Following a year-long steady drop, the homicide rate in Colombia’s third city Cali increased with a vengeance, threatening the impressive improvements in crime reductions the city had shown only months ago.
When President Juan Manuel Santos announced in the beginning of October that “a good job is being done in Cali”, his celebratory tone seemed justifiable.
“Homicide rate has dropped by 27%, common injuries are down by 37%, the same as kidnapping for ransom. This improvement in security has not been spontaneous, but a result of a serious work.” Santos congratulated Cali’s mayor Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco.
What the president didn’t realize was that this positive trend in reducing homicides was about to come to a violent reversal as October and November saw violence back on the rise in the capital of the Valle del Cauca state.
After a calmer period in July and August, when 117 and 108 violent deaths respectively were reported, the following two months began to resemble the statistic from previous years, with 141 murders in September and 144 in October, the highest homicide rate in a year and 30% higher than two months before when Guerrero claimed homicides had dropped with 30%.
Homicides in Cali between November 2013 and November 2014
The recent increase is a blow for Guerrero. The former mayor had only recently claimed he might have found the way to control the violence that traditionally has made the city one of the most violent of the country, and unable to break and apparent death spell.
“The secret is to define the problem: find the ‘what, who, when, and how’; See what factors associate with this, [then] control these factors what we call risk factors … and constantly evaluate the results,” Guerrero told the BBC in October when homicides had already returned to the level they were a year ago.
While the mayor is likely concerned about the evaluated results, they can not be compared to December 2012, a particularly violent month in which 238 people were murdered. This in contrast to the 144 in October.
Violent shock waves
In the past two and a half months, various brutal murders have sent shock waves through the city, most notably that of a massacre that killed alleged top trafficker of synthetic drugs for the “Urabeños” neo-paramilitary group and seven other alleged gangsters.
The authorities maintain they are isolated cases, not to be interpreted as gang-related. Quarrels or vengeance are presumably the most common motives behind majority of incidents, they say. However, local media and non governmental organizations have long warned that territorial turf wars across southwestern Colombia have disturbed the criminal fabric in the city.
Reality more complex
According to the city’s Ombudsman Andres Santamaria, the mayor’s enthusiasm related to crime reduction was premature, as violence in Cali is a complex problem that will take more time to contain. Santamaria believes it corresponds to socioeconomic factors (e.g. unemployment among young people), the problem of inadequate justice and penitentiary system and alcohol or drug consumption.
According to Alvaro Guzman Barney, a sociologist from the Javeriana University, “we have to assume that something is wrong in the social fabric of the city, in the functioning of the local government, in police action. It is a structural problem, beyond the responsibilities of individuals in positions of power.”
As evidenced by the latest report by the municipal ombudsman office, alarming is the steady high rate of underage victims and perpetrators. Two rivals criminal organizations active in the city, “Los Rastrojos” and “Los Urabeños”, are in search of new recruits, majority of which are adolescents between 15-20 from poor neighborhoods of Cali.
“Young people are at risk in Cali because the state’s response focuses on policing, and resources invested in prevention campaigns are quite scarce. In some cases, criminal gangs are the only alternative for these youngsters to escape marginalization,” said Santamaria.
According to the report, Cali dedicates insufficient funds to security purposes. In it’s 2012-15 Development Plan, $166.243 million pesos were allotted for the public safety and peaceful coexistence budget, much less than in Bogota or Medellin. Additionally, this year, the police in Cali received $14.000 million pesos, 35.000 million less than the estimated optimum for its proper functioning.
The first half of November has seen the continuation of the proliferating trend from the previous two months. Only during the first weekend, 14 people have been murdered, including an 11-year-old boy shot with a stray bullet. Another stray bullet put en end to the life of a 17-year-old girl returning home from school in broad daylight.
Cali, the third largest city in Colombia, has traditionally been one of the country’s most violent cities because of its strategic location for drug trafficking, and fighting between cartels and local gangs.
Cali’s homicides compared to other Colombian cities
The Paradox of Cali
The situation in Cali is a paradox. The mayor Rodrigo Guerrero explained El Espectador newspaper that while “the homicide rate in Cali remains high when compared with other major cities in Colombia, it’s the lowest in the history of Cali.”
MORE: Cali crime statistics
On one hand, the average for the city in the past five years has been 81 murders per hundred thousand inhabitants, compared to the national average of 32 homicides per hundred thousand inhabitants.
On the other hand however, “only” 1255 murders were registered in Cali until the end of October, compared with 1704 in the same period last year, indicating a significant reduction in crime.
“It means that we have saved lives,” boasted Guerrero, before adding “we have never had such a significant reduction in the number of homicides. That much remains to be done, yes; that we have to do more, yes; but we are moving in the right direction and we are showing evidence for it.”
According to Caracol Radio the reduction in homicides in Cali between 2013 and 2014 has to do with the dismantling of 92 criminal gangs, which put behind bars as many as 610 “professional” criminals specialized in murder, micro-trafficking, grand theft auto and arms trafficking.
Recent positive developments have also been attributed to the “Cali Como Vamos” program. It’s a citizen-based social initiative evaluating the quality of life in the city and monitoring the municipal administration. Its central objectives are to promote transparent and effective governance, better informed, participative and responsible citizenship, as well as to usher concerted efforts to improve the quality of urban life.
Mayor Guerrero insisted that it’s through such programs that the city administration is able to localize the source of violence and deal with its structural aspect. This “epidemiological” approach treats violence as a disease, concentrating on primary prevention through cooperation between police and social services.
- Informe sobre la situacion de violencia y seguridad en Santiago de Cali (Personeria Municipal Santiago de Cali)
- La paradoja de la seguridad en Cali (El Espectador)
- Epidemiología para combatir asesinatos: la receta que le funciona a Cali (BBC)