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.
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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