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Colombia's new highways: profit over people?

June 3, 2024

Colombian communities have suffered deadly avalanches after a Chinese-financed highway was built in the country's north. Did authorities and investors fail to take adequate safety precautions?


Manuel Salvador Zapata was on his way to buy a birthday cake for his 5-year-old son. The trip  saved his life. While he was out a landslide buried his village. It also buried his wife and three children, killing them. Who is to blame for this misfortune?

The cause of the disaster was probably explosions for the construction of a highway. In 2020, multiple landslides buried five villages at the same time. In total more than 300 families lost relatives or all of their belongings. 

"In Dabeiba we never had such landslides. That seems pretty strange," says the mayor of the town.

The builder of the Autopista al Mar 2 highway is a Chinese consortium. The new road was intended to simplify trade, especially with China. According to official Colombian information, more than 20% of imports already come from there.

But many have fallen by the wayside since the new road simply bypasses smaller communities. Now traveling salesmen no longer stop there, and once-thriving businesses are suffering.

The Colombian authorities and the construction consortium claim they did everything according to regulations. But critics point to possible cases of corruption. "Whether or not investment projects are beneficial will depend on both sides," says Catalina Micolta, director of research projects at the Andres Bello Foundation — China Latin America Research Center.

"And here it is very important to bear in mind that, if we want to have a profitable relationship with China, our institutions must be strong enough to allow that relationship to be profitable for both sides."