Until the World Cup the word ‘Colombia’ would probably have invoked ideas of either a prestigious university in New York City (spelt ‘Columbia’ – common mistake), a country with a prolific role in the cocaine trade, or as the home of prestigious late author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Whilst the misspelling is likely to continue, the success of Colombia’s football team has drawn attention to the depths of this small Latin American nation. Colombia’s prospects are improving, not just in terms of sporting success but also politically, socially and economically.

As the World Cup was in full swing, there was a second round of presidential elections happening in Colombia. At stake in the election was the choice between the continuation of the peace process, with the re-election of incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, or its interruption with the election of right-winger Óscar Iván Zuluaga. President Santos won the re-election by a fraction with just 51 percent of the vote, giving him a mandate to continue the peace agreement discussions started in 2012 with the FARC guerillas, and more recently with a secondary rebel group, the ELN. This is a relief to many Colombians and members of the international community, to whom the millions of people displaced, nearly 400,000 refugees produced, and numerous kidnappings and killings have been a source of concern. Since 2012, the government and FARC have reached agreements on rural land reform as well as political participation and drug trafficking. However, contentious issues such as disarmament of the rebels remain. Despite scepticism of the process, this peace process has already proved more successful than any before in Colombia.

Due to the effects of the conflict, Colombia has a bad reputation in terms of safety. A friend, whilst travelling during her gap year, visited Colombia without telling her parents as she knew what reaction it would provoke. The capital Bogotá, alongside Medellín, Cali and other cities, have often been amongst lists of the most dangerous cities in the world. This is not all hyperbole, nine people were killed daily in Medellín in 2009, and a Colombian friend who grew up in Cali said she was lucky she wasn’t attractive when she was younger, as she would have been at risk of being made a ‘girlfriend’ of one of the cartel members. However, much of the fear is a remnant of the 1980s and 90s when car bombs and kidnappings were fairly commonplace. Bogotá’s homicide rate reduced from 70.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to 31.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. The most dangerous areas now are those still controlled by the cartels.

Alongside this reduction in crime has been a surge in visitors of 300 percent since 2002, when only 540,000 foreigners visited the country. Colombia has made great strides in reducing crime and improving safety in its cities, and is looking to continue this success with changes to transportation and infrastructure, as well as by trying to reduce public sector corruption. Just as Mexico has problem areas but still remains a popular tourist destination, hopefully Colombia’s negative reputation will soon be confined to certain spots and more visitors will enjoy the many cultural and natural attractions on offer.

Connected to the positive steps in the peace process and the crime rate is a surge in Colombia’s economy. It is rumoured that Moody’s will soon upgrade Colombia’s credit rating to equal that of Brazil and Peru, and in 2013 the economy surpassed Argentina’s to become the third largest in the region. Thanks to the improved security situation, Colombia is becoming a more attractive place to do business, and President Santos is making great strides to reduce red tape, such as with participation in the free-trade Pacific Alliance with Peru, Chile and Mexico to eliminate tariffs. Economic growth was 4.3 percent in 2013 and is set to be higher this year, and unemployment is at its lowest level in 14 years. Of course, challenges remain. Inequality remains a major problem, with regressive taxes and extreme poverty in rural areas being as much as 3.5 times worse than in urban areas. Inequality is also deeply tied to the civil conflict. Underemployment is still a major issue, with at least 22 percent of the employed not working long enough hours to survive, and unemployment is still at 9 percent, one of the highest rates in Latin America.

Colombia’s complicated history and troubled present make for an uncertain future. The prospects, however, are positive. The unprecedented success in the World Cup meant more than just football pride to Colombia. It brought a country together which had been scarred by the murder of Andrés Escobar after an own goal 20 years ago. Despite the outbursts of violence in Bogotá following the success over Greece in this year’s World Cup, this new period of footballing success represents a new age, different to the ‘golden generation’ two decades ago when football was intimately linked to the drug cartels. The bright stars such as James Rodriguez provide role models for the young boys who are most at risk of becoming involved in violence. Organisations such as ‘Fútbol con Corazon’ (Football with Heart) are helping more than 2,000 children at risk of falling into a life of crime. Colombia is one to watch out for, both on the pitch and off it.











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