While we've made it to Ecuador, limited internet means blog posts will be a little delayed!
In the eyes of much of the world, Colombia still blazons a scarlet letter. With Colombia’s 60 year-armed conflict, the histories of Pablo Escobar, drug cartels, and the murder and kidnapping records by FARC burning red hot in our memories, it challenges our imaginations to think of Colombia as a place peaceful enough to visit. But, it is: Colombia has been moving away from its violent past, at full speed, for much of the past 15 years. The homicide rate almost halved between 2002 and 2006.
Between Plan Colombia under former President Andres Pastrana and the military efforts of former President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has reduced the amount of cocaine produced within its borders, as well as its kidnappings and homicides, immensely. Alvaro Uribe is credited with a successful anti-guerrilla and narcotraficante campaign in Colombia, although his “democratic security” strategy has been considered controversial by many. The peace process has demobilized most paramilitary groups and has cut the territories occupied by the guerrillas substantially. Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, Minister of Defense under Uribe, has persisted with such policies, and peace continues to fill the new gaps in violence.
While the government cracks down, people here take safety and security very seriously. They regard the petty crime and the violence that still characterize the country as shameful. Riding the metro and walking in the streets here, you will find any number of signs and advertisements cautioning against violence and gun use, in the name of the national movement to promote a more peaceful Colombia. Students wear peace patches and adults’ bags advertise anti-violent campaigns. Trucks are littered with “Colombians for Peace” stickers.
Still, Colombians are weary of their own personal safety: they take heed of potential robbers in most open spaces. All properties are locked day and night by gates and often guarded by private security guards toting automatic weapons. The military and police force are huge (Colombia has one of the highest percent of GDP military spending in the world) thanks in large part to Uribe’s campaigns. Military and police presence on the along the highways is strong: there are patrols and regular car and bus searches on most any road throughout the country.
The FARC is still in existence, of course, and it will be generations before families who have fallen victim to their kidnappings and assassinations begin to forget the ruthlessness of their methods. A friend of ours in Bogota recounted the kidnappings of his father and uncles by the FARC, who had held them for over 4 months at a time: he was nonchalant when talking about the kidnappings…they were just something that happened here, in those times.
In general, however, Colombians pride themselves in their movement away from a past ridden by drug and guerrilla violence. They are candid in discussing the problem behind the drug trade: the constant demand for the illegal white powder in the United States. As almost everyone we have spoken with has declared “estamos cansados de la violencia” we are tired of the violence, and more than anything else “estamos hartos de lo que dice el resto del mundo sobre nuestro pais”, we are tired about what the rest of the world says about our country. They hope that the rest of the world will soon see that it is safe to travel in this beautiful country and that there is far more to Colombia than druglords, kidnappings and violent crime.