Monday, August 3, 2009

Cartagena (Colombia) – RSA surrounded by a beautiful colonial atmosphere.

Cartagena is a beautiful colonial town. I visited it in 2007 while carrying out my RSA mission in Colombia. Probably the nicest colonial urban area in the Caribbean. It lies along the Caribbean shores in the North of Colombia in a strategic area used by the Spaniards in the XV-XVII centuries to ship to Europe gold and precious material coming form the New World. Despite its nice appearance and its touristic vocation several are the threats to consider while preparing the Risk Assessment related mainly to its surrounding districts (organized crime, drug cartels wars, kidnapping, extortion, etc). There are different security phases for the centre and the periphery. Cartagena centre enjoys a lower secutiy phase (1 in a scale of 5). The town is well guarded and surveilled by regular and tourist police who protects tourists and the related income generated by tourism, while the situation worsens in the suburbs (phase 2). Those areas are affected by poverty and violence. Large camps of displaced people (IDPs) who were forced by guerrilla to leave their villages in the Colombian inner areas have been established here. Same threats affect the bordering districts of Sucre, Atlántico, Cordoba, La Guajira, Magdalena and Cesar. The whole area is of strategic importance to both government and armed groups alike due to its controlling influence on many strategic routes throughout the North and in particular to the ports of the Caribbean coast which are a main transit route for both legal and illegal trade.
The town of Cartagena is a very popular holiday destination for many Colombians with an historic old colonial town (Ciudad Murallada) coupled with beaches and high rise accommodation. On the other hand, the city has some desperately poor areas. The district has experienced high levels of violence over recent years between the paramilitaries, guerrillas, bandits and government forces and the pattern of the conflict follows a similar trend to the rest of the country with the main armed groups struggling for control of territory within Cartagena and control of the strategic routes, fertile drug-crop land and mineral resources in the countryside. Mines have been commonly used by the armed groups in some of the countryside areas. There has been a considerable incidence of displacement of people within these districts, as local farmers try to flee the contested areas. As said, the town itself is secure due to high concentration of police and military troops which are trying to preserve intact the flux of tourists. Tourism is the engine of the economy in Cartagena.
There is a huge economic difference between down-town Cartagena and the surroundings (very poor and extended areas). This difference causes social tensions and violence. Internationals visiting the region must be aware about the risk of kidnappings, for both political reasons and extortion. The best mitigating measure is the adoption of a low profile and low visibility while visiting the country. Accidental shooting is another element to consider while analyzing the risk. Although there are undoubtedly many illegal weapons in the region, the risk of accidental shooting in the region can be assessed as medium, low in Cartagena.
Organized Criminal Activity:
There is a high level of organized crime in Colombia as a whole and in the Northern region. Nationals and international personnel in particular are targeted for robbery and/or kidnapping. There are many illegal armed groups operating in the Cartagena district, mainly in Cordoba and Monte de Maria areas, including FARC, ELN, paramilitaries and local criminal gangs. There is little law and order outside of the urban centers, as the government forces are capable of controlling only parts of the area and only the main routes in particular.
Road Travel:
Road travel within Cartagena is normal for a large urban city. There is risk of crime, particularly at night. The road conditions within the town are good. In the rural areas, the road conditions are generally poor on main transit routes. In the project areas many of the local roads are not surfaced and in some instances operations are cancelled when weather conditions render parts of the routes too dangerous to travel. There is high risk of criminal/armed group activity in the rural areas. My recommendation is to travel only in areas with low/acceptable risk. Never take the initiative to adventure in unknown places. Travel always in group. Last but not least bring always your cell phone with you and be sure that police number is promptly available.

This map highlights (red) the high concentration of IDPs in the North of Colombia - OCHA Courtesy

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