If many of the police officers in Colombia appear to be disproportionately young, fresh faced, and non-threatening, it is because they are: many of the youthful looking men patrolling the streets of this country are not full fledged police officers but conscripts doing their term of national service. Each male in Colombia needs to register for a compulsory one year term of service in either the police or military upon turning 18 years of age. Though I was told that there are ways for these kids to defer or even buy their way out of this conscription.
Conversation with a police conscript in Bogota
“I go to the police because I finished high school,” a police conscript in Bogota told me in unsteady, but understandable English.
“And the people who don’t finished high school go to the military?”
“Yes, they go to the military,” he explained.
“So the police are more intelligent then?” I joked.
The conscript laughed and nodded as though I was stating the obvious. But 90% of national service conscripts in Colombia do go into the army. Needless to say, they are mostly lower class youths who are often only scantly educated.
I continued questioning the 18 year old conscript in Spanish and English, trying to find out what he — and thousands of other young conscripts — felt about their tour of active duty for their country.
“I don’t like it very much,” he said.
“Do most conscripts also not like it?” I asked.
“I am not sure,” he said, “but I think they don’t like it.”
The conscript, who only stood around 5′ 5″ tall, and even in his uniform presented just about as much authority as a shop clerk told me that he mostly teaches in the police schools.
“The police schools?” I questioned.
He then explained that the Colombian police forces run educational facilities in poorer areas of the country where the most educated conscripts teach.
I began asking him what the other conscripts do, and he told me that they mostly do various public works projects. He told me about some flood that the conscripts went to help out with.
It was becoming clear that police conscription in Colombia is more akin to public service than law enforcement. Though, it can not be denied, that virtual armies of these conscripts walk beats through the cities of Colombia on the lookout for crime, looking as though they may keel over and die of boredom at any moment. A normal task for a police conscript not fortunate enough to teach at a school or have a real project seems to be standing on a street corner for hours and hours looking “police like” as a deterrent to crime.
I only saw these police conscripts in action once, and that was in Cartagena when a gang of prostitutes were beating some shirtless guy with sticks and threatening him with a butter knife in the streets. A couple young conscripts came running to assist, but the mob continued their beating around the young law enforcers. But, soon enough, a motorcycle pulled up and a couple older, professional cops showed up and broke up the brawl.
“Do you get paid for this work?” I asked the conscript.
He answered in the affirmative, and said that he gets 300,000 pesos ($165) per month. I looked surprised, and he explained that police conscripts are often not provided with housing or food, so they get paid more. He added that army conscripts only get 15,000 pesos per month, but they get a place to stay and food for free.
300,000 pesos per month is a real wage in Colombia. Many full time employees hardly make this much. I thought I may have misunderstood this conscript, but I twice confirmed this stipend with other conscripts.
“Where do you live?” I asked this conscript, and he replied that he lives at home with his family.
Truly, if all national service conscripts had it like he did I could not call this a particular bad system.
Colombian traveler that did not register for national service
“Do the conscripts have authority to arrest people?” I asked a 22 year old Colombian who ditched his service without paying the opt-out fee to go to university and then travel through Central and South America.
He just sort of laughed at me and shook his head. “No, but they can call the police. The ones on the motorcycles can arrest you.”
“So how did you get out of doing your national service?” I asked him.
He told me a story of how he showed up for his medical check up and tried to act like he had many medical problems. To his surprise, the doctor found an actual problem with his teeth or jaw or something. He said that he was suppose to pay a fine to get out of doing the service but he never bothered and nothing had yet happened to him.
“I don’t have a tarjeta de reservista,” he told me, indicating the document that Colombian males get upon registering with the national service which serves as their identity card if they are ever again called into public service.
All Colombian men up to the age of 45 are considered to be military reservists, and they can be called up again in the event of a national emergency even after completing their one year term of service in adolescents. Apparently, this card is important for Colombian men to be able to produce, but traveler said that because he is a little older than standard conscription age that nobody asks to see it.
Women and national service conscription
“Do women need to serve in the military or police?” I asked a 19 year old girl in Villa de Leyva.
“The women can if they want to, but they make you be a secretary,” she told me with a touch of bitterness.
She then explained how she tried to get into the military, but was told she would be stuck behind a desk. Knowing well what “women’s” work consists of, she took a job at a restaurant in Villa de Leyva instead.
National service conscription in Colombia conclusion
Many countries — especially in Europe — institute compulsory military conscription of young men. Ideally, the idea of the youth of a given society being taken aside by their elders and taught the life skills needed to live better, be stronger, to take hold of a real role in their community is not too repulsive. But, all too often, these lessons are not those which are taught through compulsory public service in just about any country. For many, completing their term of service is a grudging chore to get out of the way between finishing school and becoming a full fledged adult — a force fed coming of age rite.