Colombia Gears up for Under-20 World Cup With Eye Towards Security

The FIFA U-20 World Cup, world championship of soccer for men under the age of 20 starts Friday in Colombia. Twenty four teams from five continents will compete around the country in eight different cities. It’s widely considered the largest sports tournament ever held in the Andean nation. Approximately 35,000 international tourists are expected to attend the tournament aside from the locals.

The spectacle will be watched on television by 500 million fans around the world. But as Colombia deals with rising violence and a deteriorating security situation, police are making extra preparations to make sure that everything goes smoothly for visitors during the event.

In cities like Cartagena, safety measures have increased with 4,000 extra police guarding hotels and popular tourist sites. The U.S. state department has taken note of the recent unrest in some parts of Colombia, updating its travel warning just last week for Americans traveling there.

The statement reads: "Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations like Cartagena and Bogota, but violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas and large cities."  The U.S. followed the United Kingdom, who also updated its travel warning for the country.

Aside from narco-trafficking and recent paramilitary gang violence there were two car bomb attacks in 2010 and a June 2011 satchel bomb in Bogotá with no fatalities. But police are confident that they can keep the nation safe for the competition regardless of the issues with crime.

“The things that are happening are nothing to be alarmed about,” says Jhon Andres Casallas,” an official for the Bogotá Metropolitan Police. “Thanks to the work that we have done with other institutions, the security in general is good.  Of course, there are some places of resistance. But there’s nothing that we can’t handle because we’re fully trained for events of this magnitude.”

Several thousand extra police officers will be on the streets in the capital for the U-20 as part of a special security force. Over 186,000 law enforcement officials are available nationally. Locals too are confident that everything can go off without a problem.

“It’s a good opportunity to show to rest of the world that the security is actually getting better compared to the past,” explains Juan Puyana, an insurance claims manager.

And he expressed excitement over Colombia's chances in the tournament.

“But we also got to win the World Cup because we have a great team!”  The tournament begins in the Estadio Atanasio Girardot in Medellin, hosting a match between England and North Korea. The final will be held in Bogotá on August 20.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spoke to the national team and to soccer fans last week about the importance of hosting the event.

"It is one opportunity --I repeat-- only one,” he said. “The world press will be watching what happens at each one of the games, in each one of the cities and to transmit it will reflect what this country is: a wonderful country, an enthusiastic country and a country eager to tell the world that we can more than fulfill this responsibility to host the biggest sporting event of the year."

The majority of the tickets have already been sold.  About $100 million has been spent to upgrade soccer stadiums by the Colombian government with the private sector.

While the U-20 World Cup doesn’t get as much attention as other major soccer tournaments, this will be a chance for Colombia to show the international community that it’s no longer the violent nation it used to be.

David Noto is the Latin American correspondent for Fox News Radio in Bogotá, Colombia.

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