Bienvenidos a Colombia! Here I am in the land of Juan Valdez, the homeland of TV’s “Modern Family’s” hot Sofia Vargara, hip-shaking Shakira, coffee beans and coca leaves; hence it being the largest producer of processed cocaine in the world. But it is also known as one of the friendliest and most beautiful countries in South America. This country of about 40 million people also boasts one of the largest middle classes in all of Latin America.
Colombia seems to have it all: white sandy beaches with Caribbean flair, cities with metros and outdoor cafes, mountain escapes, Amazon jungles, well-preserved Spanish colonial towns, and adrenaline-pumping activities.
And yet, of the main South American countries, Colombia is the most unvisited by outsiders. Second only to Brazil in population, its landscape is variously Andean, Amazonian, Pacific and Caribbean. It can be high, low, hot, cold and steamy.
Not so long ago, Colombia made international headlines time and time again for some major civil troubles – mainly due to the continuing drug trade. What is not continuing is a good part of the violence and chaos, thanks in large part to former president Alvaro Uribe’s security crackdown and several billion dollars in foreign aid from the United States (mostly in the form of U.S. military/counter-narcotics aid). “Plan Colombia” started with President Clinton and continued through the terms of George Bush. Other aid, focusing mostly on social development, has been provided by international organizations, Europe, Japan, Canada, Latin America, and Colombia itself.
During the late 1990s, Colombia was the leading recipient of US military aid in the Western Hemisphere (lest we forget how much the USA helps other nations – motives can be debated of course), and due to its continuing internal conflict had one of the worst human rights records, with the majority of atrocities attributed to paramilitary forces, insurgent guerrilla groups and elements within the police and armed forces. On a side note, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and other groups were said to have grown in power back in the 60s following a United States CIA-funded and trained Colombian military which dropped napalm on the areas which were inhabited by these splinter groups and possible ‘Communist’ enclaves (lest we forget how much the USA has it’s hand elsewhere, for good and bad depending on your perspective).
While the violence has been somewhat curbed, the cocaine industry has not. Due to demand from the United States and Europe, it continues to operate deep in the heart of the country’s mountains and jungles and unfortunately is the livelihood of many poor farmers.
Nowadays, Colombia is supposedly safer than many of its neighboring Latin American countries. But it’s all relative. I could get mugged in the wrong neighborhood in Chicago just as much as I suppose I could here or really anywhere else I have visited. Yes, some remote pockets of the country are still controlled by the violent FARC. Am I going there? No. Chances of any problems are slim to none: unless I’m soccer player Andres Escobar. In the 1994 World Cup, he scored an ‘own goal’ (accidentally putting the ball into his own team’s goal resulting in a point for the opposition—which happened to be the United States), eliminating Colombia from the tourney in the first round. When he returned to Colombia, he was shot dead in the street outside a bar in Medellin. Yikes. It had been reported that after Escobar was shot, the killer yelled “Goal!” after each of the 12 bullets fired, just like an announcer would during a soccer match. His funeral was attended by more than 120,000 people and a statue was built in his honor.
In researching this, I discovered a documentary released just last year called The Two Escobars – showing the parallel yet different lives of Andres and drug-lord, Pablo.
Want to visit Colombia? The US State Department takes a conservative stance, as it does for most country warnings:
The Department of State warns American citizens of the dangers of travel to Colombia. While security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas as well as large cities. The potential for violence by terrorists and other criminal elements exists in all parts of the country. This updates and replaces the Travel Warning for Colombia issued November 10, 2009 to update information on recent security incidents and criminal activity.
In recent months there has been a marked increase in violent crime in Colombia. Murder rates have risen significantly in some major cities, particularly Medellin and Cali. Kidnapping remains a serious threat. American citizens have been the victim of violent crime, including kidnapping and murder. Firearms are prevalent in Colombia and altercations can often turn violent. Small towns and rural areas of Colombia can still be extremely dangerous due to the presence of narco-terrorists. Common crime also remains a significant problem in many urban and rural areas. For additional details about the general criminal threat, please see the Department of State’s Country Specific Information for Colombia.
*for those who didn’t get it…the title is a play on words from a line in Top Gun said by Goose (actor Anthony Edwards): ‘There are two ‘Os’ in Goose, boys.’
It is used as a reminder that the country is spelled with two Os: Colombia, NOT Columbia.