In Bogotá, 'Osama' works to keep streets safe

Fernando Aguirre dresses like Osama bin Laden, but he's not an Islamic terrorist. He's a citizen cop.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters
CARRIES A BIG STICK: Fernando Aguirre (left) works with police who patrol Santa Fe, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Colombia's capital city. He lives off donations by shopkeepers.

In most parts of the Western world, the figure of Osama bin Laden inspires fear and loathing. But in one Bogotá neighborhood, "Osama" is now a symbol of protection and safety.

Wearing a turban fashioned out of a strip of white, eyeleted cloth and sporting a long gray beard streaked with white, Colombia's "Osama" patrols one of central Bogotá's most dangerous neighborhoods carrying a stick and a homemade machete. He's not an Islamic militant, or a Muslim. But his presence draws gratitude from residents and the prostitutes who work here.

Born to a Saudi father and a Colombian mother, Bogotá's "bin Laden" introduces himself as "Hasmed bek Hassan Hischter," though he's also gone by Fernando Aguirre. He has been patrolling these dark streets and alleys for 13 years. But only after Sept. 11, 2001 – when someone noticed he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Al Qaeda leader – did he take on the appearance of Mr. bin Laden.

"I saw pictures of him in magazines and on TV. I let my beard grow and people would say to me, 'You look just like him, just like Osama.' "

Mr. Aguirre – who says his mother left Saudi Arabia with him when he was just 8 months old – jokes that the resemblance may be more than a coincidence. "Sometimes when I see his image I think he's my father," he says.

Until Sept. 11, he had never heard of Al Qaeda or its leader. At the time, he was patrolling the streets of the Santa Fe neighborhood in a black balaclava and a black uniform, leading a Rottweiler on a leash. Residents then called him "the Ninja."

But after Sept. 11, he changed his costume, and became known as "Osama." That made his work easier, he says. "People respect Osama more than the Ninja," he laughs.

Aguirre cooperates with the city police, but claims he has single-handedly captured two hit men and 10 thieves. He himself has been arrested twice, by rookie cops who, he says, don't realize he's on their side. Both times he was released without charge.

The beat cops who patrol the same streets chuckle when asked about him but acknowledge his small contributions to making the area safer. "Yeah, he helps sometimes. He beats up the thieves, then calls us over to deal with them," says one policeman who declined to give his name. "And he guards the shops and brothels."

Aguirre's not an Al Qaeda supporter. But he says he has no misgivings about misrepresenting himself as bin Laden. "He's a terrorist. I'm not a terrorist," he says with a shrug.

But he admits the association can be problematic. After the 2004 Al Qaeda bombings in Spain – where his sister lives – Aguirre says his mother got on his case for impersonating the terrorist, so he shaved off the beard. "I still went out on patrol but people didn't seem to respect me as much. I lost a lot of points because of that, so I grew it back," he says.

Aguirre has not always been a self-appointed citizen cop. In the late 1980s, after finishing his obligatory military service, he was recruited by a paramilitary group in the Middle Magdalena region, where Colombia's right-wing death squads got their start. "I got recruited because I was the best at firing the machine gun in my platoon," he says proudly.

After a year in the paramilitary group, Aguirre, was captured by leftist rebels. He says they strung him up between two trees and cut his skin with sharp knives before pumping him with six bullets. None of the scars are openly visible but Aguirre says that after that, he gained such nicknames as "Rambo," "MacGyver," and "Diehard."

Aguirre says that he lives off tips and donations from residents and shop owners to support his neighborhood patrols. Pablo Ortiz, who runs a small cafeteria off the neighborhood's park, says he contributes a few bills or a soda every once in a while.

"People feel safer when he goes on patrol so I like to help out when I can," Mr. Ortiz says. Prostitutes often pay him to walk them home at the end of the night. "I will never get rich doing this," says Aguirre. "But I don't care. I like the respect that comes with being Osama."

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