June Carolyn Erlick is the editor-in-chief of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America and the author of Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced. Her new book is A Gringa in Bogotá: Living Colombia's Invisible War.
As elections in Colombia rapidly approach, I think about horses in Bogotá.
This is not a non sequitur.
When I arrived in Bogotá as a young journalist in 1975, I was struck by the contrast between its cultural richness and lingering rural quality. Horses, cows and roosters inhabited the same space along with opera, world-class bookstores and dynamic discotheques.
Horses became a different type of symbol for me when I returned to Bogotá in 2005 as a Fulbright scholar. Horses came to represent for me the rule of law—and that's what these upcoming elections are about. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that Colombia's popular incumbent Álvaro Uribe cannot run for a third term—because the law says so.
So what about the horses?
Every day in Bogotá, you can see horses clopping down wide Bogotá avenues, dragging planklike carts laden with cardboard and other material to be recycled. The horses and their carts move past trendy shopping centers and fashionable outdoor cafés, part of the city landscape. They mix with polluting buses and sleek Mercedes-Benzes and the super-speedy Transmilenio transportation system.
The city has an estimated 11,000 of these horse-drawn vehicles. The drivers are called zorreros, and most of them make their living by recycling garbage. City Hall estimates that each person in the prosperous north of Bogotá produces a kilo of garbage daily.
In 2002, a law was passed to "eradicate" animal-drawn vehicles, with the exception of tourist carriages. But a group of "zorreros" brought a tutela to the Constitutional Court, appealing the law. Tutelas are the common man's (or woman's) lawsuits, defending citizens' rights. The 1991 Constitution, a sweeping and egalitarian reform of Colombian law––at least on paper––allows citizens to request immediate court action if they feel that their constitutional rights are being violated.
This is precisely what the zorreros did. They filed a tutela to assert that their right to freedom and their right to job stability were being affected by the law. Reading the case, I was sure that they were going to lose. The Animal Defense League testified against the zorreros, saying that the old horses were mistreated and then sold for horse meat. The Ministry of Transport asserted that the State has the obligation of insuring the security and comfort of its inhabitants and, in particular, pedestrians and handicapped people, insinuating that the vehicles were a public nuisance.
Much to my surprise, the Court found in favor of the zorreros, saying that the legislative decision to eradicate the horse-drawn vehicles was unconstitutional because it represented an imminent violation of the right to work of the operators of animal-drawn vehicles.
The Court cited Article 13 of the 1991 Constitution: "The State [must protect] especially those persons who for economic reasons…find themselves in circumstances of manifest weakness."
The weak had won out for once. Now, whenever I see a horse clopping along the street in Bogotá, I think not so much of the city's rural roots, but in the small victory for an urban and democratic future. And last month, yet another Constitutional Court decision defended citizens by ruling out Uribe's reelection and opening the way for a diversified election field. Even as war lingers in the Colombian countryside, I have faith in the power of Colombian citizens to effect change through ballots, through the rule of law.