Is Colombia Dangerous?

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There’s a certain amount of bravado that comes with having survived a trip to Colombia. If you are reading this blog then you can assume that my girlfriend and I made it out alive…

Colombian mountains

Since the early 1960s it has been locked in the world’s longest running civil war (still ongoing at the time of writing) against a hapless assortment of leftist narco-terrorist guerrilla groups like the infamous FARC and the lesser known ELN and M19.

At one point it was estimated that up to 40% of Colombian territory was outside the control of the Colombian government. Drug running, extortion, robbery, kidnapping and political assassinations became so commonplace that news agencies stopped reporting individual cases.

The battle for territorial supremacy in Colombia resulted in more people being displaced from their homes than in any other country in the world apart from Sudan – a statistic that still stands today.

Coffee houses in Salento

Equally unhelpful to the cause of Colombian peace in recent history have been paramilitary groups like the AUC.

Originally financed by wealthy landowners hoping to quell FARC advances, the AUC’s tactics were no less atrocious than their chums at the opposite end of the political spectrum. One AUC strategy involved simply killing off young people in FARC sympathising villages to eliminate potential future combatants.

Enter President Álvaro Uribe in 2002 – a hardline right-winger that eschewed his predecessor’s softly-softly approach to FARC negotiations in favour of a US funded, Rambo-style military offensive.

Soldiers on the streets of Popyan

In Uribe’s eight year tenancy, homicide dropped 40%, FARC controlled roadblocks were cleared, the AUC disarmed and the remaining insurgents were pushed back to the rainforests and mountains.

With guerrilla operations crippled past the point of potential recovery, Uribe’s successor from the liberal opposition – President Juan Manuel Santos – took a less belligerent approach to solving Colombia’s addiction to violence.

Positioning himself in the Colombian mindset as an olive branch offering reformer, Santos’s recently re-elected government promised everyone a voice in the new Colombia, with the publicly stated goal of negotiating a permanent ceasefire peace with FARC by the end of the year.

Mashing sugar cane

As little as ten years ago Colombia was considered as mad a backpacking destination as Iraq or Afghanistan is right now.

But Colombia is no longer a failed state. It is functioning, sort of, with most of the country now deemed safe to visit apart from late at night in the area immediately surrounding the border with Ecuador due to drugs trafficking and highway bandits.

My girlfriend and I crossed in to Colombia via the border with Ecuador just after sunset. This is what we found…

Gangsters…

Colombia’s second biggest city Medellin is a shiny sort of place. Its 1980s heyday as the murder capital of the world and epicentre of Colombia’s international drugs trade is barely discernible beneath the modern day veneer of pretentious bars and wanky restaurants.

Medellin from up high

Where were all the stray dogs? Why were there not piles of trash festering on street corners? Why did the buildings not look like they could collapse under the weight of a stiff breeze?

Medellin seemed to lack so much of the filth and decay my girlfriend and I had become accustomed to since embarking on our journey through South America six months earlier, let alone danger. The roads and pavements looked freshly tarmacked. The brand new tram system seemed to run on time. The museum exhibits were logically ordered and well annotated.

For all this civility, the city has one man to thank – Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar

Former car thief turned cocaine trafficking mafioso Pablo Escobar once ran Colombia as if it were his own personal playground. With his trademark mantra ‘plato o plomo’ (translation: ‘silver or lead’ – i.e. accept a bribe or bullets), he either paid off or killed anyone that stood in his way.

Controlling over 80% of the global cocaine trade, at the height of Escobar’s power he had amassed an estimated personal fortune of over $30billion. The 1989 Forbes Magazine Rich List declared him the 7th wealthiest man in the world.

Pablo's private jat

He used his wealth to build churches, hospitals, schools, houses and soccer pitches for the poor – cultivating a Robin Hood-esque image that made him popular with Medellin’s underclasses. They went on to vote Escobar to become alternate member of the Chamber Of Representatives in 1983. He made no secret of his plans to one day run for the Presidency.

Attitudes towards Escobar turned sour after he was denounced by Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984. Bonilla was promptly assassinated, Escobar was ousted from mainstream politics, and so began a ten year Osama Bin Laden-style manhunt with a $2.7million reward for Escobar’s head.

On December 2nd 1993, Escobar was finally killed in a joint operation by Colombian Special Forces, the US Navy Seals and the US Delta Force. He was gunned down on the rooftops of a middle class barrio of Medellin.

120,000 people turned out for the funeral.

Pablo Escobar is dead

It is impossible to understate Escobar’s influence on Medellin, and the world’s perception of Colombia, but it is not his philanthropy for which Medellin has to thank for its current shiny façade.

Any investment Escobar made in Medellin is wildly dwarfed by the sustained campaign of terror he waged in his lifetime against rivals in the Cali Cartel and the vigilante group Los Pepes (‘Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar’/’People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar’).

Whole city blocks were bombed to eliminate a single enemy. Aeroplanes were blown out of the sky. Court rooms were gunned down in cold blood.

By the time of Escobar’s death, the city was in such a dreadful state that the government had no choice but to invest heavily in infrastructure. Private investment followed, leading to Medellin becoming the steaming pile of gleaming glass, stainless steel and block paving that it is today.

Presumably Medellin would be a much bleaker place architecturally speaking had it not endured such hardships in recent history. The effect of the investment has seen an 80% drop in murder rate, taking the city from first place on the list of world’s most dangerous cities to a lowly 35th. Colombia’s share of the world cocaine market, however, remains virtually unchanged since the days of Pablo Escobar.

Medellin from a cable car

Fully prepared to embrace Medellin’s new tourist friendly revamp, my girlfriend and I decided to try out one of the somewhat controversial and slightly bad taste Pablo Escobar-themed tours of the city.

The tour started with us being bundled in to the back of a van. Our tour guide was sprightly with a bumfluff beard. He reeled off Escobar’s doings and misdoings with the enthusiasm of a ten year old describing the superpowers possessed by his favourite member of the X-Men.

“In 1992 alone there were 34 murders in Medellin every day!” said the tour guide as we sped towards our first destination. “By the way, did you know that Pablo Escobar killed himself? The government says that they did it – but that’s a lie. His body was dug up several years ago and it was proved by science. He shot himself in the head because he knew he couldn’t escape, and that’s a fact!”

We nodded in appreciation of the facts.

Pablo's graveyard

The graveyard was distinctly less ornate than so many others we had seen throughout South America – there were no statues or mausoleums – just rectangular slabs of light-grey stone laying flat on a stretch of grass otherwise indistinguishable from park land.

In the far left corner was the most ostentatious grave in view, but still surprisingly tasteful – the grave of Pablo Escobar. In the middle was a large charcoal grey oblong of polished marble surrounded by an s-shaped white mosaic pattern. There were six gravestones – one for Pablo, his brother, mother, father, brother, cousin and bodyguard.

Pablo Escobar's grave

“At least once a day someone will come up here and piss all over the grave!” said the tour guide. “But you also see people laying flowers too. Pablo Escobar is still a very divisive figure.”

There was not much else to do at the grave other than take photos. When that got boring, we took photos of ourselves with the grave, trying out different poses until we found one which accurately reflected the solemnity of the location.

Me and Pablo Escobar's grave

As we wandered back to the van, three uniformed police officers with guns drawn sprinted in the opposite direction. A man at Escobar’s grave was ordered to drop his duffel bag. He raised his hands in the air when the police aimed for his head.

Was this to be our first encounter with Colombian violence? I started taking photographs.

The man was patted down and seemingly found to be unarmed. The police decided to keep the duffel bag, but he was otherwise sent on his way. Holstering their weapons, the police then began to make a b-line towards me.

About thirty seconds of being screamed at in Spanish followed before the tour guide intervened. Translating on behalf of the men with guns, the tour guide asked why I was taking photographs.

“Because you were about to shoot a man,” did not seem to be a satisfactory answer.

Explaining that the duffel bag carrying man was a notorious grave robber (a robber of gravestones, rather than a robber of the contents of graves) the police’s mood turned significantly more jovial. With an overly friendly slap on the back, I was then forced to show all my photos, deleting them one at a time. For reasons unexplained I was allowed to keep this one…

The graveyard standoff

Next on the tour route was a bombed out building that Escobar had presumably wanted destroyed in order to kill one of the people inside, currently in the process of being renovated after two decades untouched. No other reason was given for the stop other than it being less than five minutes away from our final destination.

An ex-bomb site

The tour’s (anti)-climax was at the house of Roberto Escobar, the still living brother of Pablo.

“Four years ago some men tried to break in here and kidnap Roberto!” said the tour guide. “He hid upstairs and there was a shoot out with the police. That’s why you see these bullet holes.”

Bulletholes in the wall

We looked around the garden for potential ambushers, but the coast seemed clear. Supposedly a large proportion of Pablo’s billions were buried in secret locations all over Colombia. Roberto, said our tour guide, is a kidnapping target because people think he knows where the money was hidden.

Roberto’s house was not so much a shrine to his dead brother, more of a disordered hodgepodge of Pablo related artefacts. The walls were lined with newspaper articles detailing the brothers’ more light hearted shenanigans. There were drawers with false bottoms and revolving walls leading to secret passageways. There were pictures of Pablo’s mansions and cars and aeroplanes. In the front yard there the most 1980s looking jet ski you could possibly imagine.

Escobar's jetski

It made Pablo seem cuddly rather than nefarious, cheekily opportunistic rather than Machiavellian – he was a trickster who managed to dupe the system, but always had his heart in the right place, so the house seemed to say.

One room was dedicated to Roberto and his achievements. There was an old racing bike as a monument to his abandoned career as a cycling coach. Academic qualifications hung on the wall as a monument to his abandoned career as a virologist. Presumably the monument to his career in the cocaine trade was the house and everything in it.

Roberto's achievements

Outside there was a table on which Roberto’s book ‘The Accountant’ were for sale. Roberto sat at the far end, signing copies.

He was frail and walked with a slight limp. Blind in one eye and partially deaf due to a letter bomb attack during his ten year stint in prison. His face was too smooth for a man in his 70s, having been reconstructed several times by plastic surgery.

“Welcome to my home,” translated the tour guide. As Roberto went around the tour group shaking hands, he paused at me with an extra long and extra firm handshake.

“You my friend are very welcome,” said the tour guide at me specifically. I wondered whether the ‘very’ in Roberto’s welcome implied that I was about to experience my second brush with Colombian danger that day.

It must be a strange existence to have gained notoriety for being the sibling of a psychotic criminal megalomaniac. In his book, ‘The Accountant’, Roberto says that at one point he and Pablo were raking in as much as $420million every week. They spent $2,500 per month on rubber bands just to keep the bank notes tied together. Much of the earnings were stored in warehouses across the country, 10% of which had to be written off every month when it was gnawed to shreds by rats.

Now here he was signing autographs and shaking hands just to make a living – reduced to a kind of circus attraction in the shiny new Medellin. It seemed only slightly better than having your grave pissed all over on a daily basis. We had our photo taken together in front of an old Wanted poster.

Me and Roberto Escobar

As the tour drew to a close, Roberto announced that he wanted to make an announcement.

“I want to thank you all for visiting me here today,” translated the tour guide. “The money raised from these tours goes directly towards my charity which is searching for a cure for HIV. In fact, we have already found a cure for HIV. We patented the medicine and we have cured several people already, but we do not wish to let the world know about it just yet.”

Eyebrows were raised and smirks were suppressed. A million questions flowed in to our brains, but no one in the tour group dared to ask them. Despite the ridiculousness of everything we had seen, a combination of his infamy and our pity prevented anyone from openly contradicting Roberto Escobar.

Seafood Scams…

It’s hard to believe that the city of Cartagena is in the same country as Medellin. Nestled on Colombia’s north coast, the old colonial Spanish port’s brightly coloured peeling paint and crumbling walls are surprisingly charming in a Pirates Of The Caribbean sort of way.

Cartagena from a distance

The Caribbean influence is ingrained in all facets of Cartagenain life – the people here walk around with noticeably less tension in their shoulders than the people inland. Laughter and salsa wafts throughout this ye olde worlde paradise. It is perhaps how Havana would look today had Cuba not fallen to the Communists.

So removed is Cartagena from the Colombian mainstream, it has been lucky enough to avoid most (but not all) of the violence suffered in the big cities too. It is the go to place for Colombians who want to let their hair down, regardless of social factional affiliation. FARC leaders, drugs barons and police chiefs can rub shoulders on Cartagena’s beaches without fear of retribution.

The streets of Cartagena

Immediate and obvious dangers for backpackers visiting Cartagena include bare wires hanging out of walls and three foot deep potholes in the roads.

Potholes in Cartagena

Navigating around the potholes becomes all the more fun after one of the frequent heavy downpours when the streets become submerged under at least six inches of muddy water.

Wheeling through the rain water

My girlfriend and I spent most of our time in Cartagena soaking up the ambience, watching street performers at night, eating from fried food stalls, occasionally running back to the hotel for a quick blast of air conditioning before heading back out in to the humidity to lose 50% of our own body weight in sweat.

On our penultimate day, we took a cab to the beach at La Boquilla.

As soon as the taxi made it on to the sand our cab was flanked by a fat man wearing a Colombian national football team shirt. The fat man banged on the windows. The beach was almost deserted and we were probably the first potential customers for his beachside café that he had seen all day.

The fat man ferried the taxi to a spot in directly front of the café. We got out, said ‘Thank you’ and went for a walk along the sand.

Cafés on La Barraquilla

All but three of the several dozen other cafés lining the beach front were closed. It was a Thursday, the sky was murky and later on Colombia would be playing against Japan in the World Cup. We lapped up the rare moment of quiet that had been so sorely lacking on our journey throughout South America.

Deciding that now was an appropriate moment to grab a bite to eat, we headed back towards the café owned by the fat man. We admired his enthusiasm, if not his capacity to recognise when tourists need breathing space.

The fat man sat us down under an awning overlooking the sea. We asked for a menu – he reeled off a list of fish. We asked how much it would cost, he ducked the question and brought out some beers.

An unimpressive awning

Some 45 minutes passed before the food was plonked under our noses. It was OK, a little lukewarm, certainly not remarkable enough to warrant being photographed.

The beach was still deserted.

Then the bill arrived – clocking in at 230,000 Colombian pesos. To put that in perspective, 230,000 Colombian pesos will buy you around two nights in a four star hotel in downtown Cartagena, or roughly twenty equivalent fish suppers on a streetside café.

We had landed slap bang in the middle of a shakedown.

In the preceding six months my girlfriend and I had learnt that getting ripped off is par for the course when backpacking around South America. An extra 10% here or 15% there is the going rate for being white and Western in this part of the world – and given the disparity between our incomes, who can blame them?

Usually you can barter extortionists down, usually it isn’t worth the effort, but the price here was so absurd that it was easy to just laugh and send the bill back.

Deserted beach

The fat man returned, this time accompanied by his friend, the toothless man.

“You can have 30,000 pesos or nothing,” was my opening gambit, knowing full well that about 80,000 pesos was infinitely more reasonable.

“Treinta mil pesos! Usted está loco!” said the fat man. (Translation: ‘30,000 pesos! You are crazy!’)

“No señor, usted está loco,” I responded.

“Usted está loco!!” they said, waggling their index fingers next to their temples to as if to reaffirm my craziness.

“Usted está loco,” I responded again in a deliberately infuriating deadpan tone.

A bucket of fish

The next five minutes were spent accusing each other of unspecified mental illness. The fat man and the toothless man hopped up and down, clenched their fists, waved their arms and screamed in the hope that it might make them seem less ridiculous.

“Can we see the menu to check the prices, please?” was the next line of attack.

“Está menu natural!” said the fat man.

“This is the most expensive meal we have been charged for in the whole of South America.”

“Está menu natural!” said the toothless man.

“OK, 50,000 pesos or we get the police.”

The fat man and the toothless man rolled around with laughter as if they had just watched the funniest ever iteration of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. With no one else on the beach, the challenge now was to get from the café to a police officer without having our faces caved in.

“He’s lucky he’s in a wheelchair otherwise he’d be sorry,” said the toothless man to the fat man in contemplation of their future legal defences. He was probably right; were this thing to descend in to violence then fatty and toothless would have a hard time convincing a judge that the guy in the wheelchair was the one that started the fight.

We picked up our belongings and started marching back towards civilisation. The fat man and the toothless man trailed behind, whooping and hollering about how ‘loco’ we were. They lowered the price to 120,000 pesos, and for the twentieth time they rejected our counter offer of 50,000.

Deserted beach

A mile later we saw two teenagers with machine guns looking out to shore. Salvation at last – all Colombians have to go through military service at the age of 18. Their uniforms were a little too big, and one of them had braces on his teeth, but otherwise these teens seemed equipped to keep fatty and toothless at bay.

Diplomatic negotiations opened up with classic British tact and poise.

“Señor, los hombres está loco,” I said to the teenager with braces. Fatty went ballistic. The teens called for backup.

Backup arrived on a motorcycle. He removed his helmet and Aviator glasses. I cannot remember if he was twiddling a toothpick between his teeth, but either way, he was the sort of cop that would look good twiddling a toothpick.

Beach police debate our fate

“Well if you don’t have a menu, you should expect problems like this,” said the motorcycle cop coolly.

“Está menu natural! Está menu natural!” blurted the fat man. He and the toothless man flew in to a tirade. His sweaty jowls quivered in the afternoon heat.

By now the commotion had attracted half the residents of a nearby village. We were impressed – the Colombia v Japan game had kicked off already but clearly our altercation was proving to be a more entertaining spectacle. The motorcycle cop called for more backup.

Beach police debate our fate

There were now eight police officers on the scene. The fat man and the toothless man kept lowering their price, from 120,000 pesos to 100,000 to 90,000 to 80,000. They thought that by writing the numbers in the sand it would somehow make us more likely to accept the offer.

“50,000 is too much to pay for FIVE fish,” I said to the fat man. This elicited a gigantic ‘Ooohh!!’ from the baying crowd, as if we were engaged in a 1980s rap battle.

“Usted está loco!” said a woman in the crowd. The police formed a human barrier around my girlfriend and me.

We had hit deadlock, but the police were on our side. They had guns, so with the likely threat to our lives at the lowest it had been for the last hour and a half my girlfriend and I chit chatted about our hair cuts. Every now and again an offer of 80,000 pesos would come in, which was summarily rejected.

“Does anyone here have a menu from another nearby café so we can see how much this fish should cost?” asked the motorcycle cop.

No one in the crowd seemed to have access to a menu, even the guy three rows back hiding several laminate menus between his knees.

In the distance we heard screaming. First it was a single voice, then hundreds of people all at once. A man from the village was sprinting down the beach towards our crowd.

“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!” he shouted. (Translation: ‘Goal.”)

Celebrating a Colombian goal

Colombia had just scored against Japan. Suddenly our debate over fish prices was no longer interesting. The crowd went loco, running in all directions before heading towards the nearest television.

Fatty and toothless were left all alone. No more friends from the village, just me, my girlfriend, eight policemen and a shitload of military grade weaponry.

“70,000?” we asked.

They snatched the notes from my girlfriend’s fingers and walked backed to the café to sulk.

Sobering Thoughts…

Colombia’s capital Bogotá is rife with hellish 1970s architecture. At the height of the drugs wars in the 1980s and 90s it too was subjected to violence and terror, but presumably not enough to warrant a Medellin-style makeover.

Central Bogotá

There were no obvious signs of danger on our arrival in Bogotá – the last stop on our visit to Colombia, and on our six month journey through South America. By now we were bullish about the prospect of falling victim to Colombian danger anyway.

There was an all-day city wide ban on alcohol – a danger to our sanity perhaps – during Colombia’s next World Cup match against Uruguay. We later discovered this was due to nine people dying in the celebrations following Colombia’s 4-1 victory over the Japanese the week before.

Football in Colombia

What would the body count have been if Colombia had lost?!? Regardless, as non-football fans, and with England having already been unceremoniously kicked out of the tournament, there was no reason to suspect my girlfriend and I would be targets for violence outside the normal muggings, beatings, stabbings and shootings that go hand in hand with any big city.

Bleak Bogotá

We went for dinner with some friends we had met on a train in Peru two months earlier – Hector and Viviana, two twenty-something engineers that have lived and worked in Bogotá all their lives.

Hector and Viviana

We asked whether they thought world views of Colombian danger were justified. This is what they had to say…

“The years when the drugs cartels took over our country did a lot of damage. Several generations of Colombians believed that drug trafficking was the solution to our economic problems – people like Pablo Escobar, the Cali cartel and the Ochoa brothers – and even though they’re gone, the idea that all Colombians think that way still persists around the globe.

“With the passage of time, our international image has improved. But we are still the world’s biggest cocaine producers – the difference is that these days the business has gone underground. It’s handled discreetly by small bosses, not by showboaters like Escobar. Drugs barons don’t shoot and bomb each other in public any more because that’s what made Escobar a target of the government.

Birds over Cali

“Colombia is not a dangerous place for visitors any more, no way! Not in the big cities anyway. Growing up in the city, we lived away from the reality of many Colombians who had to put up with the violence between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. We never had fear growing up because we live far from the places to be fearful of.

“But as we got older, we found out about our history. On the one hand we feel privileged, but on the other we’re sad. Most children in remote areas didn’t have the same opportunities that we did. They didn’t have drinking water or schools. Medical services are almost non-existent still. It’s pretty backward. That, to us, is just as dangerous as the drugs trade or guerrillas.

Colombia Coke logo

“Our country could have a bright future if those who govern over us operated transparently and without corruption, but unfortunately that’s not happening. The political class is blatant in the way it fills its own coffers at the expense of the poor. People still fight in Colombia, but with backhanders and bribes rather than bombs and guns.”

“But despite all this, Colombians have always liked to take care of their visitors. You do not have to worry. We’re good people. It has only ever been Colombians that have to worry about being in Colombia.”

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