Reconciling the Sweetness of the Colombian People with Their Violent History

by | Oct 26, 2010 | Travel | 5 comments

As I traveled through Colombia over the last three months, I remained ignorant of Colombian history. Specifically, the history of violence. Of course I knew there were guerrillas here, and they lurked somewhere in the corners of the country. But the publicity campaign to reassure the rest of the world that it is now safe to travel in Colombia worked for me. A Brazilian friend from Rio convinced me Colombia was the place to visit now. And once I arrived, it was all to too easy to appreciate the beautiful blue-green scenery of the Colombian coffee zone mountains, the stunning hot springs framed by waterfalls in Santa Rosa, the fresh juice stands in the streets and the new fruits I found here like lulo, and the intoxicating worlds of salsa and tango in Cali.

I noticed a lot of military in the streets, but I never felt fear of violence. Colombia felt a lot safer than Brazil. Colombians whom I would meet on buses and would help me through my various travails (like being sick on a bus, or without a place to stay for the night) would tell me there are buenos and malos (good people and bad people) in their country, but there are far more buenos than malos. I hadn’t met any malos so I didn’t really know what they were talking about. In fact, for me, the country seemed overwhelmingly full of buenos, people who are sweet and eager to help.

The distinguishing characteristic of Colombians, for me, have been super amable (nice) people. When they say goodbye, they say, “Que le vaya bien” (“that you go well”) and “cuidate” (take care of yourself). Colombians always say hello and how are you. It is common to be affectionate with strangers, and call them “mi amor” (my love) or “mami” (honey). People are exceedingly generous. (Though they can be savage in line at the corner store, not waiting their turn! There is a disorder in Colombian culture that can be infuriating. The concept of a line sometimes does not seem to exist.)

In some ways, Colombians felt too nice to me. I aspired to be Brazilian because I appreciated Brazilian wildness of spirit and charisma and their strong national identity, the music, dance, appreciation of the moment. Although Colombia also offers many of those qualities, I didn’t feel the same attraction to be “Colombian.” Colombians seem insecure. They always want to know how their country appears to you. “Como te aparece Colombia?” After decades of violence, and the resulting stigmatization of the country, it is understandable that Colombians are curious about what foreigners think. Generally I don’t ask people what they think of San Francisco when they visit. I assume they will be impressed.

Colombians are nicer to foreigners than they are to each other. They want to be friends with the rest of the world after being cut off for so long.

What I find the strangest of all is how such a nice people could also have been capable of so much violence. The violence in Colombia has diminished considerably over the last ten years as the former president Uribe cracked down on the two remaining guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups. It really is much safer now. Until recently Colombians did not travel on buses, and they left their homes in fear of being kidnapped. I met a couple in Barichara who left their home for that reason.

I had the perception that the drugs and narco-trafficking and guerrilla groups came first and then came the violence. But the violence in Colombia precedes narco-trafficking and guerrillas. The history of Colombia, while democratic, has been characterized by widespread violence. For example, when the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gait‚àö¬∞n was assisinated in 1948, violence erupted in Bogota and throughout the country. Liberals and Conservatives fought in the streets, and more than 300,000 people died in the late 40s and 50s.

Once the drug economy and narco-trafficking grew, the endemic violence in Colombia grew as well. According to this Latin American Review published by Harvard´s Center For Latin American Studies, ´´more than 50,000 died in the Drug Wars of the 1980s and in the escalating guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.´´ The author continues, ´´it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Colombias history is one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with organized killing existing at chronically high levels, punctuated with episodes of high intensity murderousness, for nearly two centuries.´´ Only the Sudan had more displaced families, people who had left their homes for fear of being kidnapped.

At a certain time, the military gave rewards to soldiers for killing guerrillas. So the military kidnapped men from the countryside and dressed them up as guerrillas and killed them. These were called the falso positivos. It is this kind of cold bloodedness which is hard to square with the incredibly sweet Colombians who I met along my travels. The person I know best in Colombia, William, told me he could never understand the capacity for violence in Colombia.

We went to see the Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso one evening. A telenovela and book that has now been turned into a movie (and is a telenovela in many Spanish-speaking countries), this slick movie tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who prostitutes herself to drug dealers in order to get the money for breast implants–and the easy life she things large breasts will provide. The movies is splattered with violence: botched breast implant surgery, random killings, and overall loss of respect for human life. I sat in the cinema at the end of the movie feeling shell-shocked. William wasn’t fazed. For him, the movie was an accurate depiction of life as it is.

So how can such sweet people also be so violent in their history? Are the buenos just really bueno, and the malos really malo? Is this a country of passionate extremes and I am lucky to have come at a time when the malos are on the run? I am still perplexed by the combination in the Colombian character. If anyone has any clues, do tell.


  1. Manuel

    I believe the main reason for such widespread violence in our country’s history has been it’s legitimization by the ruling class, for example, the political violence in the 40’s was supported by the political and religious establishment, there were tens of thousands of assasinations done in the name of either party (liberal or conservative).

    Then came the 70’s and the drug cartels, when the mafias started pouring cash in the economy the establishment was very happy and complacent, they even allowed Pablo Escobar to join one of the main political parties and other drug lords established bussiness with the main corporations, until the tipping point of the late 80’s where the country almost fell apart (like Mexico right now) and even the USA had to intervene and help Colombia’s goverment (like Mexico right now).

    When the guerrillas got big because of the drug trade the paramilitaries were created by the political and economical establishment, when Uribe started his first term 1/3 of the congress were controlled by the right wing paramilitaries, and big corporations such as Chiquita Banana poured thousands of dollars into the paramilitaries pockets. Still in this year’s election they managed to get 1/10 of the congress under their control, because the paramilitaries still exist (no matter what the catchy tourism ads say)

    In Colombia the people in general are not violent, as you have confirmed it is safer here than in Brasil, I went there in january and even in expensive tourist places I fell much less safe than here in downtown Medellín.

    But if the establishment supports and encourages violence for their own interests instead of promoting dialog and tolerance, when the establishment encourages our poor soldiers to kill for a comission, when the military gives our poor people guns and cash to do their dirty work as paramilitaries the only possible outcome is our bizarre security situation.

  2. Sasha Cagen

    Hi Manuel, Thanks for your excellent reply. The whole Colombian political situation and the history of violence is taking me a while to fully understand. Perhaps a lifetime? A question: Can you help me to understand the difference structurally between the right-wing paramilitaries and the government military, since both, as you say above, receive government support? Are the paramilitaries like contractors, or mercenaries, that also support political candidates and are represented by those candidates in the legislature and receive corporate support? Just trying to understand really what that means, what they do, where they are based, etc. Thank you!

  3. Manuel

    Sasha, I’m glad that I can help to enlight our complex history to you, in my life I’ve lived in different places of Colombia with all kinds of people, so I’ve managed to experience and analyze much of our history since the 80’s, so let me explain with more detail the paramilitary phenomena.

    During the late 80’s the country was almost collapsing, during the war against the Medellín cartel Luis Carlos Galán was killed, he was the presidential candidate with the biggest popular support and a fierce enemy of the drug cartels.

    In the following months other two important presidential candidates were killed, one was the leader of a guerrilla group called M-19 (Carlos Pizarro), the group had surrendered guns 4 years ago and eventually led the constitutional assembly that created our current constitution, the other presidential candidate that was killed was Bernando Jaramillo, he led a leftist political party called Union Patriótica (UP) that was considered the political arm of the FARC, the left wing guerrilla that turned itself into a drug cartel later.

    During that chaotic period the FARC grew very strong and started to take control of several parts of the country, at that time the landlords created a self defense movement AUC that later turned itself into the paramilitary movement when the military started to support them under the table, there are several cases of massacres that have been prosecuted where coronels and leutenats of the army have been sentenced to prison.

    The paramilitaries never where bothered by the army, in 1998 I was once in a town where they just droves their SUV with their AK-47s at daytime, they even stopped for dinner and chatted with the people. In 2004 I overheard a radio conversation of an army soldier that was nerby our car, they were talking about operatives being currently done by the paramilitaries, the soldier acted as if they were their own operation, and just 3 years ago some friends were harrased at gunpoint by a group of paramilitaries 10 minutes away from an army checkpoint.

    If you ask someone in Antioqua or in other regions what do they think about the paramilitaries they would quietly agree with them and justify their existance, because the richest and powerful people in most territories gave them money and power, there’s a region called Cesar where the most powerful families were involved with them, they even kidnapped political foes of the powerful families and are currently indicted for those crimes.

    Salvatore Mancuso (one of the paramilitaries most powerful commander) hanged in his SUV on El Tesoro mall in Medellín, and there’s and ongoing investigation about Uribe’s brother (Santiago Uribe), there are indications that he led a paramilitary group called “Los doce apóstoles” (the twelve disciples), it appears several massacres were commited on one of his ranches, the group was called like that because one of them was the priest of the region, it seems the police commander was another of them.

    People in general has been benevolent with the paramilitaries because they believe they are part of the solution to the violence problem, there are other persons like myself that believe that when such movements are legitimized the problem embeds itself in society for decades to come, as it has been for all these years.

  4. Ryan

    Wow, this is very interesting, Sasha – “In some ways, Colombians felt too nice to me. I aspired to be Brazilian because I appreciated Brazilian wildness of spirit and charisma and their strong national identity, the music, dance, appreciation of the moment. Although Colombia also offers many of those qualities, I didn’t feel the same attraction to be “Colombian.” ”
    I have also been curious about Brazil, and want to travel there at some point. I have heard they are as you say– in the moment, passionate, wild… When did you realize you “aspired to be Brazilian” ? Also, did you learn Portuguese?

    • Sasha Cagen

      Hi Ryan, Yes, Brazil is fascinating and that was the country where I originally traveled for six months in 2010. I discovered Colombia later when I wanted to continue traveling westward. I first visited Brazil in 2008 and fell in love with the country on a three-week trip and knew that I wanted to come back to spend more time. I learned Portuguese, transitioning my Spanish to Portuguese, later excavating my Spanish when I got to Colombia. I LOVE Brazilian Portuguese, it is a fantastically interesting language and beautiful too, and knowing it makes listening to Bossanova and Samba and other Brazilian music more fun.


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Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

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