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Harm reduction
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When Smith, Giancarlo and Fantasia tried to enter a building in La Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia’s most prestigious private university, security guards stopped them before they could even get through the doors. In retelling the story, they were unfazed: they were used to daily encounters with the police, many of which were resolved far less amicably. Giancarlo and Smith, baggy pants, big jackets hanging on their thin frames, Loony-Toons themes on their caps, which I would later learn is a highly coveted status symbol on the street, seemed inside the classroom to be their actual age of 20. Fantasia, long black hair, tight dress and heels, seemed to be enjoying drawing the surprised eyes of the students and workers in the prim building.

They were former residents or frequenters of The Bronx, what in Colombia is called as “an olla” – a site of drug micro-trafficking and other illicit activities, in this case controlled by a paramilitary-cum-cartel known as the Sajajines. Gincarlo and Smith had been bazuco – a crude form of crack – addicts; Fantasia, a trans sex-worker, worked in the red-light district adjacent to it. All were displaced when the city’s mayor – Enrique Peñalosa – had conducted a major military operation in order to destroy The Bronx in an attempt to reclaim it for a “creative district”.

Giancarlo, Smith, Fantasia and an incredible woman who worked with them, Susana Ferguson, came to speak to a class of 30 Los Andes urban planning students about their experience. They began by framing it in terms of “Harm Reduction”, an approach for addiction which recognizes that traditional forms of violent and sudden withdrawal can have profoundly destructive impacts on addicts. Instead, it advocates progressive weaning off, often supplemented by milder drugs, including marijuana, still technically illegal in Colombia.

But, I reflected, wouldn’t have Harm Reduction been just an apt a strategy for intervening in The Bronx? When Peñalosa’s troops had raided the few blocks of which it was comprised, they had displaced all the addicts, homeless, sex workers and other marginalized people which had, for better or worse, gravitated and depended on The Bronx. In the most tragic instance, many of them had only found refuge sleeping by the sloping concrete sides of the channeled Bogotá river, which, accidentally or intentionally, a city worker had opened some kind of flood gate of. The water had risen. An unknown number of people had drowned.

What would a harm reduction strategy to improving the city consist of?

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