William Otalora has been planning for some time to settle down as a businessman in South Florida. He is willing to give up his position as an executive of a North American company in Bogota and move with his family to Coral Springs, in Broward, in order to develop his own business.
His wife was recently assaulted in downtown Bogota. Although she was not talking on her cellphone in the street, something that Colombians are careful not to do, the thieves stole the device from her purse. That incident hastened their plans for moving.
Otalora said that armed robberies have increased in Bogota and many citizens feel insecure because the criminals are often quickly released from custody.
"There is no prison infrastructure or robust legislation to combat this type of crime," he said.
The businessman also doesn’t approve of Enrique Peñalosa’s administration as mayor of Bogota nor that of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. "We are one of the countries with the highest tax burden in Latin America and that is not reflected in the infrastructure; there is no development," he adds.
Otalora is one of many Colombians looking to move to South Florida as a result of insecurity and corruption in their homeland. He also fears the possibility that a former Colombian guerrilla insurgent may become the country’s first leftist president during upcoming elections and the country's economic model would shift.
According to the Miami Association of Realtors, Colombians are among foreigners most interested in buying properties in Miami. A report issued by the organization in January indicated that the majority of searches on its website come from Colombia. This is a trend that has been maintained for over a year, according to another report issued in August.
In 2017, Colombians held fourth place among international buyers in South Florida, representing 9 percent of buyers, at pace with Canadians. This list is dominated by Argentinians and Venezuelans, who represent 15 and 11 percent of buyers, respectively.
Fabio Andrade, a Colombian businessman and activist who serves as president of the Americas Community Center, an organization based in Weston that helps immigrants, said that the majority of Colombians who emigrate to Florida are middle class and business owners. They are attracted to financial security and investment possibilities in South Florida and also seek to purchase homes in neighborhoods that offer high-ranking schools and family-friendly environments.
South Florida is familiar to them because of the growing community and frequent travel to the region, both for work and vacation, Andrade said. Among the areas they tend to settle in: Weston, Pembroke Pines, the Biscayne area, Miami Shores and Aventura, where there is a considerable presence of the Colombian Jewish community.
Some buy properties in cash, while others take advantage of low interest rates on housing loans. Otalora said that what attracts him to various parts of South Florida is a sense of tranquility and potential business opportunities.
"I know the cost of living is higher, but obviously, income is higher as well," he said.
Political rhetoric surrounding the May 27 elections also is fueling a desire to flee.
Martin Rosenow, an attorney whose firm specializes in immigration issues and has numerous Colombian clients, said that he has seen a spike in visa applications of Colombian businessmen over the past six months.
"People are afraid that Colombia will become a Venezuela, and people with money and entrepreneurs are looking for a way to establish themselves in the United States and to protect the capital they have made for many years," Rosenow said.
For Andrade, insecurity is the primary concern. During a recent visit to Bogota, he was repeatedly warned by the residents about being cautious even in exclusive places like the G zone of Bogota, where some of the best restaurants are located.
"'If you're going to walk, stick to these two blocks', they tell you, " Andrade said, adding that the country ended "an armed conflict with bandits and terrorists but now community insecurity is everywhere."
In reality, in 2017, Colombia had the lowest homicide rate in 42 years, with 11,781 deaths nationwide. In 1990, during the height of the drug war with the Medellin cartel, some 7,000 people were killed just in the city of Medellin.
But the lower crime rate has done little to sway those who have decided to leave.
Karen Mayorga has been laying down roots in the United States for a year. Her son studies with a scholarship at the University of Oregon and she established a company in Maryland, Mi sabor, that imports frozen products from Colombia.
"The goal is to go forward. We have made slow but firm progress and we are bringing more and more containers [to the United States]," Mayorga said from Bogota.
Her plan is to request a visa and to move to Miami in about two years. With that in mind, she has already started to look at houses in Fort Lauderdale and a condo in downtown Miami.
"We want to invest in the real estate market", she said. "We come seeking quality of life."