In Colombia, 2015 was a year that will be remembered for its monumental progress on peace, troubling currency devaluation, and beauty queen drama. Amid all the tragedy and hope, it was only fitting that December gave us the Miss Universe mixup that had the whole world talking — for at least a few days — about a competition that few would have cared about otherwise.
For where the world sits in 2015, that only seems fitting. The trivial now often makes more news than the tragic or the transformative — but no matter which one drew the most headlines, Colombia saw it all over the past 12 months.
Here, we recount 15 stories for 2015 that helped define the year.
Miss Colombia Wins Miss Universe
The first of two chapters in a beauty pageant saga that would bookend the year came when Paulina Vega Dieppa of Barranquilla won Miss Universe. The 22-year-old Miss Colombia, who was crowned in Miami, was just the second Colombian to win the world’s most prestigious pagaent and first in nearly six decades.
Later, in December, for at least a few seconds, it looked like the country had its third winner and a historic back-to-back win after competition host Steve Harvey announced Miss Colombia as the winner.
But the comedian made a colossal blunder, reading the runner up’s name instead of Miss Philippines, who was the rightful winner and the women a heartbroken and embarrassed Ariadna Gutierrez of Sincelejo had to hand over the tiara to.
Ironically, Ariadna received more attention in the media than Paulina, showing just what a strange year this was as 2015 gave the world three unofficial Miss Universes, with two hailing from Colombia.
Landslide Kills More Than 80 in Salgar
At least 83 people were killed by a landslide in a small town in Antioquia that also destroyed upwards of 150 homes, making this tragedy one of Colombia’s worst natural disasters this millennium. Days of heavy rains led to flooding on the Cauca River, and overnight seismic activity moved the earth, catching local residents off guard with horrific results.
Controversy surrounded the tragedy since experts had previously warned the world that the area was susceptible to such an event. A magnitude-6.6 earthquake in the department of Santander had also frightened the nation earlier in March — it was even felt far away in the capital — though this powerful tremor fortunately didn’t do much damage.
But in a small town like Salgar without the resources or organization to take proper preparations, not enough was done to safeguard lives, and many families were forever changed by the catastrophe.
Colombia Underperforms at Copa America
Coming off its best-ever World Cup showing in 2014, many had high hopes for Seleccion Colombia at the Copa America 2015 competition in Chile. But the squad was not up to the task, scoring just one goal and barely even getting out of a group stage that should have been a cakewalk.
World Cup breakout star James Rodriguez failed to record a single goal as his team was repeatedly saved from elimination — quite literally — by goalkeeper David Ospina before bowing out to an Argentine side in penalty kicks.
The men’s showing stood in contrast to the World Cup performance in June by Colombia’s women’s team, which unexpectedly got out of the group stage. Unfortunately, the women ran into the eventual-champion U.S. squad in the round of 16 and were unable to advance any further in the knockout stage, but just making it as far as they did was a great result that stood in contrast to their compatriots.
There was some good news for footballing men from the nation this year, however, as Santa Fe later took home the trophy for the best club team in South America.
They became the first team ever from the country to win the Copa Sudamerica in December, and James got some redemption when he was named the best midfielder in Spain’s La Liga, where he scored 13 goals and recorded 13 assists in 29 games during his first season playing for Real Madrid.
Bomb Blasts Rock Bogotá
Multiple explosions shook the capital midweek during rush hour on the busy Avenida Chile and Calle 13, causing injuries to several people, blowing out at least one store front, and leaving debris along the crowded sidewalks as passersby recoiled in terror.
More than 10 people were later arrested in connection with the attacks, which government officials linked to the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN).
While the blasts didn’t do serious damage, they did psychological harm in a city that has largely been spared of the faction-led violence that is still too common in other areas of the nation. Officially, the incidents were never connected to FARC, but they hit at a time when the peace process seemed to be on the verge of breaking down, adding more tension to negotiations that had not advanced in months.
Mass Graves Unearthed Near Medellín
Officials excavated bodies from a landfill in what many believed might be one of the largest urban mass graves on the planet. Many victims were known to have been buried at the site, called La Escombrera, dating back to 2002, and some 300 were disappeared in a spate of attacks that left many in leftist group members killed by right-wing paramilitaries.
Even months later, the full toll of death remains murky, though the number of found bodies already numbers in the hundreds, according to Vice News.
Throughout the year, authorities planned to dig up tens of thousands of cubic meters of dirt looking for corpses that may be buried over 20 feet deep. While paramilitary members who went to jail helped identify where the bodies were put into the ground, exhuming the remains has been a massive undertaking, and identifying what they find has been yet another difficult endeavor.
So as some who lost loved ones more than a decade ago find closure, others will never learn anything about their disappeared.
Taxi Drivers in Bogotá Stage Protest Against Uber
Taxi drivers throughout the capital organized to express their disapproval for the growth of Uber, an unreguluated call-on-demand car service that is disrupting cab operations throughout the world.
The app had grown popular among those dissatisfied with taxi service in Bogotá, and some 10,000 drivers in the city protested with disruption of their own, using what was called a “turtle plan” to slow traffic in a place where rush hour is slow enough already.
After multiple other protests followed later in the year, President Juan Manuel Santos declared new regulations in November for “luxury taxis,” essentially subjecting Uber and imitators like it to the same laws as taxistas throughout the city — and even stricter requirements.
These so-called luxury cab drivers now must meet licensing requirements, complete courses in customer service, and charge a minimum fee that is higher than traditional taxis. Passengers must also be able to pay their fares with credit and debit cards, another factor that could is expected to help luxury taxis compete with Uber.
Peso Hits Record Low
The Colombian peso began losing value in the fall of 2014 as soon as global oil prices started to plummet. That plunge brought the currency to a record low in August when it broke the 2,980 mark to the dollar set in 2003.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the tumble continued for weeks before evening off a little over 3,000-to-1. But as crude continued to drop, so again did the peso, with its value — which had been at 1,850 a year and a half earlier — hovering around 3,300 to 1 by the end of 2015.
Though plenty of economists believe that the foundations of the Colombian economy remain strong and its low-term potential is still promising, the devaluation of the currency is having major budget impacts for governments and is now driving high inflation, which led to a 7% hike in the national minimum wage.
The price of imports has also risen, putting many goods out of reach for lower-class Colombians and putting pressure on families and companies to make ends meet.
Venezuela Ignites Border Crisis
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro unleashed chaos when he suddenly closed a border that had always been pourous and deported some 1,400 Colombians. A large metro area spills across the frontier, with many Colombians living on the other side and many more making a living by selling cheap Venezuelan gasoline in their home city of Cúcuta.
But some 20,000 fled the neighboring nation following the mass deportations out of fear that they would be next, often leaving with just the few possessions they could carry on their back as they crossed the river on foot once what had long been an imaginary line in practice became a threat to their families.
As has become routine in the capital of Caracas, President Maduro blamed foreigners for domestic problems and blamed an incident of violence as evidence that organized Colombian criminal groups were destabilizing Venezuela.
International NGOs have given little credence to such claims, with many organizations and politicians denouncing the paranoid policies that led to at least 4,000 ending up in temporary shelters back in Colombia.
Maduro’s socialist party was later routed in December’s elections, with the opposition taking a three-fifths majority in the National Assembly as a record 75% of the electorate revolted against the status quo continue in a country where food and goods shortages have been the norm for nearly two years despite it having the world’s largest oil reserves.
While any change should be good news for long-suffering Venezuelans, the shift is also expected to ease tensions between Bogotá and Caracas that have growing for as long as Colombia has been aligning more closely with the United States.
Narcos Premieres on Netflix, Highlighting Good and Bad of Colombia Film Industry
Colombia has been happy to start changing its reputation in recent years by growing as a tourism destination and enjoying the international popularity of stars like singer Shakira, football star James Rodriguez, actor Sofia Vergara, and driver Juan Pablo Montoya.
So it was somewhat bittersweet when Netflix premiered a new, acclaimed television series filmed in the country about the time and times of Pablo Escobar. While the creators of Narcos tried more than most to not sensationalize the subject matter, it is not a topic that most Colombians want to see on such a high-profile stage.
But it was also the loudest splash in 2015 for a country that is trying to become a marquee filming location for productions from abroad and domestically. The government has established a generous system of rebates for foreign films that choose to shoot in the nation, and films like The 33, a tale of the miners trapped in Chile, and the Tom Cruise drug-runner flick Mena have already taken advantage.
Domestically, the nation also produced esteemed works like La Tierra y La Sombra, which won Cali-born director César Acevedo the prestigious best first film award at Cannes, and the stunning nature documentary Magia Salvaje.
Yes, many understandably rolled their eyes when yet another Pablo Escobar account — let alone one with an odd-sounding Brazilian in the lead role — came to pass in 2015. But it marked a big moment for production this year in a nation that hope to add cinema, like tourism before it, as another new industry that can help boost the economy and change how the world sees Colombia.
Historic Handshake Between Colombia and FARC Leaders Promises Peace
The country was abuzz with wonder and curiosity as soon as it learned that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had gone to Havana. Then came the press conference in which, for the first time ever, the nation’s leader and the leader of FARC shook hands, announcing that they had reached agreement on the most contentious issue in the near-three-year-long peace talks between the groups: transitional justice.
“I have come to Havana to announce to Colombians, especially the victims of the conflict, that we have reached agreement on a system of justice, which allows me to say with conviction that we will achieve the maximum justice possible and the maximum possible satisfaction of their rights,” said President Santos.
While this handshake didn’t formally end a half-century of conflict, the president said that the final accord would be signed within six months — by March 23, 2016 — and that the remaining issues could be ironed out now that the largest hurdle was cleared.
Though Pope Francis had urged peace for the nation, the announcement came as a shock to many since it came just months after one official had claimed that the discussions in Cuba had reached their lowest point. Questions remain before peace can be achieved: will the March 23 deadline be hit, what is FARC’s political future, what exactly will the reparations be for victims?
And Colombians must approve the final agreement at the ballot. But frameworks to decide these issues are mostly in place, and Santos said in December that “never before have we been so close to a definitive agreement.” Reason for skepticism remains, but the progress seen in 2015 — and this historic handshake — set up the likelihood that peace will finally come to Colombia in 2016.
Bogotá Elects Enrique Peñalosa as New Mayor
After 12 years of POLO Democrático party leadership in the capital, Bogotá elected Cambio Radical party candidate Enrique Peñalosa as its new mayor. Peñalosa, a 61-year-old who got nearly one-third of the vote to beat Rafael Pardo, Clara López, and Francisco Santos, will take office tomorrow on January 1, 2016, to begin his second stint as Bogotá’s mayor.
He first served from 1998 to 2001, and many are not welcoming his return, but he has received praise for his role in giving a congested city its TransMilenio bus system, Cicloruta bike path network, and Ciclovía road lanes without cars on Sundays to the city.
“We will work together, and together we will make this city the city we deserve,” said Peñalosa after his win on a day when the nation elected 1,100 new mayors and 32 governors. “We will feel proud of our city, for Colombia, and for the world.”
Court legalizes adoption by gay couples
Equal rights under the law took a giant leap forward in Colombia in November when the nation’s Constitutional Court, in a decisive 6-2 ruling, held that gay couples can adopt children. Previously, a gay couple, which cannot wed in the country and must enter a civil union, could only adopt a child it was one of the biological kid of one of the parents.
“A person’s sexual orientation or gender are not in and of themselves indicative of a lack of moral, physical or mental suitability to adopt,” said María Victoria Calle Correa, chief justice of Colombia’s highest court.
Those restrictions have been lifted, and this decision followed another step in the slow march for civil rights in June when a decree was passed to allow transgender people to legally change their registered sex on their identification cards.
Previously, this had been possible only if the person was willing to subject themselves to an embarrassing genital inspection by a governmental medical examiner to prove they had undergone gender reassignment surgery.
Shipwreck Worth Billions Found Off Colombian Coast
The famed San José galleon was discovered at the bottom of the Caribbean near Barú, igniting a three-way war for its billions in treasure between Colombia, Spain, and a private group in the United States. Given where it was found, most agree that the bounty belongs to Colombia, and President Juan Manual Santos quickly announced that he plans to create a museum in Cartagena to show off the gold bullion and other artifacts once they haul it out of the sea.
“This is Colombian heritage,” said President Santos. “The galleon is the patrimony of Colombians, for Colombians.”
But that doesn’t mean those in Spain nor the United States will give us easily. Authorities in Madrid have battled before to reclaim shipwrecks found far from their nation and members of the U.S.-based Sea Search Armada salvage company have been claiming that they had located the San José since the early 1980s. So this mean that a prolonged legal fight will likely continue to hang a black cloud over the historic discovery of a ship that sunk in 1708, killing some 600 crew and passengers aboard.
Most of Europe Lifts Visa Requirements for Colombians
For decades Colombians faced extra scrutiny when planning trips abroad. This year, some welcome news, when Europe’s Schengen-member nations officially removed this barrier, allowing unrestricted access within their borders for trips of up to 90 days.
Days after the Schengen exemption went into effect, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland followed suit dropping a visa requirement for Colombians, leaving only the United Kingdom as a popular European destination which demands a stringent visa restriction whose processing time can be a long as 30 days.
Colombia Legalizes Medical Marijuana
Medical and drug-rights activists hailed a ruling late in the year that pushed medical marijuana out of a legal gray area and into full regulation under the law. While medical marijuana was available to some degree already in the nation, this change puts a framework in place for its production and highlights how even a country that has been as forceful as any in trying to fight drug trafficking is learning that total prohibition is an impossible task.
President Juan Manual Santos was, however, quick to respond to critics, noting that this changes nothing about the country’s fight against the illicit production of marijuana and other drugs, but recognized the value the plant can have for those suffering from pain.
“Today, Colombia took an important step into the vanguard of the fight against sicknesses,” said President Santos. “We want to facilitate the research and production of medications created from cannabis, just as we do with any natural element that can provide relief from sickness and pain.”