Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Welcome Police State

By David G. Young

Bogota, Colombia, December 2,2009 --  

A massive security apparatus is usually a bad thing. It seems to have done good things for Colombia.

Policemen and soldiers are everywhere in Colombia. Large numbers at the airport are not a surprise -- many countries suffering from terrorism paranoia have these. The police in front of banks carrying huge guns are not unusual in other Latin American countries, either. The soldiers at road checkpoints rummaging through trucks filled with recycled cardboard are a bit more unusual. The most striking, however, are the large numbers of police in cities, seemingly on every street corner in some areas of Bogota and Cartagena.

In tourist areas, the white belted National Tourist Police easily outnumber the number of foreign tourists they are supposed to protect. This overwhelming security presence is the most I have seen anywhere in the world at any time -- even surpassing the ubiquitous police presence in East Berlin in the late 1980s.

It is hard to argue against this overbearing police presence given that it was probably greatly responsible for the fact that I was there to witness it. Colombia's beautiful Spanish colonial city of Cartagena had been near the top of my travel wish list for years, but the country's never-ending security problems -- leftist guerillas, violent drug lords, urban terrorists, and right-wing paramilitary groups -- had kept me and most tourists from visiting most of the country for years.

Now, Colombia's new police state has successfully changed that. After years of conciliatory approaches to the enemies of the state (the country once let notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar build his own palace-like prison), the country's get-tough approach appears to have paid off. Last year, the high profile rescue of a former presidential candidate1, and the killing of the main rebel movement's second-in-command in a cross-border raid2 signaled the return of Colombia's control of its borders.

But as the Colombian government consolidates its victory, it faces the difficult task of reigning in its massive security apparatus. If it does so too soon, it risks losing some of its hard-won control and stability, especially considering that the country remains the world's primary producer of cocaine (via smaller-time operators than before). If it takes too long, it risks police corruption and an erosion of their respect for civil liberties.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the latter while in Colombia. Police did not attempt to shake me down as has happened to me in Moscow and Azerbaijan. I did not have police detain me on shaky charges as in Mexico. Instead, the police went out of their way to offer help -- as when one officer flagged down a bus for us on a busy street in the mountain town of San Gil.

While foreigners may get better treatment, the helpfulness appeared genuine. And given the rarity of foreigners in most parts of Colombia, it's hard to imagine that such treatment is part of a coordinated campaign. Such efforts are only beginning in Colombia.

Last fall, the government of Colombia launched a tourism promotion campaign with the dual slogans of "Colombia is passion" and "The only risk is wanting to stay."3 Earlier this year, Washington DC's Union Station was even rented out for an exhibit of this campaign, complete with 6-foot-tall heart sculptures carrying these slogans.

But if international tourism is to really take off in Colombia, as it has in neighboring countries of Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, then Colombia has a long time to go to overcome perceptions. International tourists are rare outside the throngs of cruise ship passengers who are briefly bussed around Cartagena. Virtually all Americans who heard about my trip immediately responded with a comment about kidnapping or drugs. And while I had absolutely no trouble or fears while traveling the Colombian countryside day or night, the ubiquitous police presence was a constant reminder of Colombia's troubled past.

And it wasn't the only reminder. The historic buildings of Bogota's colonial district are covered in left-wing, anti-government graffiti. The National Police Museum in Bogota features a life-sized mannequin of drug lord Pablo Escobar lying as he was killed by police in 1993. Clearly, it is not just foreigners, but many Colombians whose thoughts are still stuck in the country's terribly violent past.

Related Web Columns:

Lessons for Victory in Afghanistan, July 8, 2008

Forever Taliban, June 27, 2006


1. BBC, Colombia Hostage Betancourt Freed, July 3, 2008

2. Christian Science Monitor, Colombia's Cross-Border Strike on FARC Irks Neighbors, March 3, 2008

3. Colombia Oficial Tourism Portal