Back in 1992, security guards at the Universidad Libre in Barranquilla, Colombia invented a way to help the medical school and themselves.
On quiet nights, they lured garbage collectors to campus to collect old cans and cardboard boxes; it was a trap. According to court documents, the guards beat them with bats and shot them. They then sold the cadavers to a medical school where students needed cadavers for their studies.
This went unnoticed for weeks until one of the garbage collectors survived. After being placed in a bathtub filled with formaldehyde, the man escaped and called the police. On March 1, as the city celebrated its annual carnival, officials discovered the bodies of 11 garbage collectors in a university morgue.
“It’s something that still makes us feel pain,” said Marisol Mogolón, a garbage collector in Bogotá. “Just to think we were treated like disposable beings.”
The crime shocked the nation, but also galvanized Colombia’s garbage collectors. They have gone from being one of the most marginalized groups in the country to becoming visible, fighting for their rights on the streets and in the courts. Today, Colombia is a global leader when it comes to giving rights to these workers, said Federico Parra, an urban anthropologist who specializes in grassroots organizing.
“This [crime] created a huge movement that motivated waste pickers to fight for their rights,” he said.
Many waste pickers in Colombia are now recognized as public service providers, and they can go anywhere in the city to collect items that can be recycled without fear.
Many of them still walk around the city on foot, pulling heavy wooden carts. But they have created associations that have trucks and collect their garbage at designated points. In the past, waste collectors had to pull their carts several miles to reach depots where they sold items such as cardboard, bottles and tin cans.
Alfredo Rodríguez is a garbage collector in Chapinero, an affluent neighborhood north of Bogotá. As he pulled his wooden cart through a street lined with office buildings and expensive apartments, he said the work still paid little and required long hours. But little by little the conditions are improving.
“In the street we were fighting over garbage bags,” he said. “It’s more orderly now and we’re also getting gloves, face masks and steel-toed boots.”
Garbage collectors in Colombia have filed several lawsuits against municipal governments that have privatized garbage collection and given some recycling duties to public contractors.
In 2011, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that city governments must take measures to protect garbage collectors, as they are a vulnerable group that provides an important service.
Since that landmark decision, cities like Bogotá have begun requiring contractors to pay garbage collectors a portion of the funds they receive from waste management taxes.
So the garbage collectors in Bogotá are not only paid for what they sell to warehouses every day. They also receive a monthly fee, which is generated from the waste management tax. It is known as: tariff.
“We get $30 to $90 off the fare, depending on how much it is [trash] we got together,” said Sandra Martínez, a garbage collector in Usme, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Bogotá. “It’s not much, but it helps pay the bills.”
At the end of the month, garbage collectors’ associations are also paid a fee that varies depending on the tons collected by their members.
Jorge Ospina heads ARAUS, an association of garbage collectors in the Usme district of Bogotá. His association has 75 members and receives about $5,000 a month from local taxes.
“Thanks to the tariff, our association has enough money to rent three warehouses, we also bought a truck.” he said.
In one warehouse, two employees removed the labels from hundreds of plastic bottles so they could sell them to a local recycling plant.
Thanks to the warehouse, there is no need to sell junk to middle men anymore. And association members can get better prices for what they collect.
But garbage collectors in the city still face many challenges. Prices for some products, such as cardboard, have recently fallen. And it has also become more difficult for some garbage collectors to collect a decent amount of garbage.
Martinez said many Venezuelan migrants who are out of work also roam Bogotá’s streets looking for items to sell to processing plants.
“They open the garbage bags before we get to them,” he said. “And with the economic crisis, even homeowners are storing things and selling them to warehouses themselves.”
But the biggest challenge for Bogotá’s garbage collectors is the large contractors who are also trying to get a piece of the recycling business.
Ospina of the ARAUS association said that some of these companies have even created dubious associations that try to claim part of the monthly payments reserved for waste collectors.
“Before the start of the tariff system, we only had about 40 associations of garbage collectors in Bogotá,” he said. “But now there are 450 of them. The city government should eliminate fake organizations so that only genuine garbage collectors benefit from monthly payments.”
Still, for many of Bogota’s garbage collectors, like Martinez, it’s an industry that has changed for the better, even if those changes have come in the wake of gruesome murders.
“Our work now has more recognition,” he said. “We used to be seen as drug addicts or disposable people. But now our role in the city is respected.”