Although there has been a huge effort recently by the Colombian government to market it as a safe place for tourists (with the slogan being ‘The only risk is wanting to stay’) and much of what I have read online has emphasised that it is safe, the agenda behind the government's efforts is clear, and many tourists or expats often use the fact that they themselves have not been victims as a justification for this view. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the society as a whole or, indeed, for many other expats I know.
This is by far the most dangerous place I have ever been to and Cali is often named the most dangerous city in Colombia. The news here is inundated with accounts of individuals being murdered by sicarios (hit men) or held up at gun/knife point to steal their jewelry, money or phones. Not to mention the incredible threat of paramilitaries who rule many rural areas. Threats such as these are often invisible to tourists and expats, but are so very real for the people of Colombia.
Although I have not been mugged myself, I have seen two muggings (one in Cali in broad daylight, one in Bogotá at night) and when I lived here in 2011, my flatmate was violently mugged on our street in the day. You can vastly minimise the risks here by avoiding certain areas, not showing jewelry or having your phone out in public and definitely not being out at night alone. A lot of it is about common sense, but this does not mean that Colombia is safe, it just means that you have to figure out how to navigate its persistent insecurity.
Snapshot of insecurity:
- My boyfriend’s dad always keeps his money in his sock when he leaves the house.
- All employees at CIAT where I work have their bags checked when we leave at the end of the day in case we stole something.
- Most upper strata houses and flats are protected by electrified fences and armed guards. Nevertheless, these do not necessarily prevent break-ins from people living in your complex.
- It is illegal in most urban areas to have two men on a motorbike as this is the classic way that hit men kill people and have a quick getaway.
- I never have my handbag on my lap in the car as a common type of robbery is for a motorbike to drive up next to you at a red light break the window and steal it.
- Cars rarely stop at red lights after around 10 at night since you are an easy target for thieves or carjackings.
- Just yesterday my boyfriend's parents stopped at a traffic light in the afternoon and dozens of men jumped out of vans and a bus to rob the 10 or so cars in front of them.
- You are not allowed to use your phone in banks as a classic way for people to be robbed is for a thief to be in the bank and check who is withdrawing lots of cash and ring his friend outside to tell him what they look like so they can be followed and mugged. This is because hardly any people have debit cards here as they are expensive so withdraw lots of cash in banks.
Guns: I will simply never get used to the amount of guns you see here. All police and private security guards carry guns at all time. Wherever you go you will encounter someone in uniform with a huge gun often pointing at people-height, rather than it being safely in a holder or pointing to the ground. It is extremely uncomfortable and a constant reminder of the security-issues here.
Murders: A recent poll showed that the locals believe that the value of a life is one of the least respected in Cali. Within a 10 day period a few months ago, 11 people had been murdered in Cali, two of them in the same shopping centre on different days, another in a park, just shot at point-blank range, and the others in a mass execution at a local residence. Until Christmas day in Cali, there were 1484 violent killings in 2014 and the month of December recorded 114 murders. On the 1st January, there were 14 murders which was the highest number recorded in recent years. In the first 3 months of 2015, there were 321 murders in Cali alone, almost 4 a day. There is a significant risk of violence in clubs and partying areas like la 66, Granada, Juanchito and Menga, with an average of 400 guns and knives being seized by police per night on a weekend.
Colombia also has one of the highest rates of forced disappearances with over 30,000 people in 2008. This figure is likely to be significantly more in reality and many of those should be included in the murder rates. Of course, you are very unlikely to be a victim of violence if you are not involved in some sort of crime yourself, but it is still a concern that these things are so common and that so many people carry concealed weapons. Shootings are common in Colombian cities and these still may be safer than some rural areas where hundreds are routinely murdered or attacked for economic or political reasons (see my post on poverty for an overview on paramilitaries).
The roads: There are practically no laws or rules when it comes to the roads here. Like many countries in the South, Colombia is a country of motorbikes (since cars are so expensive) that swerve in and out of huge motorway type roads in the middle of cities. Instead of wing-mirror checks before overtaking or pulling out, drivers here just go and rely on the oncoming traffic to beep at them to stop. I see at least 1 crash a day here. In addition, it is incredibly easy to get your license here as you just pay to take a 'course' of a few days which involves a little driving and then you get your license. There is no actual test. On top of this, the roads here are pretty terrible and barely maintained. So these hordes of poor quality drivers and motorbikes not only have to watch out for each other's bad driving but also constantly swerve huge pot holes. It makes for quite an unnerving experience but one I will (hopefully) get used to as I did three years ago.
Healthcare: This all ties in with security because the health service is what is supposed to help you after an incident that breaches your security. One thing I really struggle to get my head around is the fact that, since here most healthcare is private, there is no centralised phone number to access emergency services. I have asked many people what would happen if I was in a crash or was injured in public, who would they call for an ambulance? Most said they had no idea and, even if they knew the number for their personal private health insurance emergency line, it doesn't mean it would be mine and, therefore, I would not be covered in their hospital. I find this so bizarre and very dangerous since this means vital minutes are taken up trying to figure out who to call or changing the patient's hospital because the ambulance that was called was not the right one.
I don't intend to scare anyone off but, like the title of my blog, I feel it is better to be honest and not underestimate the risks here. Again, you are very very unlikely to be killed if you have no involvement in any illicit activities and don't get yourself involved in aggressive situations, but if you are traveling around or living in Colombia, you need to be careful and not 'dar papaya', a common phrase here which means to risk, but literally means to give papaya!