When I told people that I’d be moving to Colombia for a year, I usually received one of the following responses:
- You’re going back to Columbia, Maryland?;
- You’re going to grad school at Columbia University?; or,
- You’re going to the country Colombia (correct!)? But isn’t that super dangerous?
Especially for those born to a US generation older than my own, Colombia conjures imagery of narco-traffickers, rebel soldiers hidden in the jungle, and kidnappings. Even today, a US State Department travel warning exists for tourist looking to venture to Colombia. And, admittedly, the more that I read about the Colombia from decades past, the more I understand the fear.
Colombia has been in a civil war with the rebel groups FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (National Liberation Army), and M-19 (named for the 19th of May) for 50+ years, and experienced another period of war for ten years before that (1940s – 1950s), known as “La Violencia”. Collectively, the conflict in Colombia represents the Western Hemisphere’s longest continuous war and has seen 3-5 million people displaced. That figure varies depending on which source you use, but by some counts, Colombia had the highest number of Internally Displaced Persons until the conflict in Syria.
In a single blog post, it’s difficult to get into everything that’s transpired over the past several decades. But – in my opinion – it’s been a catastrophic mix of greed, corruption, and conflicting Liberal v. Conservative political views that led to the creation of rebel groups, that turned those rebel groups into violent forces, and that made equally violent paramilitary groups in support of the State. Each side has committed violent atrocities, many of which were against civilians. And, eventually, narco-traffickers also worked their way into the mix, striking deals to help fund the FARC and taking over farmer’s land to produce highly profitable cocaine for the likes of US buyers. Both sides (the rebels and the State) took a “you’re with us, or you’re against us” stance and much of the public was caught in the middle, taking a side based on where they were in the country in order to keep themselves and their family safe.
I’m simplifying for sure, but like I said– it’s been decades of conflict. For more information, you could check out:
- This article by The Guardian on Colombia’s conflict;
- This BBC Q&A on Colombia;
- The book, Short Walks from Bogotá, by Tom Feiling; or,
- The book, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation In Spite of Itself, by Dan Busnell (I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s been recommended to me by a few human rights workers here)
I just finished Short Walks from Bogotá, and it’s difficult to imagine the extreme violence described in the book taking place in the country where I am today! But, it was very real, and as the country (continues to) negotiate peace accords with the FARC and begin peace talks with the ELN, it becomes clear that the effects of war and the hurt is still present.
Today, I travel freely throughout Colombia with no more thought to rebel groups here than I would give to Isis in the US. The rebel groups and their sympathizers definitely still have a presence in the country, but it’s nowhere near how it was even 15 years ago, when Colombia reached 3,500 kidnappings in one year.
Perhaps because of Colombia’s past and how little the perception of Colombia has changed over the last several years, I rarely meet tourists from the US in Bogotá or, really, anywhere in Colombia. So, when a taxi or Uber driver finds out that I’m from the US and chose to study in Colombia for a year, they are thrilled. I’ve heard again and again and again “Gracias por venir a nuestro país” (“Thank you for coming to our country”), and their belief that North Americans must think there’s a drug dealer on every street corner and that people walk around the city with machetes. Everyone wants to know what I think of their country, of Bogotá, and if their fellow citizens have received me well. It’s so apparent that they want to share their country with the world, but know that Colombia’s dangerous perception has been near-cemented during decades of violence.
On a daily basis, however, I’m far more concerned about theft and smaller-scale, street crime than rebel groups. Especially in Bogotá, even taking extreme care doesn’t make one immune to muggings. And, perhaps worst of all, muggings and thefts are rarely investigated by the police or judicial system. I suppose the police force thinks they have bigger issues to go after?
And maybe so. After all, Colombia is dealing with multiple rebel groups (all deemed “terrorist” groups by US standards). Nevertheless, for a country that had the unwanted honor of being the #1 Murder Capital of the World as recent as 2002, it doesn’t always feel like quite enough is happening to continue lowering their assault and violent crime rates.
I’ve found, it’s important to never draw attention to yourself or any valuables you may have in your possession. Even the fact that you’re from the US signals that you probably have far more $$$ on you than the average person, so shh! I only use my laptop at certain cafes, for instance, and I avoid bringing multiple credit cards or too much cash with me at one time. I wear my purse under my coat, to make it more difficult for someone to grab my bag as they race by on a moto/by foot. I never take my phone out of my purse on the street or on public transit, and only bring my camera with me when I’m with a large group. I don’t take taxis off the street, because too many run scams to rob people or aren’t legitimate cabs. Unfortunately, walking around at night is fairly off-limits; but, fortunately, most Uber rides only cost about $1.50USD.
I know it sounds like a pretty bleak way to live, but I swear people don’t walk around all the time clutching their worldly possessions and peering continuously over the shoulders. Like with any city and country, there are more and less dangerous areas for outsiders. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to put some things into perspective. Colombia and Bogotá have huge income inequality. Further, the average person earns between $400 – $600USD/month, ranking Colombia in the bottom half of the global pay scale; the minimum wage is $236USD/month (and even that is a 7% increase from 2015!) In Bogotá, where housing and food prices are more expensive than the rest of the country, that leaves very little for clothing, school supplies, family expenses, transportation, etc.
Although the thought of being mugged or robbed terrifies me like no other, I must also recognize my privilege as a US citizen who was able to buy my own MacBookAir at the age of 25. Even if my laptop was available for purchase here (which it’s technically not), most Colombians would have to work for years longer than most North Americans to save up enough for the $1,500USD price tag. I think, for some people in desperate situations, the thought of robbing a stranger for an electronic this valuable is of little consequence.
So, in sum, things are different than the past. FARC and the rebel groups may not be as prevalent, but they do still exist as a danger. The cocaine trade is way down and cities are safer, but income equality creates a stark contrast and tension between social classes. Overall, the crime here, the inability to walk around on my phone, the worry I feel when I take my laptop out with me… it’s probably what I most dislike about Bogotá. Even as the government negotiates with various rebel groups on a national level, the threat of street crime persists on a local level. And it’s really too bad; Colombia has the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Pacific, mountains and desert, islands and lakes. It’s a beautiful país that more people should be excited to visit.