Colombia`s police force, corrupt and incompetent?
Tom Wilkinson is increasingly frustrated with Colombia´s apparently incompetent and corrupt police force. After years of an improving security situation, is President Santos allowing law and order to deteriorate?
I first arrived in Colombia in October 2011 and found it to be a safe, friendly and truly wondrous place to travel. I have always been fascinated by Colombia and I loved it so much when I got here I decided to set up business and stay. The global opinion on Colombia then was probably not as positive as it is now and a few eyebrows were certainly raised amongst my family when I decided to move here.
Of course with time, I managed to convince them of the current situation and the tectonic shift security wise in the country since the infamous early 90’s era when Pablo and the government were blowing each other to kingdom come. After further troubles during the rest of the 90’s, along came the saviour and recent winner of “The Greatest Colombian of all time”, Mr. Alvaro Uribe. His methods were not pretty, with horrific human collateral cost but some would argue necessary to rid the country of the myriad armed groups who held large parts of the country in a grip of fear and violence.
The people of Colombia have been through very difficult times, and although many complex problems remain, they should be extremely proud of their progress. The remarkable turnaround in the country’s fortunes in the last 10-15 years is evident nowhere more than in Medellin; once named the world’s most dangerous city, recently awarded its most innovative. Peace talks continue with the main guerrilla groups while prosperity looms with booming tourism, mining & oil industries – this all means that the future is now looking better than ever… Or is it?
Somehow there is a feeling that things are slipping a little and no-one wants to see all this progress undone.
I have heard this concern expressed throughout Colombia, but I can only tell you firsthand what is happening here on the coast.
There has been a massive increase in street crime during the last 6 months, we are talking about up to 6 armed robberies a day on the streets of the village of Taganga alone.
The problem is not from paramilitary or guerrilla but simply small predatory groups of young local men from 16 to 25 roaming the calles at night picking off anyone in their path. Santa Marta likewise is suffering from a huge rise in street robberies. These dangerous youths are apparently known to the police and some elements of the wider community, in some incidents they have even been openly protected by one or both parties.
It is very difficult to know exactly what is going on, but what is 100% clear is that the police are doing absolutely nothing to solve these crimes or protect the population. There is a sense of a growing crisis – the area’s reputation as a tourist destination is being damaged irrevocably. In one case a girl who went to the police station in Taganga after having her camera, passport and wallet stolen at gunpoint was told in between chauvinistic taunts and playing with their cell phones like immature school kids, that they had no paper to record the crime and that she would need to report it in Santa Marta.
During a very large town meeting at the church a few weeks ago where desperate business owners and community leaders got up to offer solutions to the town’s problems, the police also got up to speak. One of the main spokesmen was a meek 20 year old kid who could not even say “Tagangueros” properly (what the people are called from the town he works in). Sadly they did not answer any of the communities concerns nor offer one single solution.
It is depressing to see how little respect the police force have for their own community, shirking all responsibility for the security they are employed to uphold.
At the end of the meeting disenchanted business owners and respectable members of the community were talking about the prospect of the dark but previously common Colombian solution of a social cleansing. Since that meeting the robberies have stopped, again it is unclear what has happened, but I know the thieves remain at large.
The local people here call the police “ladrones en uniformes” and sadly I have seen this in person too many times. Usually police are accused of taking advantage of the fact that foreigners do not know that it is completely legal in Colombia to carry small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. So they allegedly plant bags of drugs on the person when they search them, subsequently threatening them with “mucho tiempo en la carcel amigo” which understandably panics the person who normally has limited Spanish into giving them large amounts of money, sometimes as much as 500,000 pesos.
Other times the police are understood to steal electronics, money or tools from the confused tourist, or most commonly extract money from law abiding motorists for this or that tiny infraction. This is said to be happening all over the coast, especially in Cartagena where I have heard the police even work directly with the coke dealers who tip the police off after they have sold chemicals to an unsuspecting and foolish gringo to make some easy pocket money.
The interesting thing is when you stand up to the police, tell them they can’t search your bag, that you want to speak to their superior, that you are phoning your lawyer: they quickly change their tune and promptly let you get on your way. Do the thieves deal with the police in the same way? – “You cannot arrest me!” Ultimately it appears the police have no authority and command no respect.
Mr. Santos, all of us here on the coast sincerely hope you are reading this: you must clean up the police force now or risk the country regressing to the dark days of social cleansing and widespread violence and disorder. Failure to overcome this problem of ineptitude and corruption in the police force will result in tourism and business leaving Colombia’s shores once more.
The whole country will be calling for the return of Uribe’s right wing strong arm tactics. But make this one of your top priorities and you will see all areas of society flourish. Colombia has huge levels of cash available specifically for security which has been funded handsomely by the United States to the tune of $9 billion USD. This needs to be urgently used to professionally train all levels of the police (especially the lower levels) who also must be paid a wage that encourages them to solve crimes not create them. Corruption must be rooted out and consistently punished with the strongest penalties available, no matter how small the incident. We need to see real action now, words will achieve nothing.