At 4 o’clock one morning in May 2016, more than 2,500 heavily armed police and soldiers raided a three-square-block zone known as El Bronx, in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.

For a decade this area had been an epicenter of crime, but within hours, the surprise operation shut it down for good. Twenty people were arrested, and 12,000 people were displaced.

On what grounds did this happen? Defending the rights of El Bronx residents—at least according to the government’s rhetoric.

This was really strange, thought Associate Professor of Government Lindsay Mayka, who had lived near that area and knew all too well the kinds of daily violence that people in El Bronx experienced at the hands of police. “These are people who are seen as being a problem,” she said. But now, the government was talking about their rights at the same time as it used repression against them.

Puzzled by this paradox, Mayka decided to investigate why the state would use such language for a repressive police intervention.

Her findings came together in her latest paper, “The Power of Human Rights Frames in Urban Security: Lessons from Bogotá,” recently published in Comparative Politics and recognized with two awards from the Latin American Studies Association. As a scholar, she’s bringing important, but unaddressed, issues from the ground into political science literature. “I’m not the first person to talk about the dark side of human rights,” said Mayka, “but we don’t see much of it in this particular policy area—urban security.”

For years, El Bronx housed open-air drug markets, weapon sales, and prostitution in the government’s backyard, just blocks away from the nation’s congress, presidential palace, and supreme court. When Enrique Peñalosa—who saw El Bronx as a stain on Bogotá’s image—took office as mayor in 2016, he used human rights rhetoric to justify the militarized intervention by claiming there was commercial sexual exploitation of children going on there. The government, he argued, had to “rescue” and “save” them.

Mayka knew that sexual exploitation of children was a real issue that had happened in El Bronx, but, still, she was perplexed. Although normally children are a textbook example of “a deserving victim” in human rights, she knew that the teenagers connected to the sex trade in El Bronx were seen as far from deserving by most Bogotanos and encountered constant violence from police. So why would the state employ human rights framing rather than simply justify the raids as being tough on crime?

The operation forcibly removed all of El Bronx's residents, emptying the zone. (Photo by Carlos Martinez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In a May 2016 raid in Bogotá’s El Bronx neighborhood, police forcibly removed all of the residents and emptied the zone completely. (Photo by Carlos Martinez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“What we were ultimately seeing was there had been a complete reframing of the issue at hand.” —Andres Lovon Roman ’21

She identified two features that make human rights language exceptionally powerful, but also dangerous, in politics.

First, international law establishes the state as a “duty-bearer” with a non-negotiable obligation to protect human rights. “So if rights violations are happening,” she explained, “the state has to intervene and stop them.” Thus, the state can act quickly and bypass conventional institutional mechanisms needed to trigger an action.

Secondly, human rights language serves as a moral resource for the state to justify the intervention as righteous and beyond reproach. This not only eliminates partisan debates but also any opposition, establishing the issue as good versus evil.

To understand how Peñalosa’s administration built this narrative around children, Mayka turned to the media, which, though independent from the state, had the power to set political agendas. With her research assistants’ help, she created “El Bronx News Archive” that included over 600 news stories mentioning El Bronx between 2004 and 2017 from Colombia’s three largest periodicals.

Andres Lovon Roman ’21, a government and economics double major from Peru, worked on the archive, combing through Spanish articles and coding them by keywords, such as human rights, children, or sexual exploitation. Later, he analyzed the data, looking for patterns. First, there was an apparent increase in articles mentioning children’s rights in El Bronx after Peñalosa’s term began. After the intervention, Lovon noticed, the stories’ focus shifted to homelessness. “What we were ultimately seeing,” Roman said, “was there had been a complete reframing of the issue at hand.”

This reframing was driven by the city’s changing dynamics resulting from the raid that forced close to 2,000 displaced individuals from El Bronx onto buses and into homeless shelters.

The state's intervention displaced 12,000 people overnight. (Photo by Carlos Martinez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

After a few days in shelters, many displaced El Bronx residents returned to the streets of Bogotá in search of new areas to purchase drugs. (Photo by Carlos Martinez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“I’m not the first person to talk about the dark side of human rights, but we don’t see much of it in this particular policy area—urban security.“ —Lindsay Mayka, Associate Professor of Government

Within days, those people returned to the streets, and many sought new sites to purchase drugs again. But the incident had disrupted the city’s drug market and consumption zones. Now, homelessness and drug use spread across the city and into new neighborhoods. Taking place in front of tire shops, bakeries, and other stores, it took an economic toll on the city, too.

Facing pressure from businesses, the police forcibly pushed people out of those areas and into water drainage canals, where rainwater was collected and redirected, in the city center. “This is where people are actually beaten, assaulted, shot at with rubber bullets, have tear gas used on them,” said Mayka. When it rained, two people drowned and more went missing.

These actions, clearly human rights violations, were documented by human rights organizations and the political opposition—two groups caught off guard by the initial raid. And because the government carried out all its actions in the name of human rights, Mayka argued that the ensuing violence not only cornered the state but also opened up a unique window of opportunity for rights advocates: demanding accountability.

Often ignored, human rights advocates now had the upper hand. Thanks to the government’s rhetoric that exalted human rights, they had a wider audience, stronger voice, and greater impact as well as additional funding from international donors. Together with the political opposition, they held the state accountable for rights violations by triggering a series of actions, including hearings at the congress and the Bogotá city council and legal petitions in the courts.

While homelessness continues, Mayka has expanded her work to explore the evolution of human rights language in Colombia over the past 20 years. She’s found that human rights frames—which have been strengthened institutionally, especially by the heavily influential Colombian constitutional court—have become increasingly important over time across a range of policy areas.

“The concept of human rights can be really expansive, cover a lot of things, and be applied in all these different ways,” she said, “[and] it becomes a really useful tool and resource for people”—in ways good and bad.