A national ID card at work, Colombia-style

Colombia’s government wants to know the color of my underwear. When I went to buy underwear at a store here in Bogotá recently, surprise!  The sales assistant asked me for my cédula, my Colombian national ID card number.  Why?  What is this?  The government in interested in my underwear?  Well, apparently, yes!  To complete the purchase of my undershorts, I needed to provide my cédula.  For the sales assistant, the request for my ID number tripped off her tongue as easily as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  So in went my information to some obscure database, and I left the store shaking my head but secure in the knowledge that should I ever forget, the Colombian government would be able to remind me of my underwear size and color preference.

My actual cédula contains my photograph and a thumbprint, as well as my blood type, name, date of birth, security holograms, and my all-important ID number.  My religion, or lack of, is not mentioned.  I am, however, required by law to have my cédula with me at all times.  There are military checkpoints on many roads within Colombia.  When stopped, driver and passengers must produce their cédulas.  Failure to do so can mean a period of 24 hour detention or a fine.  And in different cities, I have often seen police or military officers ask street vendors, or simply street oddballs, to produce their cédulas.

Recently, when exiting a bus at the main bus terminal in the southern town of Pitalito, a military officer needed to check the cédula of each person getting off my bus against his database on a hand-held computer before the passenger could enter the terminal.  The funny part was that nobody was actually required to show their cédula, simply to give the officer a number.  So any number, your cousin’s, for example, – should you be a guerrilla, would have worked.  The officer took one look at my face – gringo! – and he just waved me on.  No cédula needed – which says what about what!

Colombia is not unique in its dependence on national ID cards.  All Latin American countries, many European, and many other countries around the world require national ID cards.  The United States does not.  Freedom reigns.  If you never need to enter an airport, open a bank account, or get a driver’s license in the United States, all is fine.  A Colombian friend said to me today, a cédula is just like a driver’s license or a social security card.  Well, yes and no. Nobody in the United States has ever asked me to attach my social security number to my Gap purchase.  A credit card number, yes – and often!  But a national identification number?

Perhaps the United States is different.  Or….. perhaps not.  I took a plane back to the US from Colombia last year.  I was ‘randomly’ chosen for secondary investigation at the Orlando International Airport.  The investigating officer emphasized the word ‘random’ several times.  However, it turned out that he knew my place of employment, the name change of my place of employment, my sources of income, and specifically how many times (many!) I had traveled to Colombia within the last year.  “You are correct,” he told me when I thought I had traveled to Colombia 14 times.  He wanted to know how much money I had in my wallet – I was not permitted to check.  I was interrogated for the best part of 30 minutes.  I was not allowed to pick up my luggage.  The investigating officer had to do it for me.  Apparently at the end of the half hour of investigation, all was well, as the officer’s final words to me were “Welcome home!”  It was an odd kind of welcome in a country that supposedly wasn’t keeping track, national ID or not, of who I was, or where I was traveling to, or what I was up to with my life.

Home – I was home!  But back to my underwear.  What’s going on in Colombia?  Why does the Colombian government need to know boxers or briefs?  Well, I am told that the government’s interest is not so much in my color or choice of what I wear underneath my trousers, but in keeping track of how much money I spend over the course of the year.  The government already has a record of my income from my employer.  Am I overspending based on my salary?  The government wants to know.  Am I somehow overspending my average budget for underwear?  Perhaps.  Clearly, I live in Colombia, and money laundering is an issue.  Thus, the small fry must provide an ID number along with the big fry.  Ultimately, the goal is to keep track of a porous economy.  Trickling down the line, the price of my underwear is recorded and the world is a safer place for you and me.  That is the proposition!


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Christopher Burke

About Christopher Burke

Christopher Burke is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Bogota, Colombia. His cartoons are often in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and are always found at http://www.burkecartoons.com. His observations on daily life in Colombia can be found at http://christopherburkecolombia.wordpress.com.