A downtown fosa común

In March 2009, excavations for the construction of Bogotá’s Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación (Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation) uncovered a vast burial site on the western edge of the city’s historic Central Cemetery. As construction work came to a halt and forensic archaeologists descended on the site, the scale and significance of the mass grave became clear: it held the remains of more than 3,000 anonymous bodies spanning a period between the 1820s and the 1970s. The discovery came at a time when the unearthing of fosas comunes (mass graves) across the country had become a powerful symbol of both the viciousness of Colombia’s armed conflict and the elusiveness of a postconflict transition. But unlike the thousands of mass graves unearthed in remote towns terrorized by paramilitary and military violence, this was a historic fosa común in the heart of the capital linked to the very origins of Colombia’s civil war.

“During the turn of the twenty-first century, the cemetery’s transformations illuminated the difficulties of coming to terms with the legacies of Colombia’s armed conflict.”

During the turn of the twenty-first century, the cemetery’s transformations illuminated the difficulties of coming to terms with the legacies of Colombia’s armed conflict. In the late 1990s mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998–2000 and 2016–2019) set out to demolish the two lots (Globo B and Globo C) that made up Cementerio de los Pobres (Cemetery of the Poor), as it was called, including its six neoclassical columbaria, for the construction of a metropolitan park. For years the overflowing bodies of the poor had been interred here. Most crucially, the site had been the improvised grave for the hundreds killed during one of Colombia’s most emblematic events of political violence: El Bogotazo—a 1948 urban uprising that followed the assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and left parts of downtown Bogotá in ruins, marking the beginning of the country’s civil war. By the end of the decade, the city government had razed Globo C, swiftly removing a vast collection of forgotten remains and creating a park tellingly named Renaissance Park.

Urban parks, graves, and the legacies of violence

The other lot, Globo B, continued to fall into disrepair until the administration of Antanas Mockus (2001–2003) took the first steps to reverse its fate. In 2001, the city government painted large signs on the empty columbaria’s façades that read “Life is Sacred.” The intervention was one of the many symbolic acts through which the administration enacted calls—admittedly top-down and with civilizing undertones—for a citizen culture of nonviolence. Most importantly, it was a first move to “patrimonialize” the area and insert it into emerging discourses of memory and reconciliation.1Andrés Castro Roldán and Daniel García, “La memoria colectiva y la muerte en el Cementerio de Bogotá,” Amerika: Mémoires, identités, territoires 12 (2015). In 2007, the city government commissioned renowned artist Beatriz González to make an art intervention on the crumbling columbaria. González created Auras anónimas (Anonymous Auras), a public art work that involved the creation of 9,000 new gravestones displaying variations of an iconic figure of the armed conflict: the cargueros (carriers)—people who transport the dead using plastic tarps, hammocks, and poles across war-torn villages and towns. Subsequent left-leaning city governments would continue to engage with Colombia’s violent past by building the Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation, and supporting a large-scale archaeological exhumation of the discovered mass grave. The contrast with the neighboring Renaissance Park—erected atop a mass grave and through the physical obliteration of historical traces—could not be starker.2Paolo Vignolo, “¿Quién gobierna la ciudad de los muertos?: Políticas de la memoria y desarrollo urbano en Bogotá,” Memoria y Sociedad 17, no. 35 (2013): 125–142. The columbaria and its surroundings—which now include the Center and a landscaped park dedicated to memory and peace—emerged as a critical site of memory, part of a larger official plan of urban memorialization called Bogotá Ciudad Memoria (Bogotá Memory City).

The art installation Auras anónimas by Beatriz González located on one of the columbaria in Bogotá’s Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation. Photo by Federico Pérez.

Yet the tense and opaque connections between trajectories of urban development and histories of violent warfare were far from resolved. With Peñalosa’s reelection as mayor in 2016, the funeral pavilions became once again visibly abandoned. Overgrown with weeds, missing gravestones, and enveloped by yellow caution tape, the site now looked more like a ruin waiting to be demolished. And, that was precisely what the Peñalosa administration hoped to accomplish as it revived the old plan to build a second park on the remaining lot (Globo B). But as city officials worked to remove regulations limiting development in the area, in February 2019 the National Council for Cultural Patrimony declared both the columbaria and González’s art installation national heritage sites, mandating their restoration and preservation.

A debate ensued in major media outlets in which cultural critics and intellectuals celebrated the council’s decision to protect the “memory of all the people that were buried there from the very moment the Central Cemetery was built in the nineteenth century, including the anonymous victims of April 9, 1948 [El Bogotazo].”3La molestia de Peñalosa con la decisión de declarar patrimonio cultural los columbarios del Cementerio Central,” Revista Arcadia, October 11, 2019. González herself stressed the importance of the columbaria as “a place of mourning.” As she explained in an interview, “Colombia just went through a period of a very long war and practically every family in Colombia is mourning because of that conflict. We need to recognize that experience to give the country some peace and tranquility.”4Ana Puentes, “Beatriz González habla de los columbarios y de la reacción de Peñalosa,” El Tiempo, October 11, 2019. Peñalosa, in turn, both questioned the value of the structure and the art installation while raising the specter of violence in accusing “intellectual elites” of depriving a working-class neighborhood of a “sports park,” and hinting that “leaving thousands of children and youth without a park causes drug addiction and violence.”5“La molestia de Peñalosa,” Revista Arcadia.

The 2019 dispute over parks and graves, a media spectacle manifesting through Twitter storms and multiple news stories, represented the most recent iteration of Bogota’s attempts to address its longer and deeper urban history. Most significantly, debates over how to acknowledge Colombia’s history of violence, embodied in the site’s mass graves, unveiled the long-standing and hidden entanglements between modern urban planning, practices of citizenship, and the logics of warfare.

(In)security as a horizon of urban planning and politics

A few years prior to the cemetery controversy, another spectacle of urbanistic violence seized the attention of Bogotanos. In 2016, under Peñalosa’s orders, more than two thousand law enforcement agents stormed two blocks of downtown Bogotá to recapture El Bronx, one the city’s largest drug markets and most feared neighborhoods. The operation aimed to dismantle three microtrafficking organizations known as ganchos (hooks) and “rescue” hundreds of children and homeless drug addicts allegedly caught in their grips. Authorities employed military surveillance and drones for terrain reconnaissance, and elite police forces swooped into the area hidden in unmarked commercial trucks. Alongside the militaristic action, the city administration deployed forms of humanitarian intervention to provide medical attention and social services to homeless and underage populations. The administration created a “route of treatment,” as a senior security official put it, to “re-establish the rights” of vulnerable individuals. However, in light of emerging news about plans to demolish the area and renew and rebrand it as a hub of technology and creative industries, many residents and observers questioned the nature of the operation: Was this a security or redevelopment plan? Given the country’s juncture at the time, with the national government reaching a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla, the takeover of El Bronx took on particular significance. It seemingly embodied postconflict sensibilities of human security and social integration, while also becoming a problematic demonstration of the entrenched logics of military warfare, territorial control, and rampant capital accumulation that had defined the country’s civil war for decades.

The neighborhood of El Bronx shortly after the police raid. Photo by Federico Pérez.

The El Bronx operation reminded residents of one of the city’s largest urban renewal plans of the twentieth century: the construction of the Parque Tercer Milenio (Third Millennium Park) between 1998 and 2005. During his first term as mayor, Peñalosa demolished the infamous neighborhood of El Cartucho, a neighboring and much larger precursor to El Bronx, and built in its place a 20-block metropolitan park. Its empty esplanades and landscaped lawns served as a reminder that more than revitalizing urban space, the project had been essentially a form of planned removal that had displaced thousands of people. For Peñalosa, as he explained to me during my research years later, the park had been essentially an act of sovereignty, an intervention to counter what he viewed as the “impotence of the state” in the face of the neighborhood’s patterns of informality and disorder. City planners and designers who had worked on the project also described their reliance on military logistics. As one lead architect told me during an interview, the acquisition of land had proceeded through security rings, essentially replicating a “military strategy.”

The Tercer Milenio plan was, in many respects, the continuation of mid-twentieth-century attempts to rid the west side of downtown Bogotá of its working-class, rural migrant population. These were the same masses that took to the streets in 1948 after Gaitán’s assassination and shook the foundations of the city’s elite institutions. In the following years, modernist planners’ reconstruction schemes for downtown Bogotá decimated many of the district’s crowded tenements and barrios populares by carving out avenues through the dense urban fabric. At the same time, new urban statutes for condominium development stimulated the construction of high-rises catering to urban middle classes. In both cases, planning was inextricably connected to the specter of political violence and the logics of militarism. These were forms of counterinsurgent urbanism that aimed to pacify the unruly masses and quell their revolutionary dispositions through spatial erasure and reconstruction.

“Residents experienced bureaucratic renewal as a form of insecurity comparable to state violence and paramilitary land grabbing.”

Crucially, however, the mobilization of repertoires of insecurity and militarism in processes of urban transformation has not been a phenomenon exclusive to top-down, planning interventions. Residents threatened by displacement during downtown renewal plans in recent years have seized on the language of violence and insecurity to voice dissent and critique urban reconstruction and real estate speculation. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the city launched a new wave of renewal plans aimed at attracting private developers, revaluing land, and promoting a mix of uses in central neighborhoods. In contrast to the overtly securitized interventions of previous years, these projects relied on the deployment of bureaucratic procedures and legal instruments to evict owners and transfer land to developers. Significantly, residents experienced bureaucratic renewal as a form of insecurity comparable to state violence and paramilitary land grabbing. An elderly woman who had lost her property for the construction of a cultural center and two mixed-use high-rises described the city’s intervention as a “guerrilla incursion.” She compared urban displacement to violent dispossession in war-torn rural towns: “In the countryside they displace with guns, here they do it with decrees.”

A more recent plan launched in 2011 set out to create an inclusionary redevelopment partnership with local residents to avoid the displacements of previous renewal plans. The progressive scheme, led by a private university and supported by the city government, echoed postconflict ideals of social integration and reconciliation. Nonetheless, its largely technocratic approach to participatory development and property regimes did not address entrenched patterns of inequality and segregation. Residents critiqued the potentially exclusionary politics of participatory renewal once again invoking the deep-seated insecurities of property and the modes of class warfare that had shaped regimes of citizenship and belonging in the city for decades. For many homeowners, urban promoters’ progressive rhetoric appeared as a veiled threat, a continuation of the insecurities they had faced for years protecting their property from misappropriation and fighting for legal tenure. Referring to the recent expulsion of residents in a nearby neighborhood, one neighbor noted: “This is the same thing that happened there, the difference is that [promoters] want to do it more elegantly.”

A view of the Center of Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation in Bogotá. Photo by Federico Pérez.

In all these cases, insecurity appeared as a critical lens through which experts and nonexperts, officials and residents, made sense of and navigated urban transformation. Social repertoires associated with the country’s history of militarism, land violence, and guerrilla and paramilitary warfare emerged as a horizon of urban governance and political action.6For an extended discussion see Federico Pérez, “Materializing (In)securities: Urban Terrain, Paperwork, and Housing in Downtown Bogotá,” Anthropological Quarterly, forthcoming.

Conclusion: urban battlegrounds

In 2019 urban protests from Hong Kong and Beirut to Santiago and Bogotá took the world by surprise. In a matter of days, streets, plazas, and transportation infrastructures became literal battlegrounds between citizens and state forces. For many commentators the rapid spread of mobilizations and the circulation of urban protest tactics had been partly the result of global media flows and virtual platforms. Yet, the overnight transformation of cityscapes into battlespaces could also be interpreted in a more fundamental sense as the surfacing of deep-seated social experiences and material forms associated with economic, social, and political insecurities. Tellingly, many of these urban uprisings were ignited by distinctly local issues: from transit fare hikes to trash collection problems. Critically, these seemingly quotidian problems quickly became inextricably tied to larger national and global conflicts over sovereignty, corruption, inequality, and violence. It was as if everyday insecurities had laid dormant and suddenly erupted, taking hold of urban life. The banal spaces and routines of the city became the stage on which larger conflicts over the meaning itself of state authority, citizenship, and justice would be fought out.

The urban scenes I analyzed in this essay point precisely in this direction. Bogotá’s disputes over urban graves and parks, demolition and development, have been suffused with political meanings and experiences tied to the wider patterns of violence and insecurity. Tracing the grounded understandings and material textures of these typically opaque undersides of urban life is particularly critical to more fully grasp the social and political significance of global urban transformations. They make visible the long-running and encompassing struggles that are encoded in the business-as-usual making and remaking of urban space: whether it be the ongoing patterns of gentrification and exclusion or the wide-ranging processes of securitization and surveillance that are reshaping contemporary urban landscapes across the world.

Banner image by Federico Pérez


Andrés Castro Roldán and Daniel García, “La memoria colectiva y la muerte en el Cementerio de Bogotá,” Amerika: Mémoires, identités, territoires 12 (2015).
Paolo Vignolo, “¿Quién gobierna la ciudad de los muertos?: Políticas de la memoria y desarrollo urbano en Bogotá,” Memoria y Sociedad 17, no. 35 (2013): 125–142.
Ana Puentes, “Beatriz González habla de los columbarios y de la reacción de Peñalosa,” El Tiempo, October 11, 2019.
“La molestia de Peñalosa,” Revista Arcadia.
For an extended discussion see Federico Pérez, “Materializing (In)securities: Urban Terrain, Paperwork, and Housing in Downtown Bogotá,” Anthropological Quarterly, forthcoming.