I’ve been in Colombia about two months now and I’ve felt pretty comfortable as far as personal safety. I definitely was a bit skittish when I first arrived, given Colombia’s reputation for violence, but after a couple weeks, everything seemed fairly safe and I relaxed a bit. Then I had a class with my Spanish tutor that scared the crap out of me.
I mentioned that sometimes in bars, I’ll make jokes to the people I’m with that we should start a rumble á la West Side Story. People in America generally don’t think it’s that funny, but I continue to do it, mainly because I think it’s funny and I’m basically my own target audience. When I make jokes about starting fights in Colombia, people get really alarmed and generally don’t recognize that I’m joking.
My tutor told me that Colombians don’t have a lot of bar fights because there’s too high a risk that the other person has a gun and will just shoot you. The upside is that people are generally scared into good behavior. You find fewer people being overly aggressive at bars or clubs. The downside is that the fear also extends to reporting crimes when they happen.
She told me a story about how a few years ago, she heard gunshots on the street (the same street where we were having this conversation). She went outside to see what was going on, as did all of her neighbors, and they saw two men jump out of a car with tinted windows and run into a house a few doors down. “Everyone saw, but nobody called the police,” she said. Apparently everyone is too distrustful of police and too afraid of reprisal from the criminals to report crimes.
She also said she finds it strange when she hears news reports from America about bystanders intervening to rescue the victim of a crime. “If I saw a person being robbed on the street, I’d… cross to the other side of the street,” she said. Then, to drive the point home, she added, “If men with guns came in here now and said, ‘Leave so we can shoot Michael,’ I’d say ‘Okay,’ and leave.”
Admittedly, this isn’t super different from America. If I was getting robbed at gunpoint in the US, I wouldn’t count on a stranger walking by to intervene, since it’s more the exception than the rule. I also wouldn’t expect an American tutor to try and fend off a gang of gunmen on my behalf. But I feel like the explanation wouldn’t be, “Yeah, I’d just leave,” it’d be like, “I’d go call the cops.”
I was also freaked out by how quickly she came up with these scenarios. And then even more freaked out when she explained they were based on situations she’d heard about firsthand that she was happy to give examples of. Too many examples. Especially when it came to examples of people being murdered for some minor mistake, like dancing with a girl at a party and not realizing she had a boyfriend. Or of people being shot in broad daylight with witnesses around because robbers / murderers don’t worry about people talking to police.
After class, I have a half-mile walk back to my apartment. I’ve never really thought twice about it because it’s during the day on a fairly well-trafficked road, but after this class I was completely on edge. I saw a lone guy approaching me on the sidewalk and my first thought was, “Oh, no! He’s going to shoot me for no reason because he can!” As he got closer, I realized it was a 14 year old boy, but I still wasn’t that relieved because of my tutor’s story about her cousin getting stabbed in the chest by an 11 year old boy. This 14 year old boy ended up not murdering me.
Luckily, other Colombians I’ve talked to have assuaged my fears slightly. I asked some other people and they said they definitely would report a robbery or shooting if they saw one. They admitted that a lot of Colombians won’t, but they attributed this more to indifference than to fear, which I find comforting for some reason. Indifference to crimes is something I at least understand. We have plenty of that in America, so it makes me feel slightly at home. I’ve relaxed since my class, but I’m not as calm as I was last week. I’m probably hovering somewhere in the range of threat level: yellow.