Rather than stuffy handshakes, visitors to his Bogotá offices adjacent to the presidential palace – female visitors, at least – receive a kiss on the cheek and a good dose of Latin charm. A graduate of the University of Texas and former editor of El Tiempo newspaper, he chats amiably about American football and southern US rock music and gives local restaurant recommendations.

His mood is jovial and confident, reflecting the national mood. “We have got the upper hand on criminality and these criminal groups,” he says. Like most other Colombians, he is conscious of international perception and eager to disavow lingering stereotypes.


“Colombia is a little jewel that is hidden. People come here and think they will see shoot-outs in the street and kidnappings on the next block. Then they realise we actually live pretty normal lives.” For those who dare to discover this jewel, he points out, “there is a lot of money to be made”.

While some of its Latin neighbours become less stable and as their institutions come under threat, Colombia – long considered the riskiest – has come out the other side, Mr Santos says. “We have been there, done that. We are now seeing an inverse curve.”

This presents a rare chance for Colombia, which has been underinvested because of security problems, to re-engage with the global business community. “We are not ashamed to say we are pro-business. We are reducing red tape, pursuing sound macroeconomic policies and are very aggressively searching for new markets,” Mr Santos says. “We have completed free trade agreements with Central America and the US, are negotiating one with Chile, and after four years of knocking on the door of the EU, the Andean Community has signed an association agreement.”

He says all levels of government are working hard to improve Colombia’s image and to promote inward investment. As a result, companies “are looking at a country they had totally discarded before”. He cites the example of General Electric, which had given up on Colombia after one of the company’s executives was kidnapped and killed in the 1990s, but which has now returned after vigorous wooing.

“From the president all the way down, we have become sellers of Colombia,” says Mr Santos. What they have to sell is “a country with the third largest population in Latin America, with a stable democracy, stable rules, strong institutions and a drastically improved security situation, and which offers huge opportunities for foreign investors”.

The size and scope of these opportunities will expand as security continues to improve, with which the government is pressing ahead, Mr Santos says, despite the major gains already achieved in a relatively short amount of time. “We are pretty excited about the results of the past four years but there is still a long way to go. We need to consolidate the security situation and improve security in remote, rural areas and diminish the areas where [the criminal] groups operate. And second, we need to improve security in urban areas. Most of our cities have homicide rates that are lower than others in Latin America but we still have problems with common delinquency crimes.”

The focus on individual street crimes is itself a positive indication of how far Colombia has come. If he had been told four years ago that the government would have the luxury of worrying about such low-level crime, Mr Santos says, he never would have believed it. “We underestimated the capability of the police and army, and overestimated the capability of the bad guys. The criminal groups are on the defensive. They are seeing diminishing returns, to use an economic term.”

But now Mr Santos has an important question for his interviewer: “Have you had any empanadas since you have been in Colombia?” he wants to know. An answer in the negative elicits an impromptu invitation. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go for a snack. I know a good place.”