Legal authorities continue to turn a blind eye to so-called “social cleansing” practices that kill hundreds of “undesirables” in Colombia’s urban areas every year.
Social cleansing killings have a long, bloody history in Colombia’s major cities. For the most part they remain unsolved, yet to human rights monitors they are part of a vicious crusade against society’s “disposables,” targeting vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, drug addicts, homosexuals and anyone deemed undesirable.
A new study from the National Center for Historical Memory and the National University indicates that social cleansing between 1988 and the first half of 2013 has left 4,928 bodies in its wake. However, state agencies do not report the same findings.
Human rights groups assert that these killings are carried our by vigilante groups who often attack in cycles, during which they target specific groups of people. Sometimes pamphlets are distributed beforehand, imposing curfews and making explicit threats. The marked bodies of their victims are often left to serve as deterrents.
“Los Calvos” are a famous example of an extreme-right vigilante group from Ciudad Bolivar, one of Bogota’s most violent districts. When a gang of youths murdered a pregnant 15-year-old girl in 2004, her father and a group of adult men – in particular the fathers of girls abused and killed by such gangs – took up arms and became vigilantes.
To begin with Los Calvos only attacked rapists, but as time passed their targets expanded to include delinquents, as well as drug dealers and addicts. They had their revenge, and they developed a taste for vigilantism. It has been reported that they are still active today, targeting the district’s crack-addicts.
In spite of the evidence, local justice authorities claim the existence of vigilante groups is difficult to confirm because they leave few traces and bodies, and witnesses keep silent for fear of reprisals.
However, some claim that not only do the local authorities turn a blind eye, but that they are also actively involved in the killings.
“There is an abundance of evidence in the investigation that clearly indicates the police participate in social extermination in peripheral districts. They may act in connivance with the residents, who provide the information.”
Professor Carlos Mario Perea
The police authorities have denied their involvement.
However, the problem is not only with the local authorities: there is a pervasive culture of silence around the killings. The central government does not acknowledge their existence, and thus indirectly sanctions them. Moreover, some members of the public sympathize with the vigilantes, or at least remain willfully ignorant.
In areas where social cleansing is rife, it is understandable why residents would want certain people to disappear.
Shopkeepers do not want vagrants lingering outside their shops; families do not want to live in fear of petty crime; parents do not want their children in a drug-filled environment. They feel that the state fails to guarantee justice, and therefore they must take it into their own hands. While legally unjustifiable, the arguments are understandable, according to Perea.
“The operation of cleansing is charged with moral judgment because the crime is against bad people. It is committing murder supposedly in the name of the principles of order. Thus, they immediately are legitimized.”
Professor Carlos Mario Perea
Perea has compared Colombia’s social cleansing to that perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, which left more than six million dead, and to the massacre of the Tutsi population by the Hutu Government in Ruanda in 1994.
However, there are important differences: social cleansing in Colombia has occurred at a lower rate, but for a much longer time. In some ways, this may make it more difficult to confront because it has become part of how Colombia’s urban society functions.
Perea believes the key is to make the issue “a topic of debate in the public domain. Justice must exercise all its rigor. It is necessary that society does not permit” vigilante groups violently replacing an institutional justice system.
In 2012 the State Council spoke out against those taking justice into their own hands.
“The murder of a person with a criminal record remains unjust in spite of their record. And it will be as unjust, as intolerable and as reproachable as the murder of the kind man of impeccable conduct… Nobody in Colombia has the right to define (whether with the goal of extermination or of absolution) who is useful, good and deserves to live,” according to the court.
Fine words, but the reality is that social cleansing continues today. The government must practice what it preaches. Acknowledging and condemning the killings, and the vigilante groups responsible for them, would be the first step towards real, democratic justice.