Last week, I wrote a column on Colombia’s urban crime problem. Colombia Reports readers commented on it with interesting points about the causes of the current crime wave. Some wrote about a culture of illegality and corruption that hinders crime fighting. Others suggested that socioeconomic conditions – poverty, unemployment, and inequality – are fuelling the ongoing violence. Both views shed light on the obstacles to lasting peace in Colombia’s cities, but questions remain about what sparked this crime wave in the first place.
If, for example, a longstanding culture of illegality, corruption and mistrust of the authorities is behind the crime wave, why has crime started to rise in the past two years and not before that? If poverty and inequality caused crime rates to go up, why was the increase most dramatic in Medellin, which has some of Colombia’s most effective social programs?
This week, a Human Rights Watch report helped shed light on the issue. HRW, a well-known international NGO, released a report about the new generation of paramilitary militias in Colombia, which was highly critical of the government’s demobilization scheme. Interestingly, the report also revealed the link between the recent re-emergence of paramilitarism in Colombia and the rising rates of crime and violence in major cities.
That link has been common knowledge in many circles for years. Medellin officials, including former mayor Sergio Fajardo, knew that much of their city was controlled by paramilitaries, but they hoped that through social programs they could gradually erode that criminal power structure. Indeed, local crime rates shot up inexplicably soon after the paramilitary warlord known as “Don Berna,” who ruled Medellin’s underworld, was extradited to the United States. Looking back, it is clear the power vacuum he left behind set off the very gang warfare that plagues the city today. In other words, the failure of paramilitary demobilization is one of the reasons why crime is rising in Medellin today, and the same can be said, to a lesser extent, about other Colombian cities.
Why did the demobilization program fail to put an end to Colombian paramilitarism?
When the right-wing paramilitaries began to demobilize during the first years of the Uribe presidency, they were responsible for the majority of organized criminal activity in Colombia. They controlled large swaths of the country’s territory, including urban areas, and ruled over a vast, nationally integrated criminal empire, often with the support and tolerance of the authorities. With the demobilization of most paramilitary groups having happened years ago, Colombia was supposed to have entered a post-paramilitary era. Their criminal enterprises were supposedly dismantled and their strongholds brought under the control of the state.
At least two problems have derailed the demobilization scheme. One is the fact that many mid-level paramilitary leaders slipped through the (massive) cracks in the program, did not demobilize and have since taken over the drug trade. Indeed, there is evidence that many paramilitary leaders, including some who demobilized, prepared for a possible regrouping and instructed mid-level warlords to keep control of drug trafficking operations. Slowly but surely, their neo-paramilitary drug gangs have taken the place of the old paramilitary structures in many parts of Colombia and, as the HRW report shows, they continue to violate human rights. Many – but not all – of the foot soldiers for these emerging gangs are demobilized paramilitaries.
The second problem is that, in many parts of Colombia, the security forces have not challenged the power of paramilitary groups, but instead continue to tolerate and support them. In some cases, neo-paramilitary drug gangs have corrupted the security forces. In others, the authorities continue to ally themselves with paramilitary groups in the fight against guerrillas. Rather than attack the remnants of the paramilitary power structure and the drug trafficking activities that fund it, some members of the security forces have allowed them to reemerge.
In short, without sufficient mechanisms in place to prevent the rebirth of Colombian paramilitarism, the demobilization scheme has allowed former warlords to reconsolidate the paramilitary power structures. Impunity, drug money, government corruption and the continued tolerance of paramilitarism on the part of lower-ranking military and government officials are helping to create a new generation of Colombian paramilitaries.
For Colombia’s cities, the failure of the national demobilization scheme to put an end to paramilitarism means that the corruption and violence associated with organized crime will likely continue to increase. Medellin is an extreme case, but other major cities are under threat as well. Today, petty street crime is a more serious concern in Cali than mafia warfare, but at least part of the recent rise in the city’s homicide rate has to do with its strategic location in Colombia’s south-west, home to many important drug gangs and neo-paramilitary groups. Some of these groups also have “blocs” operating in Bogota, where they are allegedly involved in extortion, drug dealing and social cleansing as well as the harassment of journalists, union leaders and human rights activists.
Unfortunately for cities, local officials are virtually impotent in the face of rising crime because the root causes of the problem are largely beyond their control. Indeed, at least part of the current crime problem stems from failures at the national level to fairly, thoroughly and effectively dismantle a paramilitary empire which has 30,000 active foot soldiers and collaborators at all levels of the military and the government. As these failures become more evident and neoparamilitary groups continue to grow in power, violent crime rates will remain intolerably high in many cities.
To protect Colombian civilians from the emerging paramilitary threat, the government should do more to investigate demobilized paramilitaries, attack their drug trafficking operations and purge all levels of the police, military and government of paramilitary collaborators. But the first step, of course, is to recognize the mistakes and limitations of the demobilization scheme.
Unfortunately, that too is a distant goal. A few days before the release of the HRW report, Colombia’s High Commission on Reintegration hosted a global conference on demobilization. The conference, of course, was an opportunity for Colombia to showcase its supposedly successful demobilization program, just as Colombian civilians begin to feel the painful consequences of the program’s weaknesses.