Crime and the Bogota Mentality

UPDATE, JULY 2010: Read Life is But a Dream in La Candelaria before concluding anything negative.

The Suit in La Candelaria

One night in La Candelaria I was watching the corner from my 3rd floor hotel room around 8:30 pm. At this corner there’s always a vagrant or two going through trash bags, asking passersby for money, etc.

Down the hill a young Colombian in a suit carrying a briefcase walked toward this corner. Heading down the same hill away from the corner was a dirtball. Dirtball may not have been a panhandler or thief, but he obviously didn’t work for a living. Dirtball didn’t ask The Suit for change. As soon as they passed each other, The Suit jerked his head around to keep an eye on Dirtball.

After he dismissed any potential risk, The Suit had almost approached the corner. At this pace, The Suit would expose himself to any other dirtballs lurking up or down the cross-street. Further up the hill a group of gringos were walking. Instead of continuing at a walking pace, The Suit picked up his briefcase with two hands and took off. Running like a punter with the ball, The Suit caught up with the gringos and slowed down a few yards behind so he’d look like he were in their group.

The Atmosphere

Bogota’s high crime reputation isn’t undeserved. As much as  Bogota and Colombia have improved, it’s still bad. Coming from one of America’s statistically higher crime cities, I didn’t think Bogota would be a problem. But it’s a whole different ball game. In American high crime cities, there are terribly dangerous parts which are relatively segregated. There is less spillover than Bogota.

The Suit running with his briefcase wasn’t some scared tourist. He knows it’s not safe to walk around along with a suit briefcase after dark in La Candelaria. I told some Colombians how I got mugged. They were surprised I was out that late, a gringo in a leather jacket. They said, No puedes dar papaya (You can’t give papaya). Don’t make it so easy.

Most people aren’t out late at night. I’ve moved to Chapinero and even here the streets empty around 8 pm. It’s the strangest thing to see – a city of 8 million turns into a ghost town after dark. Imagine a city the size of Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington DC seemingly asleep at 9 pm every night, aside from the bar districts.

Before moving here I discovered Christopher K’s Bogota blog. It gives the sense that living in Bogota is like prison. He emailed me saying he “walks around in a hyper-vigilant state” and has trouble “relaxing when he goes back to the States.” I thought he was exaggerating, but now I can see how Bogota could cause that. Looking over my shoulder is habit now.

The Mentality

The mentality in Colombia is noticeably different than Peru. There are more panhandlers and they’re more aggressive. Poverty’s not to blame since Peru is poorer. The panhandlers in Peru put their hand out but don’t bother or follow you like in Bogota.

One day I was working on my laptop on a coffee shop patio in Chapinero. A ghetto bastard was insulting everybody on the crowded patio. I had my headphones on so I only noticed because he was doing it in such an animated way, waving his arms. The middle class Colombians wore annoyed expressions, politely waiting for the guy to go away.

Bogotá panhandlers will insult you if you don’t give. The Brick Incident aside, other bums have said something smart or insulting. To me it’s often in English: “Fuck you, asshole” or “Thanks brother for your help.”

Once I was walking with Damien (who is black) on the west side of Avenida Caracas. A somewhat clean beggar saw me and his eyes lit up. “¡Gringo!” he exclaimed. I’m hungry, can I have some money? He didn’t even look at Damien, racist bastard! In Peru people warm up to gringos in the street, even in Lima. In Bogota it’s ‘Gringo, give me money’!

UPDATE, August 2009 – It’s drugs. Drugs make the difference.

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  1. Thanks for confirming my fears about Bogota. My wife and I were planning a visit. She’s a Spanish language and lit prof (fluent w/no accent), and we’ve enjoyed Spain, Argentina and Chile with no problem (make that one problem in Buenos Aires with the pigeon poop scam — if you don’t know it, reply and I’ll explain; it was a nuisance but not dangerous).

    After reading your blog, no way I’m going to Bogota. I appreciate it, but hope you find a good job and find a life there.

    BTW, our adopted daughter is from Arequipa. Spent a few days there in the 80s and was warned about pickpockets. Otherwise, it was okay. Would rather be in the nice sections of Lima (near the Pacific).

    Have you been to Santiago, Chile? I liked it better than B.A. And even though we were warned about pickpockets, never felt in danger. A lot like living in S. Cal without the smog and freeways.

    FYI: Best, safest experience in a Spanish speaking city was Madrid. Many trips, no problems.

    Buenas Suerte,


  2. You should really plan a trip out there. The city *can* be dangerous, but chances that something will happen to you are slim to none.


  3. In the US, bum agression comes down to race. Black guys on the street are more agressive, especially when they see a middle class person of any race. One time 2 black guy tried to rip a frozen turkey out of my arms as I was walking into the rescue mission to give a donation. Another time I took a shortcut thru the scuzziest downtown L.A. alley. The alley was filled with homeless lunatic crustoids, all of whom were black. I am sorry, but no person of another race could survive those conditions we are not tough enough. There is a reason the Spanish brough over black slaves to work the plantations. Physically they could survive, the native locals could not. By contrast in Canada all the bums are Canadian Indians. They are a passive defeated people. Stoic about their plight. The black winos of my the US are full of fight and piss and vinegar. I’ve seen lunatics living under Hwy 60 in East L.A. who beg for money, lift weights, and drink. They look great physically. They are nevertheless totured souls. It is a tough issue, but that is how I see it.


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