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 Wednesday 03 October 2007
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COLOMBIA: Not just bullets and bombs put cops at risk

Photo: Paola Castaño/PlusNews
Patrolman Bhraymoor Pulido Vargas
BOGOTA, 24 May 2007 (PlusNews) - The death of nine policemen in a roadside bomb blast this month as they patroled the rough roads of Landázuri, in Colombia's northeast, underlines the daily threat the security forces face in the country's long-running civil conflict.

The policemen were providing security for a coca eradication programme aimed stamping out the illegal cocaine trade. But whether posted to Colombia's remote conflict zones where control is contested by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and paramilitaries, or in the cities, where drug-traffic related violence is common, the risks remain high.

Patrolman Bhraymoor Pulido Vargas, based at Eldorado airport in the capital, Bogotá, accepts the danger of being a cop in a country in conflict, which has displaced three million people and sent refugees spilling across the borders. But he had assumed the threat was from bullets and bombs; he had not considered the microscopic hazard of the HI virus.

Armed but vulnerable

Security forces around the world are vulnerable to HIV infection. Sex helps cure boredom for young men and women posted away from regular partners; alcohol abuse and a culture of risk taking adds to the dangers.

Pulido, 24, was not ignorant of AIDS; he had heard about it in high school and knew that sex without a condom could lead to HIV infection. But he regarded that as only a "remote possibility. I thought having a stable relationship meant I was safe".

But in casual flings, when he got "carried away in the heat of the moment, or was drunk and didn't take care" he had not used a condom; nor was he careful to avoid contact with blood when dealing with wounds, another possible infection route.

Pulido got a wake-up call when he was sent on a course on preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, run by the police human resource office.

The National Police of Colombia is aware that its recruits are a high-risk group. The majority are aged between 18 and 24, are typically macho, routinely posted away from home, and condom shy.

"They think the uniform protects them," said Juliana Meneses, coordinator of the sexual and reproductive health programme of the national police.

Photo: ONU/Sida
Waking up to HIV/AIDS
In remote villages, plagued by poverty, a policeman's regular pay cheque sets him apart. "It's easy to go crazy, girls love men in uniform," said Pulido. "You're drunk, you want to let off steam from work, and sex is like a kind of therapy."

According to Ricardo García, UNAIDS director in Colombia, encouraging risky behaviour is the 'I could be dead tomorrow, better enjoy today', fatalism common among armed forces in conflict situations.

The police respond

Although HIV prevalence in the police is 0.7 percent, similar to Columbia's general population, the concern is that the infection rate is on the rise. HIV prevention is not just a health question for the police, but also a national security issue. "It weakens the institution in terms of human resources," noted Meneses.

Between 2005 and 2006, some 24,000 police trainees and officers studying for promotion have passed though her sexual and reproductive health programme.

According to psychologist Adriana Becerra Castro, who coordinates the programme, the strategy has had to take into account that the participants are "people suffering from fatigue, macho stereotypes, insufficient risk awareness, and little information on the subject".

A survey taken at the start of the programme revealed that 85 percent of those on the course had not used a condom during their last sexual encounter, and only 32 percent of the men reported having just one sexual partner during the last year.

Course workshops provide the essential facts about HIV and AIDS; they also reveal the vulnerability of the young service members through games, and facilitate self-reflection.

The hit game show 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' provided the inspiration for one activity, called 'Who wants to be HIV free?' On Fridays, the workshop converts into a party, simulating the real-life environment of weekend nights when cops take off their uniforms and relax, in order to reflect risky behaviour.

Cops, Sex and HIV
Only 24 percent of course participants had used a condom at sexual debut
The average age for women during first sex was 18 and 15 for men
Eight out of 10 cops said they hadn't used a condom during their last sexual encounter
Roughly half thought they weren't at risk
Source: National Police survey
"The idea is to give them the tools for making better decisions," said Meneses. "If they drink, they should drink moderately; drunks are unable to protect themselves."

A game called 'The mission' teaches the proper use of condoms: putting one on, taking one off, and negotiating use. The idea is to make partners understand that using a condom is not due to a lack of love or mistrust but the contrary: you use protection because you care.

"You acquire values, you learn to be more responsible and become more aware of the risks," said Pulido. "Now I'm more careful, more cautious, and carry a condom with me wherever I go."


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), (IRIN) Prevention - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.