Colombia: Separating Fact From Scarface

By 19 November, 2012

As a second year student of modern languages at University College London, one of the ominous tasks facing me this year is planning my year abroad. Colombia has long held a fascination for me as my Colombian friends take every opportunity to wax lyrical about the beautiful beaches, the hospitable weather and the sumptuous Caribbean food, especially in direct comparison with their British equivalents. However, the shadow of Colombia’s recent history undermines this vision of an exotic Caribbean paradise.

Telling my friends I intended to spend 6 months in Colombia was met with puzzled looks. Telling my parents was met with abject horror. In both cases what greeted my statement of intent was a barrage of clichés. If we summarise these into one coherent picture of how we Brits tend to see Colombia we get something akin to Scarface. Colombia it seems, in the British public’s mind’s eye, is a cocaine factory complex in the Amazon where guerrillas and gangs, when they’re not selling drugs or shooting police officers, hang out at airports to kidnap tourists as they leave planes. But then I realised that I didn’t have the facts at hand to challenge them. These are evidently preconceptions informed only by gangster movies and the most extreme stories that the media knows get our attention, but are they misconceptions?

The perception that most of us have about Colombia is rooted in its history. It’s violent to say the least. The grisly and aptly named La Violencia of the late 1940s and 1950s has, more than any other episode in the country’s history, established the country’s reputation as being dangerous. Its legacy is the 300,000 lives it claimed, the harrowing methods of torture and execution such as the Colombian Neck-Tie and the political turmoil from which the paramilitary group FARC was born. This is background noise compared to the impact of the drug trade on the British perception of Colombia. It took off in the 70s and by the mid-eighties cocaine was Colombia’s biggest export and drug barons were the biggest land owners in Colombia. At its peak the Medellin Cartel (the name Pablo Escobar ring a bell?) was earning $60 million per day, money which went to funding bribes, a fleet of helicopters, terrorism, private armies and assassinations of politicians, police and judges numbering 3,500. And that’s just the Medellin Cartel; it had two similarly powerful rivals and many smaller cartels operating on local level.

This is where most of us here in Britain seem to have tuned out, brief news flashes about kidnappings every now and then reassuring us that Colombia, just as we thought, is as dangerous as ever. To an extent this lazy attitude (admittedly not everyone has the time or necessity required to investigate the current state of Colombian internal affairs) is coincidentally accurate. There are still guerrillas operational in 30 out of 32 regional departments. Due to paramilitary endeavours, the only place in the world with more active land mines is Afghanistan. Around 250 civilians are kidnapped every year and in 2010 kidnappings peaked at 282, an increase of 25% on the previous year. Colombia has the 15th highest homicide rate in the world and the 5th highest violent deaths per capita. It is still the world’s largest producer of coca derivatives and supplies nearly all of North America’s heroin, opiates and cocaine. The British and US foreign offices have both put out a warning about the high risk of terrorist activity. This all sounds pretty damning, and lots of us might start feeling quite smug that complacency and stereotyping have landed us not far from the truth.

However, these facts are damning only out of context. For example: the homicide rate. With a rate of 33 intentional homicides per 100,000 people it is 15th and that sounds bad, it is indeed 20 times higher than the homicide rate in Britain. But consider briefly that this is the lowest it’s been in 26 years and continues dropping, that it’s half what it was in 2002 and that in Bogotá, the capital of both the country and its crime, the murder rate dropped 75% between 1993 and 2007 to 14 points below the national average. With a homicide rate of 19 per 100,000, Bogotá has a homicide rate 5 points lower than Washington DC. Given that there is a low level civil war between the army and militia waging in parts of the country, driving the national average up, this isn’t bad going. And compare the 250 kidnappings per year now, with the 3,572 people kidnapped in 2000 alone.

Colombia has reduced cocaine production by 60% in a decade since its peak in 2000. Drug related crime halved in the same period and now Peru has overtaken Colombia in production of coca leaves. The Cali and Medellín drug cartels, that used to run the country effectively, are now non-existent, leaving only the Norte del Valle cartel still active. Even this has been ravaged by the Uribe government’s onslaught on the drug trade. All its main leaders have been killed or imprisoned and as yet no one has stepped into the power vacuum.

With regard to the terrorist threat, the government has gone all out in its pursuit of the groups responsible. There is military presence in every regional department and regular jungle patrols. The AUC, the primary paramilitary group active in Colombia, formerly numbering 31,000 members, was pronounced defunct in 2006 after its core leadership were extradited to the US. The FARC, the main perpetrators of kidnappings, like the drug cartels, has also seen its leadership decimated by the government’s aggressive campaign. It has completely lost sight of its original leftist ideology and is now essentially a militarised drug cartel. Even Hugo Chavez said that FARC were an anachronism; that the time for guerrilla warfare was long over and now their existence lacks any political justification.

So, Colombia is vastly safer today than the 80s, 90s and 2000s when omnipotent drug cartels stole the headlines and forged the perception of Colombia we have to this day. The back patting, the cap tipping and hat removal should be directed at Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president between 2002 and 2010: it’s not a coincidence that all measures of crime plummeted in this period and spiked a little after he left office. What his policies and the collective will of the Colombian people have done, although there is still much to be done, is massively rehabilitate a crippled country. What remains to be done, is to rehabilitate its reputation. One final piece of food for thought is that the British consulate had to assist only 14 British nationals last year in Colombia. One death was reported, two people ended up in hospital and 3 people had been arrested, the rest was administrative. One death, out of a huge British expat network and booming tourism industry. The odds are tremendously in your favour.

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