This Is Not Your Parents’ Colombia

Colombia’s troubled past – cartels, paramilitaries, poverty, petty crime — casts a long shadow that still reaches to today. The country is still viewed by many as a place where danger lurks around every corner.*

Having grown up hearing stories of Colombian drug lords, kidnappings, murders, and muggings, these ghosts haunted the back of my mind as prepared to visit the country.

Was the country going to be safe? Should I bring my electronics?

The stories and images we grow up with don’t leave us easily. They slide to the recesses of our mind and wait there, ready to jump back to the forefront and whisper fear into our ears.

Even though I knew otherwise, the old image of Colombia — born of decades of media bombardment — still circled around me as I touched down in Medellin.

It quickly evaporated once face with reality.

Colombian history is just that. History.

Yes, there are still many problems here in Colombia: the drug trade is still strong, paramilitaries still exist, and petty crime is a major problem. The murder rate, though falling dramatically over the last decade, was still 11,781 in 2017 and petty crime and armed robbery are still a regular occurrence with 2018 seeing over 200,000 armed robberies in the country.

Locals often suggested not going out to certain areas at night and being extra careful with my stuff. There are still issues with the paramilitaries (there was a bombing while I was there by the National Liberation Army, a radical paramilitary group). Income inequality is high. Poverty is rife. About 29% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Colombia is not perfect. It’s still growing, it’s still developing, and it still is trying to cast off the long shadow of its troubled past.

But the big cartel days are over, and most paramilitaries have entered peace agreements with the government. Major crimes are decreasing each year. Kidnapping has decreased by 92% since the cartel years and homicides have dropped by around 50% over the past two decades.

Poverty is decreasing as well. Since 2002, when the government started tracking poverty statistics, the poverty rate in the country has dropped from almost 50% to 29% — and it’s still dropping by around 3% each year. On top of that, their GDP per capita has increased almost five-fold since 1980.