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We don’t have to go too far back to find a time when Colombia was pretty much considered a no-go area.
At the turn of the millennium, only the true adventurous, nay mad in the head, would consider visiting the country as a tourist, let alone actually settle down and invest decent time and money in it.
For the last number of years, as most readers of this blog will know, this negative reputation has been rapidly changing.
The peace agreement signed with the Farc guerrillas in 2016, officially ending over half-a-century of internal conflict between that group and government forces, was a significant moment in this regard.
Yet, as important as that has been at an official level, the truth is this viewing of Colombia in a much more positive light internationally had begun years before. Unpalatable as this may be to many Colombians today, especially younger generations, between 2002 and 2010, under the hawkish presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the general security situation improved considerably.
Whether the ends justified the heavy-handed means — heavier on some violent types more so than others it could be said — is something still being discussed today.
A home from home
Nonetheless, from a tourism perspective, visiting the many natural gems the country has to offer became much less risky, for locals and foreigners alike.
This trend, some hotspots notwithstanding, has been continuing.
Alongside increasing tourist numbers, a not insignificant number of foreigners have made Colombia their home. They’ve voted with their feet in a positive way, demonstrating to those who care to listen that this place is not the violent backwater some in the more ‘developed’ world still think it is.
At times, however, the country gives us all a little reminder that it has a bit to go before we can compare it favourably with other, more established spots when it comes to investing in it. Quite a bit to go.
One of these more sinister sides is extortion, which reared its ugly head for fellow Irishman Patrick Fleming who has called Santa Marta his home since 2001. While we’ve heard stories of police being directly and unashamedly involved in this practice, this particular example is to do with suspected paramilitaries.
In some ways, that Patrick managed to avoid trouble for so long could be seen as good fortune. Paramilitaries did operate in the area in question when he first arrived, but nothing untoward had ever happened.
That aside, when your little piece of paradise on the Caribbean, a magical place visited by this blog last year, gets deliberately burnt to the ground at any stage, it’s difficult to view it in a positive light.
In fact, after years developing his ‘Finca Entre Ríos’ at Paso del Mango on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where he provided employment for a young family, this arson attack now has the generally easygoing Patrick and his Colombian wife contemplating their future in the region.
The reason it happened is quite simple.
Pay or go?
Earlier in the year Paso del Mango’s small community experienced a number of petty robberies. Shortly afterwards a hotel in the area was approached and asked to pay the dreaded ‘vacuna’, the word for protection money in these parts.
The community got together and decided they wouldn’t fork out the cash to the extortionists. Extra police protection was asked for, which duly came. It didn’t last, though.
As a further buffer, the community also managed to get additional army patrols, but again, the frequency of these soon decreased.
Thus, with little sustained help from state authorities, be it by accident or design, the rather secluded community was ripe for the picking. Cue the arson attack.
Now it must be said that one man was arrested and charged in connection with the incident. Authorities seem content, by all accounts, that they’ve done their bit.
Yet, for Patrick and the Paso del Mango community in general it’s a question of ‘What next?’
Mob rule appears to have taken hold, where the only options seem to be ‘pay up’ or ‘leave’. The hope is that this retrograde step is just temporary.
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