Saturday, 12 April 2014

Colombia's good cops

OK, credit where credit is due. We can all be quick to criticise but slow to give praise where it is warranted. In this regard, since this writer first uncovered the simple delights of Bogotá's less than secure (to say the least) barrio of La Perseverancia, the lack of a regular police presence for a such a notorious spot has been frequently mooted on these pages and elsewhere.*
The new CAI on the La Perseverancia/La Macerena border.
It might look like something from Fr. Ted, but this CAI unit does make a difference.

So the recent arrival of a new mobile CAI (Centro de Atención Inmediata or Immediate Attention Centre – basically a small, 24-hour police station) is something to be applauded. For sure, I'd like to take credit that my constant reminders to the Colombian police force via Twitter and other sources was a factor in this. Somewhat unlikely that though. A recent protest march by the residents of the adjoining, more affluent – and thus more influential – La Macarena neighbourhood to do something about the poor security in the area was a more forceful message you'd have to think.

Those of a more cynical nature about this, such as a somewhat left-leaning friend, says it's quite telling that as soon as ex-mayor Gustavo Petro was finally disposed of, more police were put on the beat. Surely coincidental, right? It couldn't be a case of a political game being played with such an important issue?

On another point, while the extra police presence about that side of town generally gives a safer feel to the place, it hasn't come without some drawbacks for the local revellers. The biggest one of those being that officers are quick to stop people from drinking on the street outside the little tienda bars. On a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon that's a bit of a pity for the likes of Don Fernandos (aka 'La Panella'). But we can't have it all our own way.

Of course there are those who say that a more visual police presence, especially in Latin American countries, doesn't mean much. That is, you can't trust many of the 'upholders' of law and order in these parts.

Personally, however, I have always found the Colombian police to be decent – perhaps overly so on occasions considering what their duties are – and trustworthy. Indeed there have been times when officers here have taken a much lighter approach to some late night antics compared to what my native Irish police would have done faced with the same scenario.

In fact a lot of the time Colombian police behaviour mirrors that of the local population here at large: They are much kinder and more helpful towards foreigners than they are towards their own. One just needs to pop over the border to Venezuela for an opposite example; there, a foreign face generally guarantees extra heat from state authorities.

Venezuelan police: Don't mess with them.
Venezuelan cops: A little harsher on foreigners? (Pic from Facebook.)
So it is quite off-putting to see what basically amounts to giving Colombian cops the middle finger by outsiders who have benefited from their leniency. When you've just been let off the hook for not only driving without a licence but also driving under the influence of illegal drugs and breaking red lights while at it, you might think the least you could be is quietly thankful you weren't charged or deported. Moreover, you should be grateful that nobody was killed because of your stupidity.

But no. For one particular Nordic expatriate here, he found it appropriate to publicly post on Facebook the above misdemeanours. In an arrogant and rather condescending, yet at the same time childish comment, he wrote how the police were happy to send him and his accomplices away with a 'hope you've learnt your lesson' telling off. This he clearly hasn't, considering the style in which the post was written.

Hence, while the 'light touch' approach taken by many Colombian cops towards some foreigners may be welcome, there are times when you wish the letter of the law was applied in full.

Lessons might be learnt then.

And the police would be deserving of a bit more hard to come by credit.

*A good place to start on the La Perseverancia front is In defence of hoping (and fighting) for, at least, a 'Freer Bogotá'.

Of course there's always work to be done in keeping things safe, as stated in Bogotá's 'dark side' rises.


  1. I have always had a deep respect for the police (and the soldiers, for that matter) that patrol Colombia. I have always been impressed by their professionalism and have never been shook down by them (as I have in other Latin countries). Perhaps it is the fact that they have had some very real security issues in Colombia to deal with and they don't engage in some of the petty bad behavior that occurs more frequently elsewhere. Maybe I have just been fortunate, but these are my impressions after 20 plus years of fairly frequent travel to Colombia and other places in Latin America. Perhaps the cops(TSA/border patrol, etc;) in the US coulld learn something from them?

    1. From personal experience, I couldn't agree more. Yes people may point to paramilitary links, etc., but as pointed out in the piece, their attitude towards foreigners as far as I can see is easy going. One could be critical and say they're harsher on their own, but that's not really for me to critically comment on.