Safe word

By bogotapost August 10, 2015
Colombian Slang, Colombian Spanish, crime language

Scary and dark. Photo: GeorgePauwels CC BY 2.0

Katie Jacoby looks at crime language to make sure you have your wits and your words about you…

As we continue learning vocabulary related to all areas of life in Bogota, we can’t avoid the topic of crime and safety. It’s useful to know the related vocabulary beforehand should something happen to you and be able to understand the topic when discussed by others or in a news report. In this short space, we’ll focus on theft, general crime and safety terms.

It’s important to be alert about what’s happening around you. Keeping your eyes wide open and watching your back is called being pilas here in Colombia, or mosca.

¡Ponte (las) pilas cuando vayas a ese lugar tan concurrido! Tienes que estar bien mosca si vas a salir a esa hora.

The infamous and ever-controversial phrase in Colombia to tell people to just be smart is no dar papaya. Dar papaya means to let your guard down and do some stupid thing where you’re just asking someone to take advantage of you, i.e., dar un papayazo. While this idea of victim-blaming is the source of much debate, it’s deeply ingrained in the local consciousness.

If you see someone who gives you a bad feeling, in Spanish you say that the person da mala espina.

Me dio mala espina de una, no sé, tenía pinta de ladrón.

This is another way of saying that someone just looked like they were up to no good: tener pinta de ladrón (or whatever they looked like). One very Colombian word used to describe somebody you look at and suspect of being a criminal is malacaroso. Literally bad-faced, use this word if you lock eyes with a stranger and automatically sense that they have criminal intentions.

Both to steal and to rob are expressed in Spanish with the verb robar. The usage is a little different, though. In English, we can use ‘to rob’ in the passive tense: I was robbed. In Spanish, you use the active tense in the third person plural to generally state that you were robbed: Me robaron. Even if it was just one person, use the plural if you are being non-specific. To mug is atracar, and a mugging is un atraco. To express what was stolen, say:

Me robaron el bolso or Me robaron el celular.

There are several words for thieves. Ladrón, of course, is the standard word, but more colloquial words include ratero and choro. Raponero is a very Colombian word for a purse or wallet snatcher who then takes off running, and un raponazo refers to this specific type of theft. A pickpocket is a carterista (cartera meaning wallet), but this word isn’t common in Colombia. A mugger is un atracador.

More general words for thugs and hoodlums are hampones (el hampa is the criminal underworld) and malandros. Gangs in Bogota aren’t usually called pandillas nor are they called combos like in Medellin: here, they’re bandas. A word for gangs participating in organised crime that you might hear on the news is las bacrim (from bandas criminales).

Hurtar is a more formal way of saying to steal, with hurto being a more formal word for theft or robbery. When a bank is robbed, the verb is asaltar:

Asaltaron el banco y se llevaron 100 millones de pesos.

One of Colombia’s most notorious crimes is el paseo millonario. A millionaire’s ride or a million-dollar ride is when a taxi driver and his scummy accomplices drive you from ATM to ATM and force you to empty out your account for them.

If you are robbed or mugged, you’ll have to decide if you’re going to file a police report. A report is una denuncia, so the action is poner una denuncia or, simply, denunciar. You can go to una estación de policía, or un CAI. CAI stands for Centro de Atención Inmediata, and these are the small stations located throughout the city. The police themselves are la policía when referring to the police in general and el policía or la policía when talking about a specific officer. The local colloquial term for them is tombos, like cops in English. Though less common, aguacates is even more colloquial, and neither word is considered respectful.

While I sincerely hope that nothing will ever happen to you while you’re enjoying and exploring this city, forewarned (and fore-taught) is at least somewhat forearmed. Please be careful and stay safe so you can continue enjoying this beautiful and happening city with all it has to offer.

Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for 3 years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website,