South America Travelling

Criminal Gangs in Colombia and the Implications for Travellers

Walking down the streets of Santa Marta one thing became eerily apparent: the streets were deserted. Secure metal barriers barred access to the seafront shops, supermarkets, liquor stores and restaurants. Door after door displayed an unfriendly ‘Closed’ sign. What was more strange is that we had arrived in early January; prime holiday season in Colombia. Hotels were full and we had struggled to find a room.

The hotels and rooms were full so where were all these people?

Where was everybody?

At first we thought it could be a National Holiday. We had encountered National Holiday closures in Argentina and Chile, but an internet search revealed that there was no Colombian National holiday on January 5th.

We asked the receptionist at the hotel if she knew what was going on. Even with a language barrier it was clear that she was reluctant to answer the question. Shrugging it off as another lost-in-translation moment we headed off in search of food.

An hour later—and desperately hungry after a long and eventful bus ride from Medellin—we were beginning to lose hope. Finally, an open Chinese restaurant appeared in view: a beacon of hope offering a solution to our rumbling stomachs.

The restaurant was packed. Hardly a surprise given that food was impossible to find anywhere else.

If we had known at that moment that the Urabeños, one of Colombia’s deadliest criminal gangs, undoubtedly had their eyes on that restaurant; or that an unseen police presence was guarding the restaurant; I dare say we wouldn’t have tucked into our meal as happily as we did.

A few days earlier, on New Year’s Day, leader Juan de Dios Usuga was gunned down by police in the north of Colombia. In retaliation the criminal gang launched an armed strike that took place on the 5th and 6th of January: shop owners, businesses, even Government officials were told to stay at home or face the consequences. (source: The Economist) Despite promises of Police protection for businesses that opened, most were not willing to take the risk. For reasons only known to them, the Chinese restaurant was the only one to open its doors.

Thankfully for our empty stomachs, we did not know this at the time.

The streets of Santa Marta are usually full of people in holiday season

The evening continued in this unsettling manner. We went to a busy backpacker hostel that had a good bar and sat on a balcony overlooking a small square. Despite the hostel being busy, nobody was coming in or out. There were hushed whispers of a murder, but details were vague. As we sat in the balcony we watched 5 lone men walk from a dark alleyway out across the square all 10 or 15 minutes apart from each other. They each walked in the same direction, striding along at pace. Each man wore a hooded jacket, and each one carried a thick, metal bar. I suggested that we leave the bar immediately as it was still early and I didn’t like the thought of walking late at night in this place.

Our hotel was only 3 blocks away – a mere 5 minute walk, but my heart was beating loudly and I clutched my boyfriend’s hand tightly the whole way back.

The heavy police presence so familiar in Colombia was noticeably absent in Santa Marta for two days in January

Hindsight is a great thing. In hindsight I can see the warning signs that something was amiss: there had been a large police presence on the way to Santa Marta, the deserted streets, the locked doors, the locals’ reluctance to explain what was wrong, the men with the metal bars.

I’ll never know if we had actually been in real danger that night, but I can see how easily we could have been. Don’t let fear put you off visiting, but as travellers in a country such as Colombia it is wise to be up-to-date about any political movements, no matter how far away from them in the country you are. And if you sense that something is amiss it could well be, so trust your instincts.

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of political uprising while you have been travelling? Where was it and how did it affect you? I’d love to hear your stories. Do you have any tips on how to keep safe in troubled areas? Leave a comment below. You’d also make my day if you could share 🙂

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  1. Interesting – I feel like I sometimes have to defend my decision to come and work in Colombia in the face of it’s reputation, it can be very difficult.

    I know the Colombian saying, “don’t give papaya” is sage advice. If you’re not being careful, and you don’t pay attention to your environment then you are asking for trouble.

    My housemate says “It’s not called giving papaya…in any other country in the world it would be called stealing…”

    Either way you look at it – Colombia is a place well worth visiting and an exciting place to be as it lurches out of the shadows of a very dark past – but it is not for everyone…for the time being anyway.
    The Hairy Chef recently posted..The Anatomy of a 60-second Free FallMy Profile

    1. I loved Colombia and it is high on my list of countries to visit again, and to live in one day. But I am always apprehensive about answering the ‘Is it safe?’ question because I know many first-hand stories of robberies (mainly armed) that happened there. I like the saying ‘Don’t give papaya’, it really is common sense. We tried to blend in as much as possible,we took notice of what the locals wear for example. Local guys don’t wear board shorts and flip-flops. We saw a group of 4 guys heading out for the day in Medellin. They all wore a brand of Asian beer logos on their vests and baggy board shorts. I am willing to bet that at least one of them got robbed in Colombia because they so obviously stood out as tourists!

  2. says:

    Have spent many months among tribal communities in this country. No problem with them ! As to the other colombians, most of them are upset by this situation.

    1. The situation is certainly massively improved and I personally don’t think that Colombia is an unsafe country to travel to. Whenever you travel, it is wise you be aware of what’s going on nearby.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  3. says:

    That’s pretty interesting! Glad I stopped by your blog.

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