Bogotá is taking steps against sexual assault on public transportation — by arming female officers with tasers and sending them into crowded buses dressed in civilian clothing, in an initiative that some have called a surface-level solution to a serious societal problem.
The squadron, comprising seven women and four men, will “infiltrate” the transit system, dressed as civilians to make them harder to identify. The officers are trained in self-defense and are permitted to employ methods including the use of electroshock weapons, known as tasers, against suspects.
Lt. Lina María Ríos, the commanding officer of the elite squadron, said the officers would be assigned to work on certain lines, during the hours in which the have received the most reports of such incidents. She declined to specify the exact routes or times, saying she did not want potential offenders to have any information about officers’ whereabouts.
In the last year, reports of groping and sexual assault against female passengers in the city’s crowded public transportation system have tripled. According to Bogotá police commander Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, 129 men have been detained this year for incidents involving female passengers. However, all of the men have been released because current Colombian law categorizes such assault as a low-level crime that cannot lead to incarceration.
The system of articulated buses, called the TransMilenio, is the world’s largest bus rapid transit system, with 12 lines operating across the city and a daily ridership of 1.7 million people. The number of riders has increased by almost 10 percent every year since the TransMilenio was created in 2001, but the system has failed to add more buses to meet the growing demand.
During peak commuting hours, buses are often so crowded that it is impossible to move and passengers are forced to shove to get on and off the bus, creating an environment in which female passengers are trapped among fellow commuters and have almost no recourse or escape route from groping or assaults that occur in the packed vehicles.
Bogotá police, as well as TransMilenio management, have faced increased criticism in the past year over what many residents see as a lack of commitment to implementing measures to ensure women’s safety on public transportation. The new initiative seems aimed to combat the image of the police as complicit or uninterested in enforcing the safety of female passengers.
The special unit already made its first arrest on Tuesday, when a suspect in his late 50s was detained for groping a minor in a busy station in the southern part of the city.
While certainly amusing for news outlets, the strategy is a troubling “solution” to the greater problem of women’s safety and rights in the city. The very fact that the police are intentionally employing female officers dressed in tight, “provocative” clothing serves to reinforce long-held assumptions that the way a woman is dressed may affect the probability of her being groped or assaulted. In addition, threatening passengers with the possibility that they may be tased for harassing a female passenger does little to get at the underlying issue of a general lack of respect for women’s personal safety in public spaces.
In a region that continues to struggle with strong cultural tendencies toward prioritizing physical appearances and objectifying women, deploying female officers that some news sources have called “decoys” or “bait” only serves to reinforce the idea that women dressed a certain way are inviting male attention — or even assault.
The initiative has already faced criticism from women’s rights groups and other advocates, even within Colombia’s executive branch. Vice-President Angelino Garzón told a local radio station on Monday that solutions would have to come from addressing structural problems like a lack of response and overcrowding on buses, through strategies including a greater police presence in stations and more vehicles operating on the busiest routes.
“We need to provide more buses and stop seeing the [public] service as a business like we do right now, because this is generating violence and human rights violations, like assaults against women and general intolerance,” Garzón said.