By Raymond Billy |

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos is undertaking aggressive measures to crack down on municipal corruption, international observers say. Those efforts are giving Colombians a glimmer of hope that the country’s law enforcement officials will one day become trustworthy. But police there will have a lot of work to do to rebuild relations with a distrusting citizenry.

Camilo Solarte Bothe, a Bogotá, Colombia, native who has lived in the United States for two years, said citizens of his homeland would be wise to avoid encounters with police.

“I tried to avoid them. I tried to stay above reproach so I didn’t have to deal with them,” said Bothe, 21, a Tyler Junior College alumnus and former player for the school’s Apache soccer team. Bothe said graft is a major problem among Colombia’s police officers.

“I was with a friend when he was caught with marijuana. The officer did the right thing to take it from him, but then he took the pot and started smoking it right in front of us,” said Bothe, who now attends Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss. Other Colombians who spoke to also said they were familiar with such abuses of power. They said it is not uncommon, for example, for police to make arbitrary traffic stops and demand cash in exchange for reduced fines — even in cases where no traffic violation was committed.

Some attributed this behavior to a police force demoralized by its decades-long struggle with militia groups and drug cartels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, has been waging a violent form of class warfare on behalf of the country’s poor rural citizens since 1964. The organization engages in kidnappings for ransom and drug trafficking to fund its activities. The National Liberation Army, or ELN, another guerrilla group, reportedly has up to 50,000 members.

Ana Cuervo Utley, a Colombia native who teaches Spanish at The University of Texas at Tyler and TJC, said all of the criminal activity is beyond the ability of Colombian police to contain.

“The police are overworked. People feel like they need to find alternative ways to protect themselves from criminals because they can’t rely on the police,” said Utley, who moved to the United States in 1993 to escape the violence. She said because of the guerrillas and dearth of police protection, she prefers to visit Colombia without her immediate family.

“I feel nervous in the streets in Colombia when I go with my family because my husband is obviously American and my daughter is American. They are targets for kidnapping by militia groups,” she said.

Demoralization and corruption aren’t the only problems plaguing the nation’s police. According to a report by the Center for Popular Research and Education, or CINEP, a human rights organization, Colombia police engaged in high-profile acts of brutality against citizens, including homicides, last year. Officers in the western city of Chiquinquira are accused in the beating death 67-year-old Jaime Elias Rozo Salinas after arresting him for public intoxication. In the north near Oripaya, officers are suspected in the death of Pedro Gustavo Ladino Sierra, a publicist, according to CINEP. In at least five cities police collaborate heavily with illegal armed groups — which include drug cartels, militias and juvenile gangs.

Since taking office a year ago, Colombia’s President Santos has intensified efforts to reign in malfeasance among the country’s police officers. At least 70 officers have been arrested this year on suspicion of drug-trafficking activity.

Ingrid Klein, 27, of Lindale, said the president’s initiatives are opening the door for humanitarian organizations to travel in places they previously would have avoided.

“People are starting to do more missions work in Colombia. There were places there that European-looking people would not want to go,” said Klein, a Colombia native whose family left the country when she was 4 years old for safety reasons. “Now, because of some security improvements and the arrests of crime-friendly police officers, missionaries are seeing an opportunity to reach people who some of them would have had a difficult time reaching before.”

Martha Pulido, a journalist in Colombia who is visiting Utley in Tyler, said a greater sense of calm is now present in the country.

“People feel more secure in the streets because of the president’s security measures,” she said, later adding “People in America are worried about the economy. In Colombia, we’re just worried about staying safe.”

Utley said she hopes Santos continues to successfully purge the country of corruption not only for safety’s sake, but so the country’s global reputation can be restored.

“We’re proud of our good people,” she said. “We have really good things in our country, but all of the violence and corruption overshadows that.”