I am fascinated by Colombia’s national obsession with security, and the current transformation of the Colombian criminal justice system. I am curious about the urban psyche, and the collective fear of crime, considered from the perspective of my law enforcement experience in Los Angeles, and my academic background in clinical psychology.
I believe the Colombian experience of crime and safety is defined not only in the historical context of war and conflict, but also by the historically poor relationship between the people and the Colombian National Police. That relationship and the quality of policing need improvement to change the negative perceptions of crime and personal safety.
Psychologically, Colombians seem haunted not only by the concrete fear of crime, the fear of a specific act, i.e. kidnapping or robbery, but also by formless fear, the undefined fear of some act of victimization in their home, neighborhood, or larger community. In urban Colombia, this formless fear seems dominant and constant and determines quality of life. It drives the need for the omni-present security guards in condominiums or cafeterias. It is expressed in farewells, “Be careful!”, and in mistrust of strangers.
Addressing this of fear of crime is important because basic freedom of movement in Colombia, whether intra-city or interstate, traditionally has been restricted due to civil war, violence, crime and the subsequent generalized perceptions of danger in daily life.
There is a multi-factorial explanation for the Colombian perceptions of crime and safety. The Colombian psyche has been shaped by the history of political, criminal, and narco-violence. The historical political theme of being either a liberal or a conservative alone is responsible for the intergenerational hatred and division among neighbors and solidified over time a concrete mistrust for opposition. La Violencia internalized violence in Colombian thinking long before the cartels’ reign of terror. Subsequent weak central governments were unable to protect the communities and there was significant disparity in assigning infrastructure improvements and police services across the country. Institutionalized corruption in the criminal justice system contributed to the perception of insecurity in Colombia.
These historical, political, and social factors created enduring perceptions about personal safety and policing.
The Colombian justice system, traditionally dysfunctional at every level, is undergoing positive transformation, and there have been significant improvements in the emphasis on rule of law, investigative techniques (particularly forensics), increased quality of recruiting, and police pay and training.
Over the last ten years, Colombians have increasingly been able to enjoy travel outside of urban areas to the countryside formerly placed off limits. This is an excellent measurement of the public’s changing perception of safety and of their confidence in the government to protect them.
However, after steady yearly declines in homicides, there has been an alarming increase in Colombia’s three largest cities. The overall security situation has improved dramatically when compared to 2002, and violence has been limited to certain areas and does not generally affect the security of the greater urban population. Despite recent successes in reducing violent crime, a 2009 spike in homicides indicates it is necessary to make changes to the policing model to increase the sense of security.
The National Police/community relationships must continue to evolve. The Colombian National Police is a traditional paramilitary policing organization, and modern Colombian society needs a progressive, transparent, responsive organization.
The current deployment of police forces in high-crime barrios should be reevaluated. While, increasing the numbers of officers is a logical response to securing a problematic area, it is ineffective strategy to simply amass the officers on the edge of the barrio. The strategy of sending 1,300 officers and soldiers to Medellin in the second half of 2009 had no impact on the homicide rate —— probably due to the fact that police remained on the outside of problem barrios and only entered to pick up the pieces after acts of violence had occurred. It is the quality of the deployment that is important. Community-based policing efforts, in conjunction with firm, fair, enforcement strategies, and effective social programs targeting delinquency have proven effective in reducing crime, and the fear of crime.
(The city of Los Angeles learned this lesson after a tumultuous thirty year period between 1965 and 1995. The Los Angeles Police Department was often described as an insular, occupying force in high-crime minority communities. Today, it is the efficient, accessible, community-based deployment of officers that has had an impact on crime rates as well as the fear of crime. The city is currently experiencing historic lows in both violent and property crime despite a prolonged economic recession.)
Another consideration is the need to regularly rotate officers in and out of the barrio (and from within specialized police units) to avoid the corrupting influences that exploit familiarity. The personal integrity of police officers is the most critical element of the criminal justice system.
Crime reporting by police must be audited. For example, the actual numbers of homicides in Medellin are in dispute —— with disparities in the numbers reported by the Colombian National Police, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Coroner. Manipulation of crime statistics, especially involving homicides, is corrupt and prevents the accurate assessment of crime and the implementation of problem solving strategies. Historically, it has been difficult to determine how much fear of crime is based on anecdotal evidence and history, versus actual crime rates in Colombian cities. Traditional mistrust of the police in Colombian society has prevented accurate reporting of crime, and poor formal documentation by police of reported events further distorted the actual crime rate. Accurate crime reporting can reshape the national perception of safety.
Finally, the Colombian National Police must change their policy of centralizing all media communication through Bogota. Information gathering was made virtually impossible at the local level preventing local, national, and international reporting on crime. Media access to the local police command is required to ensure accountability and transparency of operations. Local, decentralized access for journalists contributes to accurate public perceptions of crime and policing.
I was in Medellin and Cali this month and questioned my business contacts and friends about their biggest concerns. Of the dozens of people I spoke with, the reply was almost uniform, “There are gangs and much delinquency.” There were repeated references to the dangers of Comuna 13 in Medellin, and reports of sporadic gunfire at night in both Medellin and Cali, but nothing that seemed to prominently interfere with the ability to pursue daily tasks. Most of the cab drivers I spoke with in both cities characterized things as calm.
I stayed in the Villanueva barrio of central Medellin, and, while there were many indigent people in the parks and plazas, there was order. There were considerable numbers of police on foot patrol and I felt safe in the old city center of Colombia’s second largest city.
In Cali, I heard complaints from people about thieves in the downtown area and robbers at night around La Sexta, but there were an equal number of complaints about traffic, the heat, and the basic indignities of life in a big city. People continued to work, raise families, shop, and dance, despite the fear of crime.
Sr. Palacios has worked as a cabdriver from his post at the Intercontinental in Cali for 28 years. As I left for the airport this week, I asked him if he sensed Colombia changing. “Yes”, he replied, “It’s getting better, every year.”
Indeed, Colombia has made significant progress under the Democratic Security platform of the Uribe administration. The keys to reducing the fear of crime will be permanently reducing violence across the country and transparently and efficiently managing law enforcement resources.
It is the subjective fear of crime that determines how freely people live.