March 2014 – Cartagena offers visitors two distinct urban dreams – the fantasy of the historic Spanish colonial city center and the fantasy of the Miami style, beach-front luxury hotels and condominiums in Boca Grande. Whether it’s the vibrant colors and breezy courtyards of a renovated Spanish colonial mansion or the straight edges and glass balconies of a modern high rise, the Cartagena urban dream is alive year round for both international and domestic visitors.
In a country with a thriving illegal narcotics economy that fuels ongoing conflict between guerilla militias, corrupted paramilitary organizations and the power politics of legal government, what does it take to protect local communities and preserve these urban fantasies?
Urban security has many faces – the strong arm of police regiments, the written laws and regulations that govern the streets and the collective resilience of society. All are at play in Colombia. The strength and patience of many Colombian communities are relentlessly tested by the dangers of organized crime yet Colombians must also tolerate the petty abuse of power by local police. An endless amount of police checkpoints and a perpetual exploitation of stop-and-frisk policies are an accepted norm in Colombia.
At the same time, this culture of heavy security is welcomed by many. Security allows for safer schools, welcoming streets, livable neighborhoods and access to public amenities that might otherwise be too dangerous to visit. Security forces liberate rural areas from the grasp of guerilla organizations while also maintaining safety in urban areas. Excessive security is a small price to pay for the assurance of safe communities, especially when the alternative has already caused so much heart break and trauma in Colombian society.
The intergovernmental global security organization Intepol held a generally assembly meeting at the Cartagena convention center in October, 2013. The event filled the streets with an overwhelming amount of motorcycle cops, police boats, helicopters, armored vehicles, police horse brigades and the unsettling sensation of a heavy security presence. Although the intensity greatly diminished after the Interpol convention ended, Cartagena still remains a city governed by the watchful eye of tight security.
It’s becoming increasing evident that the wealth and power of our world are in the hands of only a select few. This elite group has incredible influence over the defining mechanisms of our human civilization including military, politics, media, banking and global economy. Security is a problematic word because it suggests the protection and preservation of one position while excluding and often opposing another position. In this way, global security can be seen as a tool of control used by those in power to secure and maintain their privileged position.
I’ve mentioned in previous essays that the habits of our cities are a reflection of the habits of our human civilization. If our global society is built on a system that exploits the majority for the benefit of a small minority, then our cities will operate under this same oppressive principle. In this scenario, urban security’s primary function would be to secure the continuous entitlement of this elite group while perpetuating the exclusion of the common people. Even in the current dynamics of our global system, it’s easy to witness the vast wealth inequality that exists in our cities and the embedded infrastructure in place to sustain it.
Security can be seen as a way of maintaining the rule of law which is meant to bring order and stability to our global system. If the rule of law is written to preserve the dictatorial powers of the elite, than the common man shouldn’t support a system of global security that is constructed to oppress him. The immense military-industrial complex of the world’s leading empires isn’t designed for the protection of the common man and his nation – it’s in place to ensure the permanent domination of the ruling class and to secure their continuous access to the world’s resources. Not much has changed since the epochs of former world empires.
One significant difference between now and other periods of history is that in today’s world we live with an unprecedented level of access to information and communication. The diverse narratives of our collective history, the brilliant wisdoms of our human imagination and the humbling perspectives on the livelihoods of our fellow brothers and sisters around the world are readily available to us. This is important because the greatest form of global security is within the cohesiveness and resilience of our local communities and our global society. Although we still largely live our lives through the lens of our local perspectives, we have the opportunity to expand our empathetic capacities, mend our differences and broaden our concept of community.
For this reason, investing in the health of our regional societies is the strongest investment we can make towards strengthening a system of global security that protects the common man. This means investing in education. It’s nearly universally accepted that education is a powerful tool for improving quality of life but we should remember that education not only refers to knowledge-based learning but also the teachings of well being. As a global society, and as individuals, it’s important for us to find a balance between our mind-constructed world and the stabilizing force of a peaceful presence. From the supportive foundation of a balanced education, our human civilization can find the collective strength to wean off corrosive societal habits and move towards habits that unite and empower our global population. Standing tall locally allows us to unite globally and confront the corrupting forces of the current power structure.
The vast military-industrial complex of the world won’t be dismantled overnight – it has been embedded within the roots of global economy for centuries. The most realistic path towards global disarmament is to redirect the energy of the military-industrial complex towards research and development.
If there is one major benefit to be found in the global military economy, it’s the incredible research and development infrastructure in place to support it. For instance, atomic energy was realized from the efforts of the military-industrial complex. Unfortunately the technology was weaponized and used as a tool for killing and for inflating imperial hubris. Imagine if we could redirect the research and development aspect of the military-industrial complex towards helping us solve some of the largest issues confronting our world today.
It’s unrealistic to think that we can make progress towards true global security without first addressing the basic survival needs of those in our most deprived communities. The common man does not have security if the global structure denies him access to basic human rights. Improved education, an elevated collective consciousness and a stronger investment in problem-solving industries, such as renewable energy and waste management, are all tools that can help us move towards a more secure human civilization.
Militarization has been part of Cartagena’s identity from the day the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia settled the land in order to continue the Spanish Empire’s violent plundering of the New World. As the Spanish Crown’s primary Caribbean gateway to its interior South American colonies, Cartagena amassed an impressive defensive infrastructure meant to protect the city against the ambitions of competing European empires. The sharp bayonets and explosive cannons from previous centuries have long been retired yet Cartagena still relies on a heavy security presence to preserve its thriving tourism industry and protect its local way of life.
The most valuable form of security isn’t found in the barrel of a gun – it’s found in the strength and camaraderie of our communities. Colombian society knows this. The country is eager to show the world that the nation’s violent past is no more and that international visitors will be welcomed by the warm smiles and friendly embraces of the Colombian people. This incredible change of fortune over the last twenty years, both economically and in terms of national security, is a complicated story and isn’t easily explained. The lines between legitimacy and corruption or good intentions and ulterior motives are never clear when the immense wealth of illegal narcotics, the right to exploit vast petroleum and mineral reserves, and the absolute power of governance and control are at stake. One thing remains clear – with hopeful courage and sustained resilience, Colombian society aspires to live in safer communities.