No doubt you’ve all heard the horror stories: Western travellers in Latin America getting on the wrong side of the law, naively or otherwise, for what at times seem minor offences and being subjected to torture by corrupt, pugilistic police. It’s what the likes of ‘Locked Up Abroad’ are all about. Such programmes would make you wonder why anybody would even consider venturing to such a ‘wild, lawless’ land.
Yes, some people have had violent experiences with ‘upholders of the law’ in these parts; and retelling the experience can make for gripping TV. However, for most expatriates and travellers, in Colombia in any case, the police are normally a pleasure to deal with.
In a land where it’s not always easy to know who you can trust – if anyone – the ‘boys in green’ here are as close to being genuine as they come.
This writer for one prefers to see more rather than less of them on the streets in Bogotá; especially so when there is a general feeling that security in certain parts of the city is worsening.
Thus the recent arrival of a new mobile CAI (Centro de Atención Inmediata or Immediate Attention Centre – basically a small, 24hour police station) in one of my favourite, if notorious, barrios of La Perseverancia is something to be applauded. For sure, I’d like to take credit that my constant reminders via twitter and other sources to the country’s police force of the need for more of its men on the ground 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 – neighbourhood of La
Macarena 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 say 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?
On another point, while the extra police presence on 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. But we can’t have it all our own way.
Also, if you’re to put your Locked Up Abroad cap on, you could be forgiven for thinking that a more visual police presence, especially in Latin American countries, doesn’t mean much. As alluded to earlier, I beg to differ.
I have always found the Colombian police to be decent 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 police behaviour here mirrors that of the local population at large: they are much kinder and more helpful towards foreigners than they are towards their own. You just need to pop over the border to Venezuela for an opposite example; there, a foreign face generally guarantees, at the very least, extra heat from state authorities.
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. There is a tendency among some foreigners here to benefit from the relaxed approach of the local police force, while simultaneously criticising them for it.
Hence, while the ‘light touch’ approach taken by many Colombian cops towards the majority of foreigners may be welcome, there are times when you wish the Locked Up Abroad horror stories became a reality for some.
Lessons might then be learnt.
By Brendan Corrigan
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