Security and Militarization in Colombia

Public security and militarization are something to get used to in Colombia. I haven’t seen anything like it, but I’ve heard Mexico’s similar. You become accustomed to seeing guns everywhere you go. All kinds of guns: revolvers, shotguns, assault rifles.


To enter corporate office buildings, you have to leave your ID at the front desk. Or they record your ID while taking your picture and sometimes even your fingerprint. They have X-rays for your bags – this is just as much to prevent laptop theft as sneaking bombs in. They’ll record the serial number of your laptop on your way in, which must match up to take it out.

There’s no “illegal search and seizure” in Colombia. Street police demand your identification for no reason. I’ve never had mine with me when they’ve asked, but they always let me go.

This may seem insignificant to a Colombian, but first-world citizens would think it’s intrusive or fascist to require leaving your ID just to enter an office building, or to surrender your documents to authorities with no probable cause.

Of all the world airports I’ve been to, El Dorado in Bogota is the only one that subjects everybody to a manual search of their carry-on.

Once in a while, street police carry out sweeps. There are many cops and military around normally, but the number spikes for sweeps of undesirables. During these times, you see teams of them on every block in Chapinero.

Another common scene in the city is when somebody important is being ushered out of a neighborhood. All of a sudden a motorcycled cop, siren flashing, will whiz by escorting a group of SUVs with all tinted windows. The trucks haul ass.


Walking through a crowded family park I saw the Brinks guys dropping off at an ATM. It’s a standard scene: one guy with the 12-guage pistol-grip shotgun (finger on the trigger) covers the other guy with the money bag, who holds his revolver up in the air at eye level (finger also on the trigger). Fingers always on the trigger.

Infantry servicemen walk around with standard machine guns. In Chico – between Calles 72 and 100, Carreras 7 and 11 – live many of the country’s politicians and high-ranking generals. In those neighborhoods you see assault rifles on almost every block.

One day while walking past the Chamber of Commerce office in Chapinero, I saw Colombian special forces positioned on each corner of each block facing the building. This team had bad-ass machine guns ready for serious urban warfare. They wore berets and different uniforms than the personnel you see every day. I found the guns I saw on Google: Israeli IMI Tavor TAR-21.

bad ass weaponry

That force is an urban counter-terrorism unit. From the Wikipedia article on the Colombian Agrupación de Fuerzas Especiales Antiterroristas Urbanas:

Due to terrorist acts conducted in cities by guerrilla groups, the Colombian Army needed a specially trained unit to deal with this threat. This unit was required to be able to both operate and co-ordinate operations with other units of the army, or from other military branches.

Then there are the super decked-out guys you see around Plaza Bolivar and sometimes on Calle 72, the financial district. They carry regular machine guns, but are different for their armor. These guys’ outfits go beyond riot gear. I assume those plates are supposed to resist bullets, shrapnel, rocks, fire, and more.

Colombia has mandatory military service for all males. You can get out of it if you pay an amount based on your family income.

You get used to all this. Colombia’s recent history certainly warrants such measures. In fact, this stuff fuels my optimism in Colombia’s increased security, which I discussed in my recent post: Why I’m Bullish on Colombia. And here’s a pretty pic of Colombian military in their nice dress uniforms:


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  1. Uribe has done one hell of job. He knows there is but one way to deal with a group whose core goal is the death of your country. Kill them, or put them in prison. And contrary to first world fluffy bunnies, violence does work. For comments as to why, consult the Carhagenian Embassy.


  2. I’d have to agree with Mike that sometimes violence does work.

    There’s a really good TV special on History Channel called “Killing Pablo,” which is based on the book of the same name. It’s the story of how Pablo Escobar was pursued by the U.S. and Colombian government/military. The takeaway for me was that they didn’t start to make real progress until they decided to beat Escobar at his own game.

    They started hunting down and basically exterminating anyone associated with Escobar, even holding his family hostage. This “no holds barred” tactic weakened his support structure considerably and led to his eventual demise.

    It’s really difficult to defeat someone that doesn’t play by other people’s rules. Look at Kaiser Soze in “The Usual Suspects.” He was such a badass; he killed his own family so no one would be able to hold them as leverage over him.

    Same thing with Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Bruce Wayne tried to find out what the Joker’s motivation was (money, power, etc.), but Alfred pointed out that the Joker’s M.O. was “to see the world burn,” — period.

    I’m not saying that violence is always the answer (ex: Gandhi, MLK), but sometimes you need to use force. Even when I started studying martial arts years ago one of the first things we learned was to use our brains first. Fighting was always seen as something you do when you’ve exhausted all your options.

    I guess that’s what’s happened in Colombia.



  3. Dennis,

    If you have never read the history of the Geneva Accords and the whys and wherefores of what we now refer to as the laws of war it is an illuminating investment of time. Possession of the framework of how we got here from there will not win you many brownie points with a lot of different groups of people. Interesting regardless. Puts some context around what you read about Escobar.



  4. you’re right–this first-worlder does find the picture you’ve painted pretty chilling, all the more so because it’s probably pretty close to where my country will be in five years.


  5. Colin,

    I’ve seen some pretty hair-raising things in Israel. I used to work for an Israeli company and was lucky to get to spend some time there.

    I’ll be in Bogota March 14-23, I’ll shoot you a line with more details.


    Tony Z.


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