Wednesday, 8 January 2014

In defence of hoping (and fighting) for, at least, a 'Freer Bogotá'

We came in for a bit of criticism in the wake of our Fighting for 'Free Bogotá' piece a few weeks back. Now this didn't come from Colombians but from fellow expatriates. The main grievance was that we were painting a stereotypical negative, dangerous picture of Bogotá and Colombia in general. The fact that we were writing about particular incidents in one notorious barrio of the country's capital seemed to go over our critics heads.
Entering one of Bogotá's 'darker sides', La Perseverancia
The darker side -- entering La Perseverancia

We did of course point them in the direction of previous posts we've written, detailing how we find the external perception of Colombia and how 'dangerous' it is a little frustrating and very often inaccurate to say the least.* Also the amount of solo travelling we've done around this physically stunning country, most of it detailed on this blog, is, we hope, sending out a positive message that this country is very much 'open for tourism' (and, for some, business) and generally safe.

However, as pointed out in Fighting for 'Free Bogotá', it would be remiss of us to write that there is nothing dangerous at all about this country. A message some of our detractors seemingly wish we would portray. There are though plenty of other English language web sites and blogs about Colombia that set out from the onset not to include one negative word about the place, even if that means bending reality at times.

In any case, what we wrote wasn't inherently negative about Bogotá. In every big (and small) city in the world there are dangerous neighbourhoods where, as a taxi driver once told us about a particular part of Dublin, 'even the dogs hang around in packs and watch each others backs.' Also, we tend to, especially owing to the types of places we like to drink in, take more risks than most other visitors/foreign residents who come to this city.**

We are where we are, we do what we do, and we have our beliefs, likes and dislikes. Right now, for convenience, price but above all, the friendliness of the locals (part of that being the free beers we often get) we find ourselves socialising regularly in La Perseverancia. As stated in previous posts, this area is at this moment in time, as the locals put it, 'muy caliente' (literally 'very hot' i.e. dangerous).

In the last number of weeks this view has only been further reinforced in our minds. For if we're being honest, we put the 'little' early morning incident mentioned in Fighting for 'Free Bogotá' down to stupidity on our part. Plus, very often when Colombians tell us certain areas are dangerous our first reaction is to shrug it off, believing that they're still thinking of rougher times in the not-to-distant (but distant all the same) past.

However the kind of things we've encountered over the last few weeks give an idea of this 'darker side': There was the pretty lame attempt – but an attempt all the same – by two young thugs to rob us in broad daylight in the area; the friendly locals insisting they escort us home for our own safety at night; police officers standing guard outside a tienda we were drinking in, in the afternoon, because we were foreigners and 'at risk' (we find this a little hard to believe, but it's what we were told); plus being witnesses to two local women getting mugged, again in the middle of the day. All these have firmly illustrated the real dangers existent in this part of the city, day and night.

Officer 'Wrong Way'. Any takers?
Officer 'Wrong Way'
That latter incident was particularly annoying, angering even. We figured had we been a little closer and quick-thinking that we may have been able to intervene in some way; then again, perhaps it was better we didn't? There were people closer to it than us who seemed content enough to let the damn delinquents get their booty; a 'thank god it's them instead of us' kind of thinking and certainly not unique to Colombia.

Yet this could be one area to, literally speaking, start a 'fightback'. If enough people, particularly the locals, those who might be seen as community leaders (it's debatable if such figures exist in certain lower-class barrios, or if they do, to what extent they encourage a law-abiding lifestyle), confronted such scum rather than turn a blind eye, it might evoke some sort of change of behaviour, for the better.

From what we've witnessed and anecdotally, few assailants, especially in these daytime 'raids', are carrying firearms; usually, if anything, they just have knives. And usually you don't have to look too far on Bogotá's streets to find some sort of a stick that could be used to confront anyone carrying a blade; something to put more than an arm's length between you and the would-be attacker.
More police on the beat is another deterrent and at times they can be hard to come by in La Perseverancia, but it's not a panacea.

Of course there are a range of social issues that must be tackled as to why some people get involved in criminality and, for one, with such a huge disparity in incomes in this city and questionable priorities by the ruling classes, Bogotá and Colombia in general has a long way to go in addressing those.**

We're not looking for an unattainable utopia (although it's not a bad goal to aspire to), we just want things to improve; and there's certainly scope for that.

Those who would like us to believe that Bogotá/Colombia is a peaceful paradise are plain delusional; nowhere is. They're also helping nobody by peddling such a notion.

*For a start see Dangerous Colombia Part III.

**On both fronts i.e. an idea of the places we like to socialise in and the inequality issues, check out No somos Colombianos, pero... (We're not Colombian, but...).

For some other issues that need addressing in Bogotá read Bogotá's 'broken windows'.


  1. Sure was it even worth mentioning that feckin eejit and his ridiulous comments who commented on your other blog. Obviously, he's they type who lives in stratus 4+ areas and never experiences any other sides of South America. And sure from his comments and "indignation" he only selectively read your blog anyway!

    1. True enough Anonymous. But we felt we needed to riposte here after those LinkedIn comments from a number of gentlemen, just to firmly restate where we're coming from.

  2. Hear! Hear! Brendan. I was much reviled by the same delusionals when I commented on my dangerous experiences here. Both suggesting it was my "fault" and that I go "looking" for trouble. It is frustrating to see expats engaging in the "dar papaya" mentality that is, at least, in part to blame for criminal behaviour in Colombia. There is little shame in being a criminal, yet much shame in being "stupid" enough to be a victim.

    1. We hear you Beverley i.e. 'what did you do wrong for something bad to happen to you?'

      Coming soon (perhaps), a look at the whole 'que pena con usted' phrase!

  3. problem is that the ´scum´ as you put it are also part of the local picture, often well-known in the community, operating with impunity. Victims and bystanders are scared to confront because even low-level criminals are quite capable of getting revenge quite often murder. This reminds me of the hero bus driver who was shot because he stepped in to help a passenger being mugged. Just about everyone in Bogota I know has had some attack in the last few years - friends out walking were tied up and pistol whipped last month, had their shoes stolen. Confronting armed attackers is just not workable, for most people, (though I did quite enjoy reading your account of getting back in the muggers in previous post!.) Improvements to security will come from long-term social change and equality. Rampant commercialism + massive inequality always adds up to big crime. Also in Colombia many people work and JUST DONT GET PAID. The salary never comes. I know so many people who struggle to get a job and hang on for 6 months hoping to see a pay check which never comes. They then resign, very angry and bitter. So another reason people turn to crime - an honest job often doesnt pay. Nightly news in Colombia is a pathetic list of crime, but never a mention of the companies and organisation who just dont pay the salaries. I am not justifying crime in any way (there are plenty of poor people in Colombia who honestly make cash), but the only real way things will get safer is from social improvements.

    1. Perhaps things have to get worse before they get better -- where's Batman when you need him?!

      For sure there is a big risk confronting most of these attackers, but we still believe that taking a stand is better than not -- nothing will come of nothing. Perhaps we're guilty of being young(ish!) and idealistic, but if we were to die over taking such a stance, we'd like to think we died doing good. For sure, it's easier to write that than to carry it out...

      As you say, one must not make an excuse for criminality; be it at the top or the very bottom. And as mentioned in the piece above and as you too also state, there are a host of social improvements needed in this country. Very often money's not the problem, but attitude, something we can all be guilty. We've witnessed many of the better off Colombians treat the dogs on the street better than the humans on the street -- indeed it seems they don't even see the latter as being the same species.

      Cheers for taking the time to read and comment; it's always appreciated.

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