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The Small Colombian Town That Stopped Using Cash

Concepcion is the first place in Colombia where the vast majority of transactions involve electronic banking via mobile phones, staying well ahead of even northern Europe.

A quiet street in Concepcion
A quiet street in Concepcion
Sergio David González

CONCEPCION — Concepción in northern Colombia has become the country's first town to practically say goodbye to bank notes, instead embracing online payments for even the most ordinary transaction. When the town's 4,500 residents make purchases, they pay using their mobile phones. They are local pioneers of an expanding global trend, and apparently ahead of even countries such as Denmark, which is considering banning cash transactions in some shops and businesses starting next year.

Concepción calls itself a "welcoming land where nobody is an outsider," and that seems especially true when you can visit without any cash. It all started as part of a pilot program intended to bring "ordinary folk" and small businesses into the official economy and banking system. The initiative is backed and financed by the public sector Banco del Comercio Exterior, banking syndicate Asobancaria and the private bank Davivienda.

The curiosity in this little town is the coexistence of 21st century payment methods with its 19th century roads. It takes more than two hours to get here by bus from Medellín. The paved highway runs as far as the neighboring town of San Vicente, south of Concepción, and then devolves into a dirt track. Another route here is through Barbosa, though part of this road is dangerous in winter.

"Every project has its benefits and difficulties," says Concepción Mayor Gustavo Alonso López, who adds that the town got its first ATM thanks to the program. One problem, however, is that "cell phone reception is not so good here," he says. There are few choices for operators and signals are weak.

But motorbike-taxi driver Uriel Avendaño says he has had no problems so far getting paid by customers. "I've found it easy charging passengers with cell phones," he says. "I just have to give them my phone number and you're done. I then get a phone message saying my 2,000 pesos ($0.73) for the ride are in my bank account. I don't have to carry bills around."

Frequent electronic banking also gives customers easier access to credit. "The bank has a record and, on that basis, in all the financial entities we can start giving better services to families," says Efraín Forero, president of Davivienda. They will no longer have to resort to shady, high-interest loan sharks.

The residents of Concepción — also known as La Concha — are even starting to forget the faces on Colombian bank notes. Nora Marín, a 55-year-old woman working in juice processing, can't immediately recall the mustached gentleman who appears on a 20,000 pesos ($7.30) bill. The answer is Julio Garavito, once one of the country's prominent mathematicians and astronomers. But she knows perfectly well how to use the banking application through which her modest wages are paid, and even shows her clients how to work it.

The mayor of Concepción has himself come to illustrate the comparative safety of this online system. "I went to the district of Rionegro to claim a significant sum of money from the town, and some thieves thought I had the money in the car," he recalls. "But they couldn't take any, as it was in the cell phone. They did take the phone, but the money stayed in the bank."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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