Urban crime rates in Colombia are soaring, but the government’s reaction so far is short on real solutions. Defense Minister Silva’s apparent denial of the crime wave and President Uribe’s proposed student informant program suggest a serious lack of vision on the part of the country’s leadership.
It is no secret that urban violence is on the rise in Colombia. With few exceptions, cities throughout the country experienced increases in violent crime rates last year. Medellin, which until recently was considered a success story in crime reduction, has been ravaged by a war between rival drug gangs. According to a Mexican study, the city now ranks as the world’s 9th most violent. Cali ranked 6th, making Colombia one of only two countries with two cities on the list.
Equally worrying is the fact that the national leadership has yet to offer a viable strategy to deal with the urban security crisis other than deploying temporary reinforcements to danger zones. Worse yet, Defense Minister Gabriel Silva, who is in charge of both the military and the National Police, continues to downplay the gravity of this crime wave. Last Friday, Silva called concerns about crime “exaggerated” and claimed that the murder rates in Medellin and Cali were at their lowest point in thirty years.
But residents of both cities know otherwise. In fact, judging from recent military and police deployments, Mr. Silva himself is privately aware of the gravity of the problem. The army recently sent a group of 120 soldiers to patrol violent neighborhoods in the northeastern slums of Medellin. Just this Thursday, the director of the national police, General Oscar Naranjo, placed the institution on high alert as he sent 9,600 reinforcements to major cities. Actions speak louder than words.
So how did Mr. Silva back up his perplexing argument? The minister claimed that Medellin now has only 22 murders per week, but he was probably citing one unusually peaceful week’s worth of official police murder counts, which generally tend to be lower than those of the ombudsman’s and coroner’s offices due to differences in their methodologies. In fact, Medellin ombudsman’s office counted 86 murders in the first ten days of 2010 alone.
Clearly, Defense Minister Silva publicly downplaying the scale of the homicide problem because last year’s murder numbers call into question the lasting effectiveness of President Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line Democratic Security policy. Democratic Security has always been criticized from a human rights standpoint – 2.4 million Colombians have been displaced by violence during Uribe’s eight-year presidency according to domestic NGO Codhes – but the policy was undeniably successful in reducing the national murder rate.
That is, until this year. The national police claim that the number of homicides in Colombia fell from 16,140 in 2008 to 15,817 in 2009, a total reduction of 323. However, in Medellin alone the local coroner’s office recorded 662 more homicides than the police. That is, if one accepts the coroner’s numbers just in the city of Medellin, homicides in Colombia did not go down last year, but actually went UP by a total of 329. If one were to apply the same methodology to other major cities, the total number of homicides in 2009 would easily exceed 17,000. Democratic Security has begun to fail Colombia’s cities.
But it is not just Democratic Security that is under threat. Mr. Silva himself, of course, is also under pressure not just from citizens, but from local officials as well. His recent comments came after the mayor of Barranquilla complained that members of National Police, who answer to the Defense Ministry, were not doing enough to catch criminals. When he responded to that criticism on Friday, Mr. Silva was in fact speaking in defense of Democratic Security and of the work he is doing as defense minister.
But his job is to protect Colombia’s citizens, not his own reputation. One way to do that is to improve the judicial system. The Colombian government invests a greater fraction of its budget in defense than nearly every other country in the region, and the number of soldiers and police on city streets has been steadily rising for years. But manpower alone cannot eradicate crime in the long run if the judicial system remains corrupt and inefficient.
Take, for example, the case of Medellin. The city has a sizeable and growing police and military presence. In some slum areas, there are police and soldiers on nearly every block. Medellin also has an impressive crime prevention campaign. The mayor’s office has implemented world-renowned social programs in poor neighborhoods aimed, in part, at addressing the social and economic roots of violence. But local authorities have long complained that the corruption and inefficiency that plague the judicial system stand in the way of any long-term reduction in crime. The majority of murderers in Medellin, as in most of Colombia, get away with their crimes while the vast criminal networks behind the mafia war remain beyond the reach of the authorities.
Unfortunately, the government seems more inclined to intensify its ineffective offensive against criminal groups than to fix longstanding problems in the judicial system. This week, President Uribe sparked an ongoing debate when he vaguely hinted that the government would start paying around 1,000 Medellin students to serve as informants. Students, local officials, teachers, and human rights groups quickly responded that this measure would place students, already under threat from criminal groups, directly in the crossfire of a bloody mafia war. Moreover, there is no reason to believe the policy would be effective. In fact, some worry that criminal and paramilitary groups would easily infiltrate and manipulate the informal student informant network, as they did with the infamous CONVIVIR community watch groups of the 1990s, which Uribe eagerly promoted during his tenure as governor of Antioquia.
Sending reinforcements to cities and buying more informants will do little to stem the homicide epidemic in the long run. Broad reforms are needed to reduce impunity and restore the rule of law in Colombian cities. But the first step, of course, would be for all top officials to recognize the scale and gravity of the problem. Given Minister Silva’s comments last Friday, even that seems a distant goal.