Ganging Up on Colombians
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in some ways, scaling down one armed conflict is endangering the lives of other, completely innocent people.
By Sergio Held
On most weeknights around 8, Jairo gets off the bus and walks about 200 meters to his wife, kids and home in El Veinte de Julio, a neighborhood in the southern end of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. He has been commuting this way for years, without any problems, even through the worst of Colombia’s hyperviolent conflict with the FARC guerrillas. It wasn’t until the government recently started talking about how safe things were that he almost got killed by a knife-wielding robber in a hoodie and a mask. He was so close to home that he already had his house keys in hand, says Jairo, who was stabbed in the arm and shoulder before he could fight off the bandit.
Welcome to the new reality of life in Colombia. Despite reams of government pronouncements to the contrary, the country’s streets are actually getting more dangerous. Peace negotiations with the FARC — one of the world’s richest guerrilla armies, known for its kidnappings and extortion schemes — have been ongoing, as opposing members try to end a five-decade war of armed conflict. But some of the factions, sidelined by the negotiations, have morphed into smaller inner-city street gangs.
When it comes to playing up the positive news about negotiations with the FARC, “this government is full of announcements,” says Rep. Samuel Hoyos, a member of the Centro Democrático, the opposition party led by former President Álvaro Uribe. But, he notes, officials are taking few “decisive steps” to better watch the streets because they’re focused on peace talks, taking place in Cuba. “They have neglected the safety in the country,” says Hoyos.
Of course, the opposition party is expected to be critical of the ruling party. After all, the peace process was key to President Juan Manuel Santos’ platform before he was reelected in 2014. But Santos also promised to work on issues of security in the cities. His progress of late? Thefts in Bogotá rose 3 percent in 2014 from a year earlier, according to figures — from a government entity, the Center of Research and Analysis in Living Together and Safety — that weren’t officially released but were exposed by El Tiempo, a local newspaper. All told, 27,753 people reported being mugged. Meanwhile, Sen. Alfredo Rangel, also from Centro Democrático, says extortions are up 80 percent since the peace talks started in 2012.
Even more troubling, some claim, is that the government has resorted to letting convicted criminals out to make the numbers look better.
In some ways, the scale-down of the police and military operations against the FARC — members of which hide out in rural rain forests — has helped to put more criminals back on the streets, especially in urban centers like Bogotá. In other cases, prosecutors say the FARC has hired gangs, like El Parche de Zuley from Cali, to carry out attacks against prominent people, including one against a former justice minister whose SUV blew up, injuring 40 and killing two bodyguards. While two of those gang members were later killed by police officers and a couple of others are in jail, nobody from the FARC has been indicted.
To be sure, government officials have tried to stem the violence with means beyond just the peace talks with the FARC. Three years ago, Bogotá’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, passed a ban on carrying firearms, and in 2013, the city reported its lowest homicide rate in 30 years: 16.4 for every 100,000 people. Even so, that’s almost quadruple the rate in the U.S., and last year, the death toll in Bogotá rose to 17.3 for every 100,000.
Yet there are times when the government also seems to be making efforts to clean up its own statistics. Colombia’s minister of justice, Yesid Reyes, has made much hay about drops in prison overcrowding, from 59 to 48 percent between January and December last year, but both detainees and the labor union of the National Penitentiary and Prisons Institute (Inpec in Spanish) say it’s common for up to 12 people to sleep in cells designed to fit four. Even more troubling, some claim, is that the government has resorted to letting convicted criminals out to make the numbers look better. “It is shameful to hear the Ministry of Justice saying that the solution for overcrowding should come from reducing convictions and to parole many criminals,” says Hoyos.
The upshot is that there are more unrehabilitated criminals on the streets, and Colombia’s biggest security threat is no longer coming from the world’s largest drug cartel but from the many gangs (nobody knows the exact number) trained by brutal dealers. At the same time, there are virtually no checks on these thugs. Police are demoralized and undermanned. And prosecutors are often unable or unwilling to take on cases.
By some estimates, only four out of 10 mugging victims in Colombia report the crime. Many people suspect the police won’t do anything or, worse, that local gangs will be alerted to the report and retaliate. Jairo, for one, didn’t file a formal report even though he was escorted by the police to a hospital to get stitches for his wound. “The more aware you become of what happened, the more scared you get,” says Jairo. He now walks home from the bus with a Taser in hand.
- Sergio Held, OZY Author Contact Sergio Held