Uribe’s “New” Colombia

Civil conflict, high-profile kidnappings, and entire cities run by drug cartels; these are just some of the images of violence and terror that steered tourists away from Colombia for over thirty years.



Civil conflict, high-profile kidnappings, and entire cities run by drug cartels; these are just some of the images of violence and terror that steered tourists away from Colombia for over thirty years.

But that began to change in 2003 when the current government of President Alvaro Uribe launched a campaign to promote the country’s efforts in combating the drug kingpins and leftist guerrilla groups. Aided by a supportive western press, the Uribe government was able to project an image of safety, security and stability.

The government claims that the campaign has been successful as the last few years have seen massive increases in North American tourism and investment.

However, others argue that the realities of war are very much alive for a majority of the Colombian people. Record levels of displacement, continued armed struggle and a corruption scandal involving the Colombian military calls into question the government’s assurance of security and suggests that the country’s troubles are far from over.

Colombia’s Campaign Attracts Tourism

Recently I traveled to Colombia where I was welcomed by a sense of ease and relaxation that I have not experienced in the crime-ridden slums of Caracas where I currently live. In contrast to Caracas, travelers can be seen at all hours of the night in Bogotá’s downtown and backpacking districts. One hostel owner mentioned that within the last three years hostels have begun popping up all over the Candelaria neighborhood, the top destination for travelers because of its nightlife and museums.

It is no wonder people flock to the country that has no shortage of natural beauty and things to do. Cosmopolitan cities such as Bogotá and Medellín offer the traveler trendy art and culture scenes. In addition, Cartagena and nearby coastal cities allow tourists to experience the beautiful Caribbean beaches.

Proexport, an organization hired by Uribe’s administration to promote the tourism and investment campaign, highlights such tourist attractions. Additionally, through websites and videos in various languages, Proexport publicizes the changes made under Uribe. Such changes include Uribe’s hard-line stance on guerrilla groups and putting drug-cartels on trial.

A report from Proexport shows the Colombian government has been successful with record numbers of travelers and high expectations of growth over the next decade.[1] Much of this growth will rely primarily on tourists from North America, Europe and neighboring country, Venezuela.

Likewise, a majority of wealthy Colombians, most of which are concentrated in large cities, have seen positive change since Uribe took office in 2002. His policies, which include increased militarization and a harsh anti-terrorism bill, have allowed Uribe to tighten the government’s power over former guerrilla strongholds.

With millions of dollars in military aid from the United States, the Colombian military has also been able to take control of checkpoints formally run by FARC (the largest armed-guerrilla group in Colombia). This has allowed freer travel for those who can afford it and has arguably lowered the rate of kidnappings.

However, while Uribe’s policies have benefited the wealthy and have boosted tourism, the facts prove a much darker reality for the majority poor population.


Indigenous family builds a temporary home in Parque Tercer Milenio.*

Beyond the Tourist Attractions

Just a few short blocks from the Candelaria district lies a large city park called Parque Tercer Milenio. One sunny afternoon a friend and union leader walked me over the to the park where kids could be seen playing in front of the backdrop of the Andes mountains. As I walked further inside I noticed the endless rows of tents and houses made of wood and plastic set up in what I later learned was home for hundreds of displaced families.

My friend took me over to the community and introduced me to the leaders. The “tent community” has been stationed in the park for over four months and consists primarily of peasants of African and indigenous descent. Government statistics say there are around 3 million internally displaced people, but human rights groups argue the figure has surpassed 4.6 million. In a country of 45 million inhabitants, that is over 10% of the population and puts them second only to Sudan in numbers of displaced persons.

The main reasons for displacement (and 2008 saw some of the highest numbers of displaced persons in the conflict’s history) are a result of paramilitary massacres of villages or intimidation from the Colombian military and other armed groups.


Indigenous children and their parents share tent made of sheets and blankets.*

One indigenous leader I talked to had recently lost his eldest son and was forced to relocate to the Bogotá park. I visited the tent where he lived with his four children. All four of them were without proper clothes to protect them from Bogotá’s 50-degree weather and were dependent on their father begging for food in the streets. Despite being threatened off his land by armed groups and the murder of his son, the indigenous leader, like so many others, had received no recognition from the Colombian government. His family was left without housing, health care, education, food and identification papers, making it impossible for him to find work.

“The goal of the government”, a mother in Medellín recalled, “is to displace the entire population of Colombians, until we’re completely cleansed from our land.” To defend the statistics, Uribe argues that displaced citizens come to the urban areas because of money and economic reasons.

However, evidence shows the conflict is now moving into the periphery of cities where many of the displaced people have settled. For those forced from their land, life in the urban areas can be just as difficult because of paramilitary presence, disease and lack of opportunities and resources.

In the Name of "Democratic Security"

Developed in 2003, an anti-terrorism initiative, or better known in Colombia as “democratic security,” has been the focus of Uribe’s administration but has created controversy over its true objectives. While Uribe argues the bill is to fight “terrorist groups” such as FARC, human rights groups argue the bill is to increase foreign investment while intimidating and misleading the Colombian people.

The bill has increased confidence in Colombia’s economy and has opened their borders to large transnational corporations. Yet proof has shown that many of the transnational corporations working in Colombia have had direct involvement in paramilitary death squads and have used the help of the Colombian military to secure land. The land used by the transnationals is often the same land that was once inhabited by the peasants who currently make up the displaced population.


Members of the parque tercer milenio community protest in Bogota.*

While most international journalists rely on official government statistics, evidence shows that the Colombian government has changed numbers to help produce foreign confidence and in doing so, increase investment. Furthermore, by offering incentives to investors, the Colombian government claims foreign investment has increased some 400% since 2002.[2]

Proexport and the Colombian government claim the democratic security laws have helped increase these figures. However, since the laws took effect, Uribe and others have accused a number of human rights activists, indigenous leaders and media critical of his government as FARC conspirators. Meanwhile, the government is currently caught in its own terrorist scandal that proves military officers were involved in the systematic killing of innocent civilians.

The false positive scandal, as it is called, is alleged to involve a number of Colombian officers, while some believe thousands have been left dead. Evidence shows bodies were first killed and then later dressed in guerrilla uniforms. The killings are meant to increase the number of combat deaths, which many say is a strategy used by the army to help satisfy Uribe’s demand for successful results to his democratic security policies.

The scandal has put into question Uribe’s campaign to create investment. In a conversation with a community leader in Medellín, he noted, “as a country, we must work towards fixing the root of our problems such as the inequality of wealth and access to resources. Putting more military and police officers on the streets is only a short-term solution and we can see that it is already failing.”

Lainie Cassel is based in Caracas, Venezuela and can be reached at Lainie.Cassel(at)gmail.com.
*Photos by Lainie Cassel


[1] http://www.proexport.com.co/vbecontent/library/documents/DocNewsNo5452DocumentNo5733.PDF

[2] http://www.investincolombia.com.co/