The number of active gangs in Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, has risen by an astonishing 1,300% since 1992, as the endless supply of minors that serve as the gangs’ foot soldiers continues, claimed a local ombudsman’s office on Monday.
According to a report by the Cali ombudsman’s office, in 1992 there were only ten armed teenage gangs, known in Colombia as “combos”. Now, only 21 years later, there are 134. In the mere three years between 2009 and 2012, Cali witnessed the birth of no less than 30 new armed groups.
The report stated that the 134 active gangs in Cali consist of 2,134 youths, although the number is fluid given both the brief shelf life gang members have and the endless stream of new recruits that replace them. While the 2,000 plus gang members only make up around one percent of Cali’s population, they have been responsible for 13% of the city’s homicides.
Of the 134 combos, 66 reportedly serve the interests of “Los Rastrojos” and “Los Urabeños,” two of the most influential crime organizations in Colombia. The former is primarily a drug trafficking gang, while the latter is a neo-paramilitary group that formed from the remnants of the AUC, the right-wing paramilitary force which demobilized between 2003 and 2006.
A demobilized gang member explained in the report that most of them aspire to work for one of the two groups due to the respect such monikers command in the neighborhoods given their association to money and power.
For Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños though, the combos are viewed as a source of cheap, disposable labor and, in the case of teenagers, labor that does not carry the cost of legal fees. Colombia’s legal code for juvenile offenders does not permit minors to be tried as adults or to serve prison time. Instead, they are sent to detention centers, such as “Valle del Lili”, run by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF). After a brief stint in a detention center, minors often find themselves back on the streets. Indeed, according to the Cali ombudsman’s office, seven out of every ten minors apprehended by authorities will become repeat offenders.
The lifespan of a gang member is not a long one, which makes the constant influx of willing minors all the more important. “El Grillero” is, at the age of 37, one of the oldest active members in Cali’s Comuna 13 district, located in the southeast of the city. He describes life in the district as one of constant anxiety, with the the specter of death permeating every action.
“Nothing changes with the years,” says El Grillero, “the dead are all equal, don’t ask why they kill, that is how it is, and it does not matter.”
The neighborhoods of Cali’s Comuna 13 district are where gang activity is most concentrated. Here, an astonishing 23 gangs with over 500 members actively compete for territory and a share in the drug trade.
Authorities have failed to bring change to Cali’s troubled districts by using traditional law enforcement methods. In response, new strategies have been formed. One such example has been taking place in Comuna 14’s “El Vergel” neighborhood, where four combo gangs — “Los Calvos”, “El Caguan”, “Los Indios” and “Los Lecheros” — have agreed to enter into negotiations to improve relations and facilitate the return of families who have been displaced by the violence. The negotiations have taken place with the involvement and mediation of the human rights wing of the Cali ombudsman’s office.
“We are not going to invent projects for the kids, we are going to work around their interests and their needs to reorganize how they solve their problems in the gangs,” said the ombudsman’s director of human rights.
It is still too early to say, however, whether such approaches will be capable of reversing Cali’s senseless and steady flow of violence.