The warnings posted by the US, UK, Australian and Canadian governments regarding travel to certain areas of Colombia explain why so many foreigners gave me a frightened look when I told them about my travel plans.
There is a certain paradox in that based on my time so far in Colombia (only Cali and Medellin), the people have been the nicest, most helpful people I have met in South America. To be clear, these warnings are created for the lowest common denominator: the most inexperienced traveler. For anyone with a bit of common sense, the warnings, for these parts of Colombia, are way overkill. People have been so incredibly helpful and genuinely happy that I am visiting their country, but the paradox comes up again when so many of them begin whispering to me: “be careful, don’t trust anyone in Colombia.” The risk is real, but with a little care, this is one of the most enchanting countries in South America.
Outside of the Caribbean resort town of Cartagena and surroundings, Colombia is easily one of the most dangerous countries in the world. At least based on statistics. The situation has improved since the early 2000s, but Colombia still retains the #2 position for kidnappings (recently surpassed by Iraq) and certain cities have murder rates that make Compton look like a school playground. FARC, the far left wing guerrilla terrorist group, without continuing financial support from Moscow, has resorted to kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking to fund their operations. Tourists have been targeted due to perceptions that their countries or relatives will pay high ransom (US and UK does not negotiate with kidnappers, though) And they’ve done pretty damn well, controlling nearly half of the country’s territory!
I always knew that I wasn’t going to a gated suburban community when I decided to go to Colombia. But after reading the travel advisories about one hour before leaving Ecuador, I thought perhaps my plans weren’t so well thought out. The southern Colombian region I was intending to stay in for a night was universally listed as a “DO NOT GO FOR ANY REASON” area by all travel advisories (US, UK, Aus, Canadian) due to high likelihood of kidnappings and multiple recent incidents of bus hijackings and torchings. So, I changed my plans to leave Quito really early in the morning to avoid overnight travel through that region.
For the rest of the non-Caribbean cities I’d be visiting, Cali and Medellin, an optimistic synthesis of the various government travel advisories (I like that) tells you simply to reconsider your need to travel to those cities. That seems benign enough considering how fatalistic those travel advisories tend to be.
A worst case scenario reading tells you to avoid Cali and Medellin for all but essential visits. Murder and kidnapping rates have increased dramatically over the past few months and FARC terrorist bombing attacks have killed innocent bystanders in both cities. US Government workers and their families are not allowed to travel on inter or intra city buses or drive outside of cities during the night and it is recommended that all citizens follow this restriction. Express kidnappings, where you are held for 3-4 days while your captors drain your bank accounts have increased dramatically. Citizens of all nationalities associated with the travel advisories have been kidnapped for ransom and murdered.
The situation on the ground doesn’t appear overly unsafe. But the paradox arises again and again. On buses, the military come aboard, record all IDs and search bags. The bus staff (in Spanish, so my comprehension is a bit sketchy) warn us to keep close contact with our belongings so they aren’t stolen and also in case we need to rapidly evacuate if there is a roadside hijacking.
On crossing the border, I was partially adopted by this Colombian family who decided they needed to protect me all the way to Cali and the mother nagged me constantly about being careful in Cali and Medellin, when she isn’t there to protect me.
In a sick twist of humor, even though I was the only English speaker on this bus, they played the movie “Taken” in English, without subtitles, to which someone pointed to my US flag on my carryon bag and said, “cuidado en Colombia!” and laughed at me. Can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor here!
The paradox comes up most often when observing how Colombians act and speak when it relates to safety issues. The constant police presence, the citizens incessantly warning me not to trust anyone and having Colombians I’ve been out with lead me across the street or into taxis to avoid what they consider to be potentially dangerous situations at night…these are all examples of the very cautious attitude that many Colombians have towards their own country.
It is very understandable. I had a long conversation with a local about her memory of the Pablo Escobar narco terrorism days and her eyes nearly teared up as recalled hearing bombs go off almost weekly in crowded public places. And then came the recollection of the virtual prison created by the Medellin Cartel, with roads leading outside of the city controlled by his private army, which would kidnap anyone who was foolish enough to drive outside of the city. It was an all out war between the anti-narcotics government and the Cartel.
I am probably cursing myself for saying this (I’m still in Colombia, though travelling to the much safer Caribbean coastline) but I believe that the paranoia on the part of the locals and the foreign governments is more a remnant of a very violent and painful past and is less reflective of the current situation.
Let’s hope I don’t prove myself wrong.