James Salmon writes: Colombia’s new tourism slogan of “The only risk is wanting to stay” means I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned. And after nearly two months enjoying all the country had to offer — hiking to the Lost City of the Tayrona, partying in the Caribbean metropolis Cartagena, lazing on the Guajira Peninsula’s desolate beaches, perving on hotties in Medellin — and still wanting more, I was facing the consequences; an encounter with the dreaded DAS.
The Administrative Department of Security, the Colombian equivalent of the CIA, handles security and counterintelligence services for the government and is a primary agency in its eternal conflict with drug cartels, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. This being Colombia, it has of course been accused of collusion with the very same groups, along with spying on the government’s political rivals.
Oddly, the department’s remit includes immigration. Those bored looking men and women at the border who do nothing but check passports all day? Technically they’re intelligence operatives, kind of like Jason Bourne but with a red stamp as well as a Uzi. They’re also the guys you have to ask — nicely — for an extension to your visa. And with mine about to run out it was time to pay them a visit.
I’d been staying in Colombia’s second biggest city Medellin with a mate who had already been through the Kafkaesque ordeal and he thoroughly briefed me on my mission beforehand.
“It’s a nightmare,” he warned. “Even if you have absolutely everything prepared, it’s still going to take you about four or five hours. Be nice, and don’t get angry. If they want to, they can make things even worse.”
Some tourists looking for an easier way just choose to leave the country for a couple of days instead, he told me.
Nevertheless, I went into the process in a positive frame of mind. Traveling is all about having new experiences and getting an insight into different cultures, and what better way than to get a coal-face look at Colombia’s infamous bureaucracy in action?
The first step was to go to a specific branch of the Banco Colombia to pay the administrative fee of $70,100 COP (about $US35). Apparently no one at the DAS is trusted enough to actually handle cash. Then I needed to catch a taxi to the DAS office itself, located in Belen, a huge suburb on the other side of the city.
In 1989, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel detonated 1,100 pounds of explosives stuffed into a bus outside the DAS headquarters in Bogota, killing 49 and wounding hundreds. This incident goes some way towards explaining why the DAS’s Medellin office looks less like a bureaucratic building and more like a military installation, surrounded by high, razor-wired walls and gun-toting men in fatigues.
Inside, there’s a dedicated section for extranjeros (foreigners): a small, white concrete room with 12 chairs and a long counter with terminals for the staff to process applications. It’s connected to the outside world by a small ante-chamber, where customers wait to speak to a receptionist who checks they have all the required documents and forms. Once everything is in order, the hopeful souls shuffle seats in the queue until finally getting to submit their application.
After explaining my situation to the receptionist — a surprisingly amiable English-speaking bloke dressed in a t-shirt, sneakers and jeans — he handed me the form I needed and I went off to do the reams of required paperwork. Like all South American bureaucrats, those in Colombia have an insatiable hunger for paperwork.
To get a my visa extension, I needed to provide two photocopies of the main page of my passport, two photocopies of the passport page containing my entry stamp, two photocopies of my payment receipt, two photocopies of my airline booking showing I was going home at some point and two photocopies of the form I’d just filled out. Oh, and three passport-style headshots. Thankfully, they didn’t need a blood sample, probably because it wouldn’t photocopy well.
Handily, around the corner from the DAS office a manic business centre has established itself where people can photocopy and print documents, access the Internet and have passport photos taken. And if it all gets too much, they can even chill out and have a beer, thus reducing the incidence of bureaucracy-induced homicidal rampages.
I should have gotten some takeway brews because after doing my bit to decimate the Amazon, it was back to the stiflingly hot, airless DAS office to wait. And wait. And wait.
There were only four people ahead of me in the queue but the single bald, glassy-eyed clerk/secret agent wasn’t exactly churning through their applications.
The only other gringos I saw were leaving as I arrived. Everyone else was from countries like Ecuador and Venezuela. One of them had the forethought to bring along a newspaper while others passed the time complaining about the inefficiencies of the department – quietly and in English, presumably so the DAS staff wouldn’t understand them. The woman to my left simply sat there repeatedly muttering “Aye, aye, aye” under her breath.
After about two hours I was second in line and another clerk, a woman with that same blank expression common to frontline public servants across the globe, had joined her comrade processing applications. She seemed to have attracted the fancy of the guy in front of me.
“Would you mind going ahead of me?” he asked.
He explained there were a couple of irregularities on his form that the male clerk might be a stickler on. “That lady doesn’t look like she will be as thorough.”
To me the woman didn’t look any more or less detail-orientated than her colleague. Maybe she was a mate of this bloke’s cousin and this was an example of the department’s reputed corruption? Perhaps he just had a thing for po-faced bureaucrats? Either way, I was happy to save a couple of minutes and jump ahead.
So finally — and with a little trepidation — I approached the counter, my ream of photocopies in hand.
“Necesito un extension por me visa touristica?” I said, wincing at my own awful Spanish.
Obviously used to dealing with my type, the guy nodded and began keying my details into his terminal. The only part that stumped him was my religion.
“What’s ‘agnostico’?” he queried in Spanish. “Is that like Catholic?”
Five minutes of trying with my extremely limited vocabulary to explain that I declined to subscribe to any particular religious view but equally hesitated to rule out the possibility of a ominipotent creator left him no wiser. “It’s kind of like Catholic, but different,” I conceded.
The pencil pusher/intelligence operative then ushered me into a back room where I had my mug shot taken and fingerprints electronically scanned. The Colombian version of the CIA now had a file on me, but at least it was all over, I thought. Escaping in only four hours? I considered it a victory. At least I hadn’t been water boarded.
But it wasn’t over.
“Now you just have to come back in two days for the stamp in your passport,” he said. “You should probably come in early in the morning.”
I was so stunned I didn’t even attempt to try and argue, or even to ask why.
I left the office fuming, but only for a moment. So what if I had to spend another few hours in bureaucratic hell? It was a small price to pay to be able to enjoy Colombia’s varied delights just that little bit longer.