Colombia’s violence: The mythical curse of geography

One often hears that Colombia’s complex geography has condemned the country to fragmentation and political instability. Mountains, hills and rivers divide the country into many regions with distinct identities and some historians argue that this fragmentation has stood in the way of efforts to integrate the country. In the long run, the argument goes, geography has also contributed to Colombia’s turbulent and violent history. This is indeed a tempting argument. Colombia is topographically complex, has one of the world’s highest homicide rates and its ongoing armed conflict is one of the oldest on the planet. However, the link between geographic fragmentation and violence in Colombia is a wildly exaggerated myth.

To see why, we must test the theory by looking at the basic facts and patterns of violence in Colombia today and over recent decades. In many countries, economic, cultural and political differences between regions have led directly to violence. The escalation of violence along the cultural border between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south is just the latest example. But this is clearly not the case in Colombia. Outside soccer stadiums, the conflicts that plague Colombia are not between paisas and bogotanos.

The argument that geographic fragmentation has made it difficult for the Colombian state to consolidate its authority and has therefore indirectly contributed to violence is a strong one. The country’s vast jungles and complex topography do indeed make it easier for illegal armed groups (and the drug crops and routes that fund them) to hide from the authorities. On the other hand, if geography really does contribute to state weakness and violence in Colombia, then it would follow that, as the country’s infrastructure improves and people move to major cities where the state is strong, violence would decrease.

In reality, of course, the opposite has happened. Although Colombia is much more integrated today than ever before – about half the country’s population lives in the triangle-shaped region between Bogotá, Medellín and Cali – the past decades have been among the most violent in the country’s history. Much of that violence is concentrated not in remote regions (although there is still much violence in rural areas) but in major cities where the state is strongest, contrary to what the geography hypothesis would suggest.

Finally, cross-country comparisons suggest that geography is only a weak and indirect explanation for violence in Latin America. Take, for example, the case of Mexico, a large but relatively integrated country where violence has recently skyrocketed. Central American countries, which are all quite small and geographically integrated, are among the most violent in the region.

So what are the root causes of violence in today’s Colombia? The drug business is an obvious culprit. Colombia continues to play a central role in the international drug trade and where there is international drug trafficking, there is violence. Countries along drug processing and trafficking routes like Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Jamaica tend to have higher homicide rates than others in the region, including poorer nations like Bolivia and Paraguay.

To make matters worse for Colombia, the domestic drug market has grown significantly in recent years. Together, fights over the domestic and international drug trade account for a significant percentage of homicides in the country. Increases in the homicide rates of Cali, Bogotá and especially Medellín can largely be attributed to wars between rival trafficking gangs. Drug money also corrupts government and law enforcement agencies, weakening the state’s ability to fight organized crime in a dangerous self-reinforcing cycle.

A less obvious but equally important factor contributing to violence in Colombia is social and political exclusion. Indeed, when it comes to violence, socio-economic divisions in Colombia are much more important than regional ones. Elites from different regions more or less share the same political interests, views and identities. With the exception of important historical confrontations between the Liberal and Conservative parties, elites have been united in pursuing policies and developing institutions that perpetuate their hold on disproportionate power. Today as before, wealthy paisas and bogotanos have more in common with each other than with the poor majorities in their respective cities, who have only a limited say in politics and have frustratingly few opportunities for social mobility.

As several studies have shown, the correlation between social exclusion and violence is quite strong. Latin America as a whole is statistically the world’s most violent region and also happens to have the world’s highest levels of income inequality. Inequality is also closely correlated to violence within Latin America: the countries with the highest rates of violence (Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, several Central American states) are among the region’s most stratified and unequal.

How does inequality contribute to violence in Colombia? First, Colombia’s political conflict (although it is becoming less political and more drug-fueled every day) has its roots in a mid-twentieth century struggle for political inclusion. The political war known as “La Violencia” began in 1948 after the mysterious assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist leader who threatened the power of elites by mobilizing the masses and promising to give them a greater voice in politics. Although they have almost totally lost their political ideals by now, the country’s guerilla groups were created during this period of social and political turmoil.

Even today, exclusion continues to play a role in the country’s armed conflict. Colombia’s paramilitary groups, which have been responsible for much of the country’s violence and drug trafficking over the past two decades, have been funded not only by drug traffickers wanting protection from guerrillas, but also by elites wanting the same protection and private armies to quell social unrest. In that role, paramilitaries have been responsible for hundreds of attacks on union members, community organizers, and others who dared to challenge the political and economic authority of entrenched elites.

Exclusion also contributes to nonpolitical forms of violence in Colombia. The persistent lack of opportunities for social mobility and the immense gap between rich and poor makes petty crime more common, and makes millions of desperate Colombians easy targets for cartel, paramilitary and guerrilla recruiters.

Finally, institutionalized inequality can erode what academics like to call “social capital”: the set of shared norms, values and rules that contributes to the cohesion of societies. In Colombia, this type of capital is sorely lacking. Rules and norms vary depending on social status, among other factors, and norms that would appear to be universal in theory are applied unevenly in practice, usually in ways that favor those with wealth and influence. In such a context, Colombians break the law not just because the state is weak in some areas, but rather because, even where the state is strong, the law is already “broken” in the sense that it is unfairly or unevenly enforced. To put it in other terms, law-breaking is common in Colombia because the law commands very little respect.

It is tempting to think that this is due to some kind of “culture” of crime or lawlessness in Colombia. In reality, however, this culture has emerged in response to a deficiency of social capital. To illustrate my point, it is worth looking at the experience of Bogotá in the 1990s. At the beginning of that decade, Colombia’s capital was among the world’s most violent, with astronomical homicide rates and infamously chaotic traffic. Many pessimists at the time suggested that Bogotá’s downward spiral was irreversible because a culture of lawlessness had taken over the city.

Nevertheless, under the leadership of a series of honest and creative mayors, homicide rates dropped dramatically even as the country as a whole sank deeper and deeper into cycles of violence. How? Clearly the city did not eliminate a “culture” of illegality because culture does not change overnight. Instead, Bogotá took measures to strengthen the citizenry’s trust in institutions like investing heavily in poor neighborhoods, cleaning up the local government and improving the city’s transportation infrastructure. When I was a child growing up in Bogotá, you could get shot simply for cutting someone off in traffic. By the time I left the city in the late 1990s, long before President Uribe took office, Bogotá was already a much safer city with a robust sense of civic spirit and social cohesion.

A similar campaign has been underway in Medellín since the late 1990s and especially since Sergio Fajardo’s term as mayor (2004-2007). Unfortunately, homicide rates are still quite high in Colombia’s second city, although not nearly as high as they had been before 2004. In that sense, Medellín’s recent attempts at strengthening institutions and rebuilding social capital may have been partially successful.

In summary, Colombia is not cursed by its geography. Today’s violence is rooted in two basic factors, one fairly intractable and the other quite solvable. The drug trade will fuel violence for years to come, but the other factor– social exclusion and the closely related deficiency of social capital – is much easier to address. Medellín and Bogotá have taken the first steps; let us hope that Colombia’s other cities follow their lead.

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