Colombia’s image problem: Moving forward?

Colombia is leaving behind its painful history of drug trafficking.

Colombia's football team performance in the World Cup has been applauded at home and abroad [Reuters]

In June, Dutch actress Nicolette van Dam – one of UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassadors – tweeted a picture which purported to show Colombian football stars Falcao Garcia and James Rodriguez snorting cocaine from the soccer field.

Days later, in a conversation about the World Cup, Australian Triple M radio commentators Matt Tilley and Joe Hildebrand said that Colombia was more famous for cocaine than for coffee.

The comments caused outrage in Colombia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a formal complaint to the Netherlands and van Dam resigned from UNICEF. Meanwhile, the Colombian embassy in Australia called for the radio DJs to be punished for broadcasting comments against the Australian Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

All this comes as Colombia is being lauded for its performance at the World Cup in Brazil.

It seems that the unfortunate infamy bought by the country’s once-thriving drug trade continues to mark the stereotype of Colombians globally. Many ignore the great advances the country has made in a wide variety of fields.

A story of pain and death

The drug industry in Colombia has, since the 1960s, been a criminal phenomenon that has generated not only the cultivation, production and trafficking of cocaine and marijuana, but also promoted serious social problems from petty crime, to corruption, political violence, insurgency and terrorism.

The 1980s and 1990s were the bloodiest in Colombian history; the homicide rate nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1991 – from 23 to 82 homicides per 100,000 people, 16 times the global average. The murder of young people and policemen were everyday experiences for Colombians caught in the middle of the drug cartels’ war.

Fault Lines – Colombia: The Deadly Fight for Land

With the death in 1993 of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel lord, the era of terror began to decline. In 2001 there were more than 140,000 hectares of illicit crops, which fell to 48,000 by 2013. Colombia has become the international leader in drug seizures, confiscating nearly 200 tons of cocaine each year. The police have captured 50 cartel lords in the past three years.

In 2013 the homicide rate was 30.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, Colombia’s lowest in 35 years. Despite the efforts made by Colombia, it seems to be alone in the fight. Cocaine consumption rates in other countries – due to the failure of foreign governments to prevent drug abuse or to treat addiction – make it very difficult to end this scourge in Colombia and other developing nations.

It seems an impossible mission to achieve economic, social and cultural growth in a country bled dry by drug trafficking guerrillas such as FARC operating in the most productive regions and retaining violent influence in the main cities. But Colombia has been making it happen.

Colombia has an area of 1,141,814sq km – the size of Portugal, Spain and France put together. It is the second most biodiverse country in the world. Colombia is one of the largest producers of flowers, competing against countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, Kenya and Turkey. Since 2010, Colombia is the world’s number one producer of carnations, with a 53 percent global market share. It is also the fourth largest producer of palm oil and the fifth largest banana producer.

Mining and coffee production constitute Colombia’s main exports. Colombian crude oil, natural gas and gold are highly sought after. It is the fourth largest coal producer. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of emeralds, which command the highest prices due to the deep colour and size of the gems found here. Colombian coffee is internationally recognised for its quality, softness and aroma, and ranks third in the world in production.

The Colombian economy is the third largest in Latin America, recently overtaking Argentina.

Colombia’s exports increased nearly six times between 1995 and 2013, from $10m to $58m, as nations around the globe scramble to share in the country’s growth.

The country is becoming more attractive to international investors, with foreign direct investment – mostly in oil, mining and manufacturing – rising from $968m in 1995 to $16bn in 2013.

Medellin, the country’s second city, was recognised as the most innovative city in the world in 2013, beating New York and Tel Aviv. It has reduced emissions of carbon dioxide through public transport infrastructure and was the nation’s first city to build a cable car as a means of public transport.

There are still plenty of problems to solve in Colombia but the country is taking its first steps to turn around the situation from its darkest years.

Colombia captivates migrants

Many Colombians have, in the past, sought to migrate to countries such as the US, Spain and Venezuela, but since 2008, the country’s economic and political conditions have meant not only a greater number of Colombian migrants returning to the country than are seeking their fortune in foreign fields, but also an influx of Spanish, Venezuelans and US residents who want to settle in Colombia.

Acting Lessons – Colombia

Since 2004, the number of Venezuelans in Colombia seeking a better life has increased. Venezuelan oil industry professionals  have achieved record production figures in Colombia.

Venezuelan migrants working in the catering, health and beauty, and manufacturing industries have boosted the economy, creating businesses, employment and stimulating the internal market through consumption of domestic products.

In 2005, there were 50,033 Venezuelans living in Colombia. It has been estimated that there were more than 250,000 Venezuelan residents in 2013 in the country.

Spain’s economic crisis, which saw unemployment rates reaching 26 percent in 2012, has brought yet more migrants to Colombia. In 2010, the Consulate of Spain in Bogota had 17,219 Spaniards registered, but today the figure exceeds 23,000. 

Things are looking up in Colombia – and the outlook will be all the more radiant if peace is achieved and criminal violence is controlled. This would lead to the local market attracting even more foreign investment, helping the country to consolidate a new stable and innovative environment for economic growth.

With better economic performance, it is likely that Colombia will not only be able to improve its citizens’ living conditions and reduce violence and crime, but also to better combat the illegal activities related to the production and trafficking of drugs.

Finally, Colombia will be able to leave its dark image in the past and look forward to a brighter future.

Juliana Ceballos is a Colombian journalist. She has a degree from Pontificia Bolivariana University and an MBA from Eafit University, Colombia.