Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ray Romano, Security Briefings and the U.S. Embassy

The main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá
Standing at the gates of the United States embassy in Bogotá, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Looming guard towers manned by armed sentries stood like monoliths as far as the eye could see. The embassy was a fortress in its own right and looked like it was capable of repelling a direct military assault. As we waited to enter the main gate, someone told me the U.S. embassy in Bogotá is the second largest U.S. embassy in the world, after Baghdad.

Observing the high, thick walls and series of large, important-looking buildings, I wasn’t about to start an argument.

I was a little annoyed I couldn’t take pictures of the embassy—it is forbidden for security purposes, so sorry for the lack of photos in this post.

Anyway, we were there to receive a security briefing from the embassy’s head security agent to better prepare ourselves for our year in-country. Since the current State Department security advisory for Colombia isn’t exactly something you would read to your four-year-old before bedtime, I was prepared for some scary stuff.

We entered the main gates and walked across a small parking lot to another security check point. The sight of Colombian police guarding the main entrance caught me off guard—I had assumed U.S. military personnel would be the ones doing that.

After passing through the security checkpoint, we entered a courtyard area, where we waited behind another gate—the one leading to the main embassy complex. To the left of the gate was a large, covered area where several tired-looking people sat, presumably waiting to apply for U.S. visas. Apparently, U.S. visas are extremely difficult to obtain and people usually need to wait hours just to enter the building to apply for them. 

The guards finally opened the gate and we passed through. We were officially on American soil. For those of you who don’t know, embassies are considered sovereign territory by national governments. For example, the French embassy in Washington, D.C. is legally French territory and the U.S. embassy in France is U.S. territory. The same is true in Colombia.

Entering the main embassy complex, we passed a final security checkpoint manned by U.S. Marines and I immediately had flashbacks to my time interning on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Well-dressed civilians and uniformed military personnel roamed the long, modern halls going about their various duties. I knew I was back in the land of liberty when we stopped at the embassy gift shop and I found corn nuts (they are impossible to find in Bogotá!). To commemorate the visit, I bought an official U.S. Embassy Bogotá shot glass.

I know.

I would.

Special Agent Ray Romano
Finally, we arrived at the briefing room, nestled deep within the main complex. The head security agent, a man named Ray Romano (no joke) gave us the Colombian security low-down.

I was surprised to hear the security advisory was not as bad as I had thought. Ray Romano said that although the U.S. government currently classifies Colombia as a high-risk area, the government is in the process of downgrading it to a normal security threat level within the next couple of months. He talked about FARC and the paramilitaries, which still have a presence in this country—but said their ability to assert military power is restricted to isolated pockets in the deep jungle. Basically, all the talk about the high risk of getting kidnapped is a load of BS. As long as you don’t take a stroll through the deep jungle in search of El Dorado, you’re golden.

The biggest danger in Colombia, Ray Romano said, was everyday street crime. Speaking specifically about Bogotá (where I will be living), he said most of the reports the embassy receives are muggings of people who went down the wrong street when they were drunk. Granted, street crimes can occur at all hours; however, they usually only happen when people do dumb things to make themselves targets. When Colombians see a gringo, they automatically assume he or she has money, so the key is to “lower your profile” as Ray Romano put it. For instance, don’t walk around talking on your cell phone or fumble through a cash-filled wallet while in a public place. He said a majority of muggings happen when people are drunk—and most vulnerable.

A Bogotá street
One interesting thing Ray Romano mentioned was the popular practice of Colombian women robbing unsuspecting foreign men. He mentioned an instance when a group of beautiful Colombian women approached some American men at a bar and partied with them, suggesting the party continue at the Americans’ house. The men woke up the next morning to find their apartments cleaned out—computers, TVs and all other valuables stolen. To prevent this, Ray Romano said he advises all U.S. embassy personnel to look in the mirror and accept that if they can’t get a 10 in the U.S., then they can’t get a 10 in Colombia.

I’m not sure how much I like this advice, but I guess Ray Romano knows best.

When the security briefing ended, we exited the embassy-fortress and boarded our buses back to Santa Cruz. As we passed through the city that will soon be my home, I spotted a horse-cart competing with an expensive-looking sedan for right-of way in the far right lane. The sight made me contemplate the world I am about to enter—a world where a burgeoning modern society still struggles to bring a huge tract of its population to modernity. A world where there is such a disgusting gap between the rich and the poor that such a sight is not only possible, but commonplace.

The Man Cave all dressed up for the embassy
I am doing my best to maintain a realistic expectation of what I can actually accomplish during my time here. I am just one person. A microscopic dust speck in the enormous history of the world—this I can accept. What I cannot and will not accept is that there is nothing I can do to make at least some place in this world a little better, a little brighter.

Circumstance has made this place Colombia.

And I am willing.

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