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When junk mail inspires fear

Threatening pamphlets have many Colombians worried.

Cazuca, a poor locality particularly affected by the distribution of pamphlets. (Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

BOGOTA — These days, finding junk mail under your door can be a frightening experience in Colombia. So it was for Anderson Cardenas, 27, when he received a pamphlet with a silhouette of a machine gun and a man hovering over a sinister warning: “The hour of social cleansing has arrived. Don’t be one of those who fall in this social cleansing.”

This wasn't the first such message. Cardenas, a high school teacher and human rights worker in Bogota’s southwest, had also received an e-mail (along with scores of other community organizers) containing identical text.

In towns and cities across Colombia, threatening pamphlets delivered to people’s homes, posted in stores and handed out in front of schools warn recipients they could be swept up by a "social cleansing" operation.

“The situation is one of absolute fear,” said Fernando Escobar, a human rights representative for the municipality of Soacha, a poor, sprawling municipality south of Bogota that has been particularly hard hit by the leafleting.

The only thing that's certain about the pamphlet phenomenon is the anxiety they have caused. There are a host of unanswered questions over who is behind the terrifying messages and whether they are related to deaths in neighborhoods across the country.

Though distributed indiscriminately, with a warning not to be outside after 10 p.m., the pamphlets’ text is specifically targeted at youth, drug users, prostitutes, thieves and the homeless. To teens, they warn against hanging out on street corners taking drugs. To call girls and prostitutes, accused by the pamphlet writers of spreading AIDS, the message is “your hours are limited.” And to “all low lifes found in bars after 10 p.m.," the writers have this to say: "We will not be held responsible if innocents fall."

Groups ranging from the right-wing paramilitary to leftist guerillas are suspected as the pamphlet masterminds. Many leaflets bear no signature. According to Ascanio Tapias, representative for the Bogota public defender’s office, most carry the insignia of the Black Eagles, an illegal armed group that emerged following the recent official demobilization of paramilitary groups. Colombia’s national police director has said he believes disparate criminal groups are behind the pamphlets.

“We can’t establish who is sending them,” Tapias said. To help the effort, President Alvaro Uribe has offered the equivalent of $4,000 for information on the menacing leaflets.

For the residents of tin-roofed homes clinging to the hillsides of Cazuca, a neighborhood south of Bogota, pamphlets and threats are nothing new. This shantytown, along with neighboring Ciudad Bolivar and Soacha, have traditionally been targeted because of their poor and vulnerable populations, Escobar said.

But now, the number of pamphlets has reached new heights, residents say. That, along with the breadth of circulation and types of threats, distinguishes this round. “We are seeing these pamphlets appear in neighborhoods and parts of the country where they never have before,” Tapias said.

For example, Raul Montana, a university student, found a pamphlet delivered to his home in El Carmen, a neighborhood in southwest Bogota. “It surprised me a lot because there’s never been anything like this here,” he said.