Safety and security in Colombia
Colombia (in general) and Medellin, Colombia (specifically) – I have lived in Medellin for just over two years and have visited various Colombian cities over the past thirteen years.
The most common crimes that affect foreigners – either tourists or expats – are generally related to petty theft (pick-pocketing) or occasional armed robbery. That said, most of the time these crimes can be avoided by taking common sense precautions.
Serious crimes committed against tourists are frequently a result of the tourist being in a place they shouldn’t be or doing things they shouldn’t be doing. For example walking alone in the city center after dark. Or, people (usually men) who come to Colombia looking for drugs and/or sex. Both can be found of course, but trouble is usually close by, as well.
How do you keep yourself safe?
Prevention is simple and common-sense, and here are a few basic guidelines with Colombia in mind:
- Dress like the locals, which means wear casual clothes. Men wear long pants/trousers. Tourists wear shorts and are easy to spot. The only time that Colombian men wear shorts is when they are taking a Sunday stroll with the family or at the beach.
- Don’t wear fancy jewelry, watches, etc., and don’t carry lots of cash. My personal rule of thumb is the same as when I go to a casino – I never leave the house with more than I can afford to lose, either money or personal items.
- Never use your cell phone out on the street. If you need to use it, go into a store, a restaurant, or a shopping mall.
- In line with the idea of ‘dressing down’, there is a simple reason for the three points above: If you are not constantly feeling nervous because of what you are wearing or carrying, you will project more confidence and be less likely to be made a target.
- Be confident but don’t be cocky. The idea here is that you are a guest in this country. The Colombian people are, for the most part, very warm and welcoming to foreigners. But, like most people anywhere in the world, they don’t react well to be looked down upon.
- If, despite playing things safe, you are a victim of a robbery, for example, give the robber what he wants and avoid eye contact. DO NOT try to be a hero by fighting for your property. “Things” can be replaced. You can’t.
- If at all possible, do not travel alone (especially at night) and try to have trustworthy local contacts if you should get yourself into a bind. Contacting the police is a good idea, but don’t expect the same kind of results you might expect in North America or Europe.
Side note about the police: If you are stopped or questioned by someone claiming to be a police officer in ‘plain clothes’, he or she is lying. Colombia has a national police force and they only use undercover officers to infiltrate drug or street gangs. The only police you should ever talk to will be in uniform.
It may seem surprising but foreigners are generally safer in Colombia than the average Colombian. My perception is that both the government and the citizens appreciate foreign visitors and expats. As to why, it should be pretty obvious. We tend to have a lot more money than the average person here and they want us to spend it here and come back again. As a rule of thumb, the cost of living here is roughly one-third that of a similar life style in the United States.
The vast majority of the people here are friendly and helpful, both to each other and to strangers. A friendly smile, common courtesy, and a respectful attitude will win you friends and respect in return.
Yes, there are exceptions, but they are rare. I live here because I feel safe and welcome. You will, too.
By Charles Hesse