High price of keeping Colombians alive

Alina Dieste
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Agents of Colombia's National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Proteccion, UNP, in Spanish) train in La Calera, on October 22, 2014

Agents of Colombia's National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Proteccion, UNP, in Spanish) train in La Calera, on October 22, 2014 (AFP Photo/Eitan Abramovich)

Bogota (AFP) - Wilson Borja has 13 bodyguards to protect him from people like the paramilitaries who once tried to kill him, an intimidating security detail funded at great expense by violence-wracked Colombia's government.

Borja, 62, a former Congressman known for championing left-wing causes, was ambushed by a team of gunmen outside his home on the morning of December 15, 2000.

He is now one of the 7,500 people the Colombian government pays to protect, at a total cost of $600,000 a day -- a hefty sum for a country where the average person earns about $20 a day.

Borja has a metal frame in his right leg to replace the 10 centimeters (nearly four inches) of bone he lost to a gunshot wound -- one of the more fortunate victims of Colombia's 50-year-old conflict, which has killed 220,000 people.

Besides his phalanx of bodyguards, he has two cars provided by the government, including one with bullet-proof armor.

"I don't have a security detail for status or because it's fashionable. I'd like to be able to walk around freely. But this is my life. With the conflict in this country, any crazy person could kill me," he told AFP.

His security is one of the largest provided by the National Protection Unit (UNP), a government body created in 2011 to guard people under threat from a wide-ranging conflict rife with kidnappings and assassinations that has at various times drawn in leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.

The UNP took over from a protection force called the Administrative Security Department that was set up in the 1960s, around the time Marxist guerrilla group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) launched what has become Latin America's longest-running conflict.

The unit has a commission to evaluate the threat to whoever requests protection: human rights activists, union bosses, politicians, indigenous leaders, journalists, teachers or the heads of demobilized armed groups.

It has detectives, bomb units, ballistics experts and criminal investigators, as well as bodyguards outsourced from private companies.

- 'Like having a child' -

"We're a reaction force, not an attack force," a UNP officer told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity as agents trained at a firing range outside the capital Bogota on a recent sunny morning.

"In case of an attack, we seek to reduce, not eliminate" the threat.

One of the few women bodyguards described her job as "like having a small child. You have to be watching all the time."

Some bodyguards have even had to accompany the people they protect to the bathroom. But the worst part of the job, they agreed, is the stress of working in a crowded area.

"We have to do the most we can to protect people, but we can't guarantee nobody gets killed," said UNP director Andres Villamizar.

Two years after the government and FARC launched ongoing peace talks in Havana, applications for government protection have fallen.

Villamizar said he is optimistic an improving security situation will reduce the number of requests by more than 90 percent in the next decade.

"I think it's feasible. Colombia is a completely different country than it was 20 years ago," he said.

He admitted the program is prone to problems like funds being used for non-security expenses and bodyguards being sent to run errands.

But for him, UNP's mission is personal.

He was an in-law of Luis Carlos Galan, a presidential candidate assassinated in 1989 after last-minute changes to his security detail. He is also the son of Maruja Pachon, who was famously taken hostage by notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1990.

His father, Alberto Villamizar, was Colombia's anti-kidnapping czar.

Villamizar said he dreams of "a country where it won't be necessary to protect anyone for being a union leader or human rights activist.

"If Colombia can achieve normality, if a peace deal with the guerrillas is signed and the criminal gangs and drug networks are dismantled, then UNP would protect maybe 100 people, instead of 7,500," he said.