On Thursday, four people were gunned down in broad daylight in one of the busiest distrcits of the southwestern Colombian city of Cali, over what police suspect was a drug feud. On Sunday, three children believed to be involved in gang activity were shot dead in another part of the city. The weekend before, between Saturday and Monday, there were a reported 23 murders in the city.
This is “nothing outside of the normal,” according to Cali Ombudsman Andres Santamaria.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Santamaria explained how “wanton death and violence” had become part of daily life in Cali — Colombia’s third largest city and the capital of the state of Valle del Cauca — where some of Colombia’s most prominent drug traffickers compete for control of lucrative trafficking routes, and gangs mostly made up of minors slaughter one another for territory.
FACT SHEET: Cali Crime Statistics
‘A Total Failure of Social Institutions’
Santamaria’s office released a detailed 20-page report last year chronicling a 1300% increase since 1992 in the number of active gangs throughout the city, and the corresponding patterns of violence that Cali has experienced because of it.
Over a year-and-a-half later, the situation has worsened still. So far in 2013, there have been over 1600 homicides in the city, a figure on course to surpass 2012’s total by a wide margin.
But Santamaria says that homicides “don’t tell the whole story, and in reality, statistics don’t either. The level of intimidation has reached a point where a very low percentage of crimes are even reported. How do you quantify the extortions, the violent thefts, the assaults, the rapes, when these things are happening everywhere all the time and no one is tracking it or talking about it?”
The problem, says Santamaria, only makes sense in terms of a “climate of fear.”
“The numbers obviously matter,” said Santamaria — who added that his office does its best to record and present social statistics, and has encouraged the city to do more on that front — “but Cali does not have a gang problem. It does not have a drug problem. It does not have a poverty problem. All these things exist, but the true problem is so much deeper than that. What you have here is a total failure of social institutions to protect the citizens of Cali and provide them with opportunities to learn, grow and prosper.”
There are an estimated 134 gangs currently operating in Cali. The groups are divided on a neighborhood and even block-to-block basis, even though many answer in one form or another to the same larger, national organizations, such as Los Rastrojos or Los Urabeños, who both control the overall flow of drugs into the city.
The gangs account directly for less than a quarter of the city’s homicides, though Santamaria is quick to point out that “the distinctions become very confused” with things like “revenge killings” and “drug murders” treated as a separate category. In regard to lesser, but more widespread, crimes, he said, “there is no doubt as to who is responsible.”
Still, according to Santamaria, “it doesn’t make sense to talk about a ‘gang problem’ in Cali as if it was something that existed on its own. The crimes and the murders are the results of the gangs, but also factors that lead to their growth. It’s more complicated than many people deciding policy would like it to be.”
To discuss Cali’s gang activity, he said, “one must first discuss a whole web of related issues, some of which are localized to the city, but most of which have to do with larger problems in Colombia.”
In Cali, 80% of children are not enrolled in primary education, and 40% of teens do not attend middle and high school. According to Santamaria, “many come from unstable family environments, or have parents who themselves are uneducated teenagers.” The lack of constructive outlets and educational and employment opportunities “pushes at-risk teens and children” to join the local gangs, whose members are “almost all minors,” most of whom “join voiluntarily.”
“When you look at how these gangs are formed and how they operate,” said Santamaria, “you inevitably start dealing with all the many aspects of poverty and poor social security and support, all of which are prevalent in Cali and throughout all of Colombia.”
Even Colombia’s faultering agricultural sector and long-running armed conflict play roles in fueling Cali’s violence, with armed right-wing neo-paramilitary groups like Los Rastrojos turning to internal drug markets for funding, and victims of displacement and economic crisis in the countryside flooding to Colombia’s major cities, where they tax the local infrastructure and safety nets and establish sprawling shanty towns that serve as hotbeds for violence and gang recruitment.
Where Is the Policy?
Santamaria insists that gang violence in Cali is a “national issue.”
“In cities like Bogota and Medellin,” he said, “we have seen many improvements, in things like the homicide rate in particular. But like I said, the homicide rate is only one indicator of what the reality is, and it’s not always an accurate one.”
Santamaria pointed to the case of Medellin, where investigations by a crime research group revealed that the recent drop in homicides in the city is attributable to a “pact” made between local crime lords.
He added that accurate statistics on more pervasive forms of gang-related crime are much harder to come by than figures on homicides.
“In Cali, there is nothing even close to a comprehensive policy to confront the various issues relating to gang violence. But there is also a limit to what the Cali government or the Valle del Cauca government can reasonably achieve on their own. These are national problems and there needs to be a series of national solutions if we are serious about ending gang violence in our cities.”
Santamaria has encouraged local and national goverment bodies to take more proactive approaches to the situation, such as sponsoring after-school programs and setting up a reintegration system for juveneile offenders, most of whom return to crime upon their release from detention centers.
But traditional, reactionary responses, he said, have also been “completely inadequate.”
The operating budget for the Cali police force is less than a third of what police officials say is necessary. As part of budget plans for the next two years, Medellin will spend over $30 million dollars more on public security than Cali, despite Cali having an almost identical population and higher overall crime rates.
Seven prosecutors litigate all of the city’s cases of sexual abuse against women, which last year totaled some 1,530 reported incidents. Nine prosecutors, meanwhile, are tasked with an average of 600 cases of domestic abuse per year. Of the 5,463 cases currently before the intrafamiliar violence unit, 39 are under investigation. In total, 29 convictions have been leveled against sexual and domestic abusers throughout the course of 2013.
“We have reached a point where crime is accepted, and justice is a rare exception to impunity,” Santamaria concluded. “This is the atmosphere in which gangs thrive and laws disintegrate. You could assign however many police officers you want to investigate gang murders, but unless something is done to address the larger societal crisis, the problem will continue.”
Interview with Andres Santamaria
Office of the Cali Ombudsman statistics