Complicated Crime and Punishment in Colombia — Page 2
Story by Tom Coote

Colombia graffiti in Bogota

When I mentioned to Andy VC, the photographer and manager of Fernweh Photography Hostel, that the police who had dropped me off, knew who he was, he seemed more than a little unnerved. Heavily armed police, often holding back intimidatingly muzzled dogs, maintained a high level of visibility by loitering on almost every street corner during the day. But the public just carried on as if they weren't there and come nightfall, they weren't. With the exception of a few busy streets, frequented by students from the nearby Bogota University campus, as darkness fell the streets were largely deserted. In these back streets of Bogota, it was only outlaws and foolish tourists who chose to come out at night.

A Decriminalized Art Zone

Of Colombia's many outlaws, perhaps the most respected are its internationally renowned graffiti artists. Until fairly recently they had no choice but to work under cover of darkness if they were to avoid being arrested or harassed by the police. This all changed in 2011 when the police sacrificed the life of a young graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra by shooting him dead in the street. The police's claim that he was a suspected armed robber inspired little faith. It was only following a public outcry, and a series of protests against the police in the city, that the mayor issued a decree to decriminalize graffiti within defined areas, arguably resulting in a creative explosion of street art.

Street art in Colombia

It is estimated that around 5000 graffiti murals, many explicitly dealing with such themes as politics, religion and identity now adorn the once neglected walls of Bogota. But perhaps inevitably, denied their outlaw status, many of the more rebellious young artists have now moved on to express their individuality upon still forbidden territories.

Colombian Salt Cathedral

As increasing numbers of visitors are drawn to both the bright lights and the dark edges of Colombia, the powers that be are keen to secure their investments in the big business of tourism. The omnipresent armed police aren't just there to safeguard the city but also to protect the tourists and associated business interests. While the locals remain ambivalent, at best, to the police force, they also require their protection: the murder rate has dropped dramatically, and kidnappings are now rare, but violent muggings are still on the rise. Even the outlaw artists are vulnerable to the breakdown in law and order: last year the renowned graffiti artist Crisp received stigmata-like knife wounds to his right hand, when robbers attacked him while he perfected his art.

It wasn't until leaving Bogota, in the still dark hours of the early morning, that it had dawned on me why there was a heavy pole hung up on the back of the hostel door. No sooner had Andy VC unbolted the heavy metal locks and peered out into the shadows of the street than he had slammed it back shut. When he opened it up again, a few minutes later, to see if my taxi had arrived, he was holding the makeshift baseball bat up behind his back; a lone figure, wearing only a t-shirt in the early morning cold, had been calling out to him.

After loading my bag into the back of the taxi, in my very English way, I went to shake his hand. This simply wasn't good enough for Colombia. He let go of his cudgel and wrapped both his arms around me.

Tom Coote's first book Tearing up the Silk Road was published by Garnet Publishing in 2012. He has traveled independently in more than 120 countries, is a founder of Wicked World Magazine and regularly updates his own site at He is currently researching a follow up to his second full- length travel book Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves: West Africa and the End of Days.

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Related Features:
Tranquilandia Transformed in Colombia by Richard McColl
Alert in the Americas: Inside the Farms Growing Our Coffee by Tim Leffel
Dangerous Minds by Wendy Knight
Chernobyl: Mutate and Survive by Tom Coote

See other South America travel stories from the archives

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Tearing up the Silk Road

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Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves

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