned not to go anywhere near—with gangbangers who have given up a life of crime in favor of this cultural tourism initiative started by Universidad Externado de Colombia in cooperation with Impulse Travel (impulsetravel.co). They’ve traded guns for guiding, if you will.

On the Breaking Borders tour, you learn the history of organized crime in the neighborhood, take in outstanding city views, visit the homes of former gang members, and, if you’re lucky, try some local chicha (homemade hooch made from fermented corn). Proceeds and tips not only help support the community, but also help keep previous criminals like El Calabazo off the streets—he earns COP$25,000 per person per tour. On a good day, that’s much better pay than flipping iPhones! And they say tourism doesn’t pay!

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