How do you deal with drug gangs? The film “City of God” tells the lives of a group of drug dealers in a favela of Rio de Janeiro. The different gangs, vying for control of the drug market, start a horrendous war that fills the streets with dead bodies and blood. Men and women, young and old, and even children are shot in broad daylight, with the police nowhere to be found except when they receive money from the gangs in exchange for letting the drug business continue. The violence increases and the poor inhabitants of the favela are abandoned to their fate. In time, some good, decent people decide to take matters in their own hands and they also become involved in the war. The government only intervenes, sending more police, after the media has exposed its inaction. In the end (spoiler warning) all the big drug dealers are killed, but a group of children take over their legacy and the problem continues.
The government’s clumsy attempt at striking a deal with Medellin’s criminal organizations reminded me of “City of God.” Indeed, I don’t see much of a difference between Rio’s favelas and the poor comunas of Medellin, and I feel their problems are very similar in kind. In the past seven years the Colombian government has been successful in its fight against guerrillas and other criminal organizations. Violence levels have decreased throughout the country, and the threat against the lives and property of Colombians is smaller than ever before in the last twenty years. But something is going on in the cities, where homicides increased in 2009. The case of Medellin, where the number of murders was the highest since 2005, is particularly worrying.
But things have improved significantly this month, after a group of citizens, including representatives of the Catholic Church, secretly broke a deal with some of the gangs responsible for much of Medellin’s violence. There even were days with zero homicides, something Medellin has not seen in a very long time. The warring drug gangs had come to a truce and things appeared to be under control. The government had authorized the talks with the gangs in an attempt to reduce violence in Colombia’s second largest city.
Nonetheless, after the existence of the secret deals emerged, the government was put in a very awkward position. The criminal gangs involved in the deal are responsible for a long list of crimes, and any sort of agreement with them seems to fall outside of the law. Why is it that terrorist organizations like FARC get no possibility of an agreement with the government (and they shouldn’t), while these other criminal gangs (who also kill people and sell drugs) get a backroom deal? Furthermore, why was a commission with no government representatives allowed to negotiate with criminals?
The government backed down for a short while, after the negotiations with the gangs became public. Frank Pearl, the High Commissioner for Peace, said that the government would stop supporting the negotiations last Wednesday, but after a meeting with Church representatives, he changed his position again. Some priests, Mr. Pearl said, would be allowed to conduct “pastoral dialogues” with the gangs, although no “peace talks” would take place. Go figure the difference between “peace talks” and “pastoral dialogues.” In the end, the result was virtually the same and the government authorized the Church to continue negotiating the truce. Whether the gangs will follow the agreement after the government’s flip-flopping is yet to be seen.
There are good and bad things about this whole affair. The good part is that violence has gone down. Whatever the commission is doing, it is working in the short term. Exhausted by their war, the drug gangs are finally talking and not shooting. The bad part of this deal is that it was carried out in secret. Jaime Jaramillo, a lawyer who was part of the negotiation commission said that “peace processes aren’t done with a microphone in hand and a camera on your shoulder. And that’s why we wanted to keep this process confidential.” He is wrong. Secrecy and crime are never good companions. It is still unclear what the commissioners offered the drug gangs in exchange for the truce. Legal immunity? Lenient sentences? Money? Mr. Jaramillo ignores the fact that negotiations of this kind must be carried out in public to preserve respect for the law. To have these talks in secret makes it look like the government and the commission have something to hide.
Another bad thing about these negotiations is that they put Colombia’s prison system to shame. One would suspect that the talks were carried out with the gang leaders in their comunas, with commission representatives sitting with them around a table in some part of Medellin. No. The talks took place inside some of Medellin’s jails, where many of these gang leaders are imprisoned. At some point the gang leaders requested that all of them be transferred to a jail in Itagüi to continue with the talks there. But knowing that some paramilitaries have used the jail in Itagüi as a center to coordinate their crimes, this request outraged the public. The point here is that the drug gangs are so powerful, and the prison system so porous, that the leaders continue to command their gangs from jail. They tell them to fight, the gangs fight; they tell them to stop fighting, they obey. Seriously, that prison system is a joke. I don’t understand why taxpayers’ money is being wasted in feeding and housing these criminals when they continue to kill and sell drugs from jail.
We will have to wait and see if the truce holds. My hunch is that it won’t, and sooner rather than later the gang leaders will return to their old ways. They always do. Even if the leaders are able to come to some sort of agreement, even if they divide the city among them into zones of influence, at some point the violence will increase again. The story of the illegal drug business is one of short truces, backstabbing, lies and wars over a greater share of the market. Whatever the agreement is, at some point someone will be tempted to break it, unleashing a new wave of killings. If anything is made clear by “City of God,” it is that drug gang violence is a story without an end. It wouldn’t surprise me if, while they talk about peace and finding agreements, Medellin’s gang leaders are preparing their men for a new war behind everyone’s back.