The XX Factor

Can Undercover Cops End Sexual Assault on Public Transportation?

A woman rides a TransMilenio bus in Bogotá, Colombia.

Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

For women around the world, public transportation can pose a nightmare scenario: In packed buses and train cars, women have reported being trapped in the crowd, sexually assault by strangers, then left with little recourse for reporting the crime to police. And the problem is particularly rampant in Latin American cities, where street harassment is still widely considered a compliment. In the past week alone, four women reported being sexually assaulted on public transportation in Bogotá, Colombia. One was a 16-year-old girl; another was a woman traveling with her husband and two kids. Now, officials are finally making an aggressive bid to crack down on sexual violence in Colombia’s public spaces. This week, Colombian National Police announced that an elite group of undercover police officers will patrol Bogotá’s busy mass transportation system in an effort to stop sexual aggressors.

The team will be comprised of 11 officers, seven of whom are women, who have been trained in intelligence-gathering and self-defense, and will carry walkie-talkies and Tasers for tracking down and apprehending attackers on TransMilenio, the city’s bus rapid transit system. They have a big job ahead of them. According to Bogotá’s Transportation Department, 2 million people board the city’s buses every day, and more than 680,000 of them are women. In a survey of 17,399 Bogotá residents conducted in 2012 by the Secretaría de la Mujer, Bogotá’s office for women’s rights, 64 percent of respondents reported being touched inappropriately while using public transportation. Yet this year, only 121 people have been detained for sexual offenses committed on public transportation in the city. Most attackers are able to escape undetected, aided by the size of the crowds and the silence of other commuters. Even when they are caught, sexual assailants often evade serious punishment: One man has been detained five times for the same offense. Many of the aggressors picked up by police have previous criminal records for sexual or domestic violence–related crimes.

Assigning 11 officers to a bustling metropolis of more than 7 million won’t change those dynamics, but it’s a step in the right direction. Bogotá has also recently ramped up its sexual assault awareness campaigns on the buses, started a hotline that victims can call to report incidents, and unveiled social media apps that allow victims to send in photos and videos of the attackers to police. And police have promised that the new initiative will come with increased pressure on the courts system to hold offenders accountable. That’s a big improvement from Bogotá’s previous approach: In 2012, the city unveiled a three-month-long pilot program of “pink buses,” TransMilenio cars exclusively for women. (Tokyo, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago have all experimented with similar programs.) In Bogotá, criticism of the tactic was swift: It was condemned as a superficial fix that aimed to protect women by segregating them, because prosecuting men or expecting them to behave like decent human adults would be too much work. By the time the pink bus trial period ended, the problem hadn’t.

This new initiative signals a cultural shift in how authorities think about public sexual assault. Instead of focusing on the victims, isolating them in women-only spaces, and telling them how to dress and how to avoid creeps, Bogotá’s new initiative will focus the city’s attention, resources, and responsibility where it belongs. Police forces around the world should take note.