Why you should care
Colombia finally has a shot at breaking the stranglehold of gangs on its justice system.
Jorge Montoya used to keep the numbers of three gangsters in his cellphone — just in case he had a problem with someone and needed help. That was his only option.
Montoya, 21, grew up in San Javier, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia. It was a place where the government didn’t go, owing to the control of criminal organizations. But now the residents of San Javier are turning to a new power broker with their issues. Nope, not the cops, not the military — they’re turning instead to the local Justice House.
“I don’t need these numbers anymore,” says Montoya, jiggling his cell in one hand. “I can delete all of them now.”
For years, Colombians from across the country who wanted to resolve conflicts have often gone to the heads of armed groups or local Mafia organizations or even formed private armies to take care of problems. In some cases, such as in San Javier, the government simply wasn’t available. In other places, the government was seen as ineffective, corrupt and untrustworthy. But the increased clout of gangs only spawned even more violence, as Colombia grappled with a decadeslong civil war that claimed the lives of more than 215,000 civilians and displaced 7.7 million people.
Now, as the Colombian government has started to take control of territory where it was previously absent, after a peace accord in 2016 demobilized Marxist rebels, it’s also rapidly expanding an unconventional strategy to bring the state to these once-ungoverned communities. It’s setting up so-called Justice Houses that — staffed by lawyers, psychologists, police and officials from various law enforcement agencies — aim to bring justice to communities whose members often have little understanding of how a modern legal system is supposed to work. That is, if they even trust the government.
The Colombian state has concentrated mainly in urban centers … but people with a stronger need for access to justice don’t have the same possibility of getting there.
Heyder Alfonso, former consultant to the Justice House program
It’s an approach showing initial signs of success in bridging the trust deficit that existed between the state and communities, especially in rural Colombia. In 2018, Justice Houses attended 700,436 cases compared to 588,106 the year before — a 20 percent increase. Colombia now has 114 Justice Houses.
“The Justice Houses are all about developing access to justice,” says Heyder Alfonso, a former consultant to the Justice House program. “The Colombian state has concentrated mainly in urban centers … but the people on the periphery, let’s say, people with a stronger need for access to justice, don’t have the same possibility of getting there.”
Nestled between two giant slopes carved with lines of redbrick shanties, the concrete facade of Comuna 13’s Justice House in Montoya’s neighborhood looks like that of a public school, not a police station. Inside, there’s a lawyer who attends to cases before directing people to the most relevant department: police, psychologists, federal investigators. Here, Montoya and other members of the San Javier community come to resolve problems they can’t resolve by themselves. Many homicides stem from smaller conflicts, like an intrafamily loan that goes unpaid or a noisy neighbor who won’t quiet down. Next thing you know, someone gets drunk, and someone gets murdered.
“It’s not just one factor. You can’t generalize,” says Alvaro Mesa, an official at the San Javier Justice House. “It’s a lot of these things that accumulate and boil over. And in the worst-case scenario, there’s a conflict that leads to violence.”
There is a history of weak institutions in Latin America. The reach of government and the ability of agencies to consistently govern is limited by their often-byzantine bureaucracies. Another big obstacle to justice in Colombia is geography, Mesa explains. The most remote Justice House is located in Carmen del Darien, a small town along Colombia’s Pacific Coast, where access from the nearest large town involves hours of travel on dirt roads and on riverboats.
“One of the biggest obstacles to resolving problems of conflict is money,” he says. “It’s the high cost of doing so. The travel from a small town to an urban center where there’s an office that will attend you, that’s all fundamental for dealing out justice.”
But the government’s Justice Houses are not perfect either. Even though the national homicide rate has improved from an alarming 60 per 100,000 people in the early 2000s, it remained high at 24 per 100,000 last year. That means that in Latin America, the world’s most homicidal region, Colombia is still the seventh most dangerous country after Venezuela, El Salvador, Jamaica, Honduras, Brazil and Guatemala. Armed groups that have succeeded Colombia’s paramilitaries and ex-FARC rebels roam lawless areas. Another problem is that because multiple government offices work together at Justice Houses, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint responsibility.
The shadow of the gangs continues to linger in several parts of Colombia where the state remains weak, even with Justice Houses. Montoya still remembers the day in October 2002 when military choppers and tanks stormed San Javier in an operation called Orion. Dozens of people were killed. For those living in San Javier, the government’s firepower and violence left scars. Yes, it broke up the gangs, but at a high cost.
Today, people in San Javier say there’s a truce between the criminal organizations that operate drug-trafficking routes passing through the neighborhood that marks the outskirts of Medellín. That’s a big reason there’s little bloodshed. If the truce breaks, the armed conflict could come back to haunt these residents. But until then, Justice Houses remain the Colombian state’s best bet in regaining the trust of communities that for decades were left to fend for themselves.