Thursday, April 28, 2011

Crime in La Candelaria

A watchful cop along Jimenez Ave.
There's been lots of talk on the 'net and in local media about recent crime in La Candelaria. Scary things have happened here, including invasion robberies of some hostels and hotels, one of which included a sexual assault, as well as street muggings.

A bicycle tourist with friendly La Candelaria locals.
Of course, the great majority of tourists (and students and residents) of La Candelaria enjoy their time in Bogotá's historical and cultural center. And, crime can happen anywhere (one person told me he'd had no troubles in South America, but had his camera stolen back home in Germany), particularly in a developing nation where close to half of the people live in poverty. But it's a fact of life that La Candelaria is particularly troubled because it's bordered on the south and east by poor neighborhoods, whose young toughs know they can find people in La Candelaria carrying cameras and Iphones.

One alternative is to stay in the upscale Zona Rosa and commute thru the traffic jams to La Candelaria. But, up there, near the Hard Rock Cafe and Bogotá Beer Company, you'll not only pay U.S. prices, but also run a different risk - forgetting that you traveled to Latin America at all.

The good news is that, judging from recent meetings, the neighborhood's hoteliers, police and other officials are confronting the problem and taking concrete steps to resolve it. After all, La Candelaria is unique and irreplaceable: it houses Colombia's capital, most of Bogotá's historical sites and many of its cultural attractions.

The mayor makes her case.
At a meeting today in La Candelaria's neighborhood City Hall, police officials promised to put more officers on the street and to install cameras and add mobile mini police stations called CAIs. The mayor said she is working on improving street lighting - altho altering infrastructure here is complicated by historical preservation laws - and will check on the hotels and hostels to see which ones have good security. Many hostels and hotels have recently added security measures, such as closed circuit video cameras and security gates, albeit sometimes tardily.

Hostel owners: we've got a problem.
The mayor and police officials said that numbers for the most serious crimes, such as homicide, have declined in recent years - and that those generally occur between gang members in areas outside of La CandelariaRobberies have increased in recent years - but then so have the number of tourists here. A police official said the cops recently arrested nine members of a criminal band which had operated in the area.

"That's got to make a difference in the crime numbers," he said.

Police pat down in La Plaza del Chorro: Security or harrasment?
If you visit or stay in La Candelaria, you're unlikely to have any problem with crime - especially if you take some sensible safety measures. Be aware of who's around you. Don't wear conspicuous jewelry or other valuables. Keep your camera in your pocket or under your coat when you're not using it,and keep the strap around your wrist or neck while taking pictures. Do go out at night, but it's better to be in a group.
A mobile police station
on Plaza del Periodista
When choosing a hostel or hotel ask them about their security measures: do they have a guard? A security gate? Cameras on the street to see who's there?

At the meeting, the mayor also read complaints from La Candelaria residents about some hostels, including loud partying at night, drunken backpackers yelling in the street, foreigners smoking pot in their doorways and other antics. La Candelaria has a growing number of upscale hotels, but most of the lodgings here cater to backpackers. That's great, but visitors (and hostel owners) should be sensitive to the fact that La Candelaria is also a neighborhood - one of the things which gives it its charm. La Candelaria has many universities - and thousands of students, who presumably need to study at night. The neighborhood also has thousands of residents, many of them older, who've lived here for decades and who find this new phenomenon of tourism invading their neighborhood strange and even scary.

"The backpackers come for partying, sex and drugs," a group of neighbors wrote in a letter.

Sadly, they're right about many tourists - which has never made sense to me. Colombia is a wonderful country, with its share of problems, but also an interesting history, tremendous culture, spectacular natural areas, wonderful people, a language to be learned, and on and on. Spending your time here drunk or drugged means doing an injustice both to Colombia - the cocaine industry funds violent groups which have done untold harm to this nation - and to yourself. If you're into hedonism, why not just stay home, where it's surely available, and you save yourself the airfare and visa hassles?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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