In the early 1990s, Colombia became famous for the bounty of US$1,500 that druglord Pablo Escobar put on every policeman’s head. Nowadays, there are no shady characters setting the price for killing a human being as openly as Escobar did. But this has not impeded the formation of an enormous price distortion in the Colombian hired-killing market.
“Life in Colombia is cheap”, is a phrase commonly used in movies, books and just about everywhere when describing Colombia; an idea that many like to believe, or suggest, is now in the past. But unlike many other stereotypes, this is not an unfair generalization.
Nowadays, the most important criterion affecting the price of a murder is the motive. There are three major motives: political, economic and social. And within them there are other factors affecting the cost of taking someone’s life such as the soon-to-be-defunct person’s socio-economic status, ethnicity, profession, nationality, and of course the killer’s background, among others.
The life of a political figure like Hugo Chavez goes for US$1 million, as a former paramilitary recently admitted. But this figure probably increased dramatically after the tensions engulfing Venezuela and Colombia escalated. No one really knows with certainty whether Alvaro Uribe’s life fetches a higher amount, but the guerrilla surely have the economic resources.
Now in Medellin the heads of drug cartels and criminal bands can fetch anything from US$150,000 to US$250,000.
A person’s life becomes substantially cheaper when the importance of the victim decreases. For instance, US$2,500 was allegedly the amount sicarios (hired killers) were paid by Vladimir Melo Carrillo, a Bogota councilman, to kill his wife. It appears the wife found a sex video on his mobile phone evidencing his unfaithfulness. But since the councilman belongs to a Christian political party, it can be suggested that “religious guilt” shot up the price.
Even the life of a small town’s secretary of education only fetches US$800. The hired-killers of Irma Liliana Correa allegedly received the money from Hector Antonio Angulo (aka Osama), a technical institute principal, whose cash flow from falsely enrolling students came to an end when Correa enforced the law.
In other killings the amount paid was/is US$500. This is the reputed amount received by recruiters of poor and unemployed young men by soldiers who would later murder and dress them up in guerrilla outfits; what is euphemistically known as “false positives” or extrajudicial killings – here is a documentary on the details of these brutal killings committed by the army.
But the closest to a market rate is the approximate amount of US$200 that sicarios in Medellin charge for killing another human being. This amount may also be moderated by the sicarios’ legendary religiousness. They believe that praying to virgin Maria Auxiliadora, in a church in Sabaneta (near Medellin), decreases the risks and thus the asking price.
Inhabitants of the street, who in Colombia are conveniently called “desechables” or “disposables”, also have a value. US$150 was what medical students were charged by funeral parlors and university workers in order to have cadavers to practice on. Nevertheless, life among inhabitants of the street reaches still lower levels. In Bogota’s “calle del cartucho,” a murder fetches no more than two dollars, or whatever their daily hit of basuco (coca paste-based substance) costs.
In other instances, it’s difficult to quantify costs since they are just another duty that appears in the overall job description of the killers. This is the case for armed groups in Colombia: the guerrilla, paramilitaries, neo-paramilitaries and druglords’ private armies. These killings may be the cheapest to perpetrate since economies of scale kick in.
Nationality is also a very important criterion affecting the cost of a murder. But in this case the cost is measured by the effect that the murder has on the image of the country. For example, killing Pedro Garcia does not have the same connotations as killing John Smith or Philippe Bousquet.
When a life depends on the transplant of a vital organ, a foreigner is also favored over a Colombian, or a foreigner who resides in the country. In Medellin foreigners are receiving kidney transplants at the expense of Colombians who have to wait for years due to the shortage of donations. Colombian judges have permitted this because it signifies saving a human life; there is nothing wrong with the ruling if the law was justly applied.
Colombia’s idiosyncrasies, peculiar internal conflict and justice system may have made of the sentence “life is priceless” just another urban legend.