Colombian Conflict and Lessons the US can Learn

(Note: due to my phone being stolen, I don’t have some of my pictures from some memorials and exhibits from the National Museum.  So I am just copying pictures from the Internet).

Given that my Spanish level was at an extremely basic level when I arrived in Colombia, I decided to take lessons from a tutor.  It definitely helped, although I did not put in as much practice in my free time as I should have.  Aside from the Spanish practice, as part of my lessons, my tutor went over some of the past 70 years of history in Bogotá and Colombia.  We also went to the National Museum in Bogotá for one of my tutoring sessions.  These activities, along with my own reading and what I learned from other museums and tour guides during my travels, helped give so much context into the turmoil of Colombia over more than half a century.

Image from the Bogotazo (from

Here is a very brief (and probably insufficient) summary for those completely unaware and only know that Colombia was involved in a long-running civil war, and that it allowed and was to an extent fueled by the drug trade.  I am including links to the relevant Wikipedia pages for more info.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of the conflict go back decades and the differences were rooted in economic inequality and struggles between peasants and land-owners.  These struggles were then exploited by the liberal and conservative parties for their own political gain (sound familiar?).  This came to a head on April 9, 1948, a date which changed the trajectory of Colombian history.  The liberal candidate for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated.  There are a variety of theories as to the killer’s motivation, ranging from personal issues with Gaitán to involvement by the conservative government.  At the time, the media was sharply divided and supporters of one party or the other generally only listened to their “friendly” news sources (again, sound familiar?).  As news broke of the assassination, the radio station managed by supporters of Gaitán blamed the conservative government for the killing and called upon their listeners to take up arms in the streets.  Thus began what is known as the Bogotazo, a city-wide riot that destroyed much of Bogotá and resulted in thousands of deaths. This helped intensify other conflicts in other regions of Colombia, beginning the 10-year period known as La Violencia.  The La Violencia set the stage for the rise of the various guerilla and paramilitary groups throughout the country.  And as people tried to escape the violence in the cities, they moved to the countryside in hopes of living as peaceful farmers.  This influx of farmers eventually caused a surplus and then crop prices dropped, which allowed for more economic incentives for drug cultivation, which added yet another dimension to the ongoing conflict which still has effects to this day. All because of division and distrust that exploded due to a tragic event almost 70 years ago.

Image from the Bogotazo (from

It has been interesting learning about the turbulent history of Colombia (and other parts of South America), while watching from afar the political upheaval in the United States right now.  Yes, it is very much an apples and oranges comparison, and I do not believe the United States is realistically close to an outbreak of political violence.  But nonetheless, consider this hypothetical situation:

Donald Trump is assassinated by some mentally disturbed person with a loose connection to Black Lives Matter or the Antifa movement.  The FBI urges calm as they investigate, but has no reason to suspect anything more than a lone individual.  However, Alex Jones and similar personalities that are enamored with Donald Trump put forward conspiracy theories that this was actually a coup by the establishment, and urges their well-armed and like-thinking listeners to prepare for the worst.  A few unhinged listeners, maybe ones that belong to citizens’ militias, decide to strike first, and begin violently targeting BLM and Antifa gatherings and possibly even federal agents.  Then, Antifa and maybe the New Black Panthers start to promote their own armed resistance against these militias and right-wing groups, and maybe even local law enforcement that they feel are complicit in the violent actions of the right-wing groups. And soon violent clashes are occurring around the country, each side adamantly convinced that they are fighting against evil forces. How far-fetched does that really sound when laid out in such a manner?

The reason this doesn’t sound all that far-fetched is that we no longer view people with opposing political viewpoints as fellow citizens who happen to have a different opinion, or perhaps who are misguided at worse.  Now we view them as sworn enemies bent on destroying the country.  They are others that should be hated and feared.

Hatred and fear are base emotions.  They fuel our fight-or-flight instinct and are, therefore, extremely powerful.  They were very useful to us when we lived in small hunger-gather tribes.  But they can be counter-productive to advanced civilization, especially in a representative democracy when compromise is necessary in order to get things done.

What is worse is that over the past 25 years or so, we have retreated into echo chambers so that instead of learning new information and perspectives, we simply reinforce what we already believe to be true.  In addition, it also fools us into thinking that our particular way of thinking is more popular than it really is, because everyone we talk to shares our beliefs.  And, there must be something wrong with those who disagree with us.

Here is the reality though, no matter what your political leanings are, most of the country disagrees with you on most issues.  That is simply what happens when you live in a large and diverse country.

If we are to move forward as a country, we must learn to accept those who disagree with us and find common ground and ways to move forward.  And it starts by looking at ourselves and how we perceive those of differing viewpoints.  It is so frustrating and disheartening to see what often gets posted on social media.  I want to point out two “headlines” that I made-up and am paraphrasing from stories I’ve seen shared.  And I want you to REALLY think about why these types of stories get shared:

‘Local Man Outrages Liberal with Patriotic Display”

“Majority of Trump Voters Believe Demonstrably False Information”

Are you sharing the first one because of your love for the country and you are heartened by patriotic displays?  Are you sharing the second one because you are worried about the abundance of in misinformation in our public discourse?  You may tell yourself yes; but, in general, I don’t believe you.

I believe those of you sharing the first stories are doing so because they “outrage liberals” and you enjoy anything that makes them angry.  It isn’t love of country that is motivating you, it is hatred of the other.

If you are sharing the second story, I think it is really because it reinforces your belief that Trump voters are stupid and/or gullible.  This type of story allows you to continue your intellectual superiority and dismiss valid concerns and values of the other.

Obviously, these are over-simplifications, and you very well may have pure and noble intentions, but all I ask is that you truly question and be honest with yourself.  When you listen to or share a story, look in your heart and ask yourself “Why?”  And yes, look in your heart, your gut, your soul, your emotions.  One of the interesting things that I’ve learned during a variety of coursework and trainings on management and leadership is that the vast majority of our decisions are actually made emotionally rather than rationally, as much as we tell ourselves differently.  While we believe we make a decision using our rational minds; in reality, usually, we are only using our rational minds to justify the decision that our emotional hearts have already made.  So look at what is really triggering your emotional reactions when you read and share political information.  The more aware we are of those feelings and how they control us, the better we are at adjusting our behavior.

There are so many that would rather divide us with heated rhetoric.  They do this not for love of country, but because it helps them win votes or gather viewers/listeners/readers.  They claim some other (whoever they may be) are enemies of the USA.  But the people peddling this rhetoric are the ones that are damaging the country.

To be clear, protesting injustice and inequality or standing up for beliefs and rights are not the same as “dividing us”.  Pointing out the problems of institutional racism is not “dividing” the country any more than telling your sibling that they have a drug and alcohol problem is “dividing” your family.  Expressing your beliefs, even if they are unpopular or old-fashioned, should be no more controversial than the clothing you choose to wear, even if they are out of style.

However, you must realize that there are those that disagree with you and as long as you acknowledge and accept that, and try to find common purpose, there is so much we can accomplish.  But if you dismiss others and their beliefs and opinions, you do nothing more than hold us all back.

Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11.  All over social media, I saw the common refrain to “Never Forget.” But I am going to push on that.  What do you mean?  How are you “remembering” that horrible day?  Are you remembering how originally well-meaning beliefs were allowed to be warped and twisted by close-mindedness and hate, which led to such horrible devastation?  Or are you remembering it as a reason to hate and fear an entire group of people that have different religious beliefs than you?  Are you “not forgetting” how Americans came together to mourn and support one another?  Or are you “not forgetting” how offensive it is to you when someone expresses an opinion that you think is insufficiently patriotic or overly nationalistic?  Please think about how best to remember those who lost their lives.  Instead of just red, white, and blue posts, or criticizing American foreign policy, or whatever, wouldn’t it be a better honor to their memory to come together as a country, respect each other as compatriots, and work together to a better future?

Therefore, when you are about to post something on Facebook; or read/watch/share a news story; or express your opinion in some other way; or agree or disagree with an policy, party, or person; please ask yourself:  Are you helping us to come together and improve as a country and as human beings (even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable) or are you only making yourself feel better and superior about your opinion and dividing us even further?


Colombian Travel Part 2: Sex, Drugs, & Tourism

Swimming in Tayrona National Park

For a couple of days after La Guajira, I explored the secluded jungle beaches of Tayrona National Park.  The area is incredibly beautiful (if a little crowded in some areas, especially in Cabo San Juan) and it was a unique experience to wake up around dawn due to the heat, walk through a jungle trail, with birds and insects calling, along with the occasional monkey, and then arrive at a completely empty beach of a secluded cove, and then to take a (not very safe) solitary swim as the day begins.

After Tayrona, I spent one last night back in in Santa Marta (especially looking forward to an air conditioned room).  That evening, I walked around the beachfront looking for dinner, before finally deciding on an assortment of street foods rather than an actual meal; the highlight of which was a maracuyá (passion fruit) ice cream sundae, which was absolutely delicious after the past week of jungle, desert, and jungle again.  My plan had been to go clean up a bit more after eating, and then check out the night life of Santa Marta.  However, while I was eating an empanada and drinking a beer on the beachfront, two girls sat down near me.  After talking to each other for a few minutes, one of them asked me the time, and we soon began making small talk.  It turned out they were from Venezuela, two of the tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Venezuelans trying to find a better life in Colombia.  We talked longer and had a few beers, then walked around the plazas of Santa Marta, enjoying the evening.

Beachfront in Santa Marta

We tried to go into a couple of the clubs, but one of them had forgotten her ID.  So instead, we bought a few more beers from a corner store and sat in the plaza drinking and chatting.  During the course of the conversation, it was interesting to hear from them about arriving in Colombia.  Literally, the day they had arrived in Colombia, someone had approached them about becoming prostitutes.  They then said it was actually a fairly regular occurrence, with someone propositioning them usually once a week or so.  Unfortunately, I was not all that surprised to hear that attractive young women coming from the turmoil of Venezuela would be targeted in such a way.  We exchanged contact info in the hopes that perhaps our paths would cross again someday, and then they called it a night since one of them had to work early the next morning.

The fortress wall of the Cartagena’s old city

That next day, I took a bus to the biggest tourist destination on the coast: Cartagena.  The old colonial city of Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it really is quite incredible and full of history and beautiful architecture.  My first night in Cartagena, I met up with a friend from Spain that I met on the Ciudad Perdida trek and we had dinner and some drinks.  Walking around the old city, I commented to her that the old buildings and small plazas, with the open air cafes, reminded me of the cities in Spain and Italy.

One aspect of the city I noticed that night was all of the women in Plaza de los Coches, one of the main squares in the old city. They were all dressed up for a night out, standing by themselves, or in a group of two or three.  It did not take long for me to realize that most of these women, scores of them, were prostitutes.  It was interesting to see how out in the open it was (prostitution is legal in Colombia) and I said as much to my friend, who laughed and agreed.  We called it an early night, as she had done a tour that day, and I had just arrived by bus, and I made the walk along the beach from the old city back to my hostel, stopping for a brief moment to watch lightning off in the distance as the ocean waves softly came ashore.

Plaza de los Coches early in the evening. Soon it would be filled with prostitutes and johns.

The next day, I participated in a walking tour of the old city, which was a nice way to spend half of a day.  (It also proved how small the travel world can be, as a couple from England on the tour had been one of the two couples staying at the same cabana as me outside of Tayrona National Park a few days earlier.)  After the tour, and eating an excellent ceviche, I escaped the afternoon heat and humidity by going into the maritime museum, which helped me practice my Spanish as there were no English displays, as well as helped me understand more about the history of the city and the country.

(Side note of personal heritage pride: it turns out that there was a large contingent of Irish soldiers that helped fight in Colombian’s war for independence! Erin go bragh!)


Cannons atop the old city walls

The late afternoon, and early evening were spent further exploring the sites of the city: the fortress walls, the colonial streets and houses, some of the green spaces, and the impressive Castillo de San Felipe.

Upon arriving back at my hostel, and cleaning up, I messaged my friend and met her at her hostel with some of her friends she had met on her tour that day.  We spoke for a bit and had a few drinks, and then I decided to go out on my own to explore the nightlife of the city.  They were planning on going to a regular night club, which did not really appeal to me that night.

Revelers in the streets of Cartagena

Walking around the streets of Cartagena at night as a single white man is one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life.  At first, it was similar to the night before with my friend, rather aggressive promoters trying to entice me to their bar or club: Amigo, happy hour, best club, VIP, drink specials…  That seems rather common in most tourist places in my experience, and although slightly annoying, I’ve come to accept it.  However, what soon became different, was the propositions that had not been offered to me the night before because I was walking the streets with a woman.

Hey amigo, I got whatever you need… weed… coke… women.

It seemed every corner I walked past, some different sketchy character would be offering the same vices.  The first time or two, I just shrugged and laughed it off.  However, as it became more and more consistent, I became more and more annoyed.  What I need is to be left alone I wanted to yell each time I was approached, but simply stuck with No gracias.

Salsa Dancers in Donde Fidel

I walked around Plaza de la Coches to check out a couple of the salsa bars in the area that I had read about.   I admired the impressive quick and fluid movements of dancers that had been practicing this art for years, as well as the fumbling attempts of tourists who were trying their best.

As I left the club, and stood drinking a beer in the plaza, it wasn’t long before some of the girls came up and made their offers.  I politely refused, but it would not be long before another came up, made a bit of small talk, and then made her offer.  Again, I was becoming more frustrated (as well as hungry) and went to find a street vendor.  At one point, I got caught in a sudden downpour, and huddled under one of the many colonial balconies waiting for the rain to subside, while I fumed about the sordid affairs of the city.

I was disgusted and angry.  Each guy that offered me drugs and hookers, I wanted to punch.  Usually, I am rather libertarian about many things.  However, knowing what the drug trade has done to Colombia, and how many of the women had been driven to prostitution because of the difficult situations around the country, I had come to hate those who promoted and profited from such an ugly system.

But then realization came over me, and my anger and hatred shifted focus.  Many of these young men were from similar situations as the exploited women, and were simply trying to get by.  They knew there was a market for drugs and prostitution, and the prime market was me:  a single, Caucasian male.

I realized that these are the truly horrible people: the type of people that I may know and deal with in my day to day life back home.  Professional men from the US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, who have a nice amount of disposable income, and are ready to dispose of it on drugs and prostitutes.  Normally, I try not to judge personal lifestyle choices, but make no mistake about it: these sex and drug tourists are taking advantage of a vulnerable population.  Just the same as if it were a passed-out girl at a frat party (which to be honest, some of these guys would probably have no qualms about either).  Colombia is recovering from decades of civil war and drug violence, the effects of which are still ongoing.  Men who come here to partake in the bargain-priced hedonism, in my admittedly sanctimonious opinion, are not much better than rapists.

These men are taking advantage of young women who feel they have no other choices because of the situations at home, and the aftermath of years of war, come to these cities to sell themselves.  And those are the ones who are truly making their own decisions. Then there are the girls and teenagers that are victims of sex trafficking and subject to horrible abuse.

These men are helping to fuel the drug trade that in turn fueled decades of violence, some of which continues today. I mentioned in an earlier post how one of the social programs for children in Pereira had to be cancelled because of cartel violence.  Those cartels aren’t fighting for the ability to sell me ceviche or some middle-aged Canadian woman a handmade mochila.  Is that cheap bump of coke you bought on the corner in Cartagena worth it?  Not sure?  Just a reminder that only about a week after this, I stood watching a casket come out of a funeral home.

Eventually, after a few more frustrating encounters with drug dealers and prostitutes that night, I found a cab and went back to my hostel, in an unfortunately sour mood. Luckily, the next day was the beginning of my travels for the YMCA, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was able to see some of the incredible ways that people are working to heal their communities and their country and give it a bright future.

More info and how you can help:

I know there is legitimate debate about the effectiveness of the war on drugs and whether prostitution should be legal or not, and I have no intention of debating that here.  But how things possibly should operate and the reality of the situation are worlds apart.  All I am trying to do here is point out how the vulnerable are exploited and suffer under the current situation and how prevalent it is in Colombia (as well as other parts of South America).

First and foremost, if you are considering coming to South America for drugs and prostitutes: DON’T!!!! Please don’t partake in this exploitation.  And if you know people that are considering it, try to talk them out of it.  Tell them of the damage it does. Tell them they would lose your respect.  Appeal to their better angels, and if that doesn’t work, threaten their worse angels someway.  Please help curtail the demand for the sex/drug trade, not only in South America, but other developing countries as well.

Beyond that, here are some links to organizations that are working to help the aftermath of the civil and drug wars and organizations helping to fight sex/human trafficking and exploitation:

Guide to conflict and peace-building in Colombia: Has links to many local, national, and international organizations operating in different areas and different ways to support the victims of Colombia’s long-running violence.

Espacios de Mujer: A local Colombian organization trying to help women in the sex trade

Fundación Esperanza: An organization based in Colombia and Ecuador focused on human trafficking and exploitation (In Spanish)