Book Traces Roots of Security Successes, Failures in Colombia Cities

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A new book on the politics of urban violence in Colombia offers both a detailed look at what worked and a framework for analyzing and overcoming public security challenges around the hemisphere.

Eduardo Moncada’s new book, Cities, Business, and the Politics of Urban Violence in Latin America, places under the microscope the experiences of three Colombian cities over the past 30 years: Medellín, Cali, and Bogotá. Over the course of 200-plus pages, the author searches for insights into why a city descends into the type of chaos that has roiled Latin America repeatedly in the modern era, and even more so, how it can pull itself out of such a situation.

Moncada delivers many. At the top of the list is that an active private sector and civil society collaborating with the local government is key to any city’s attempt to improve security through what he deems a “participatory project.” When the opposite holds, even the best laid plans typically go nowhere.

Moncada, a professor of political science at Columbia University, also distinguishes between different criminal scenarios: a landscape with monopolistic criminal control, an atomized collection of criminal groups, a fragmented landscape, or a model of collapsing criminal order. In the first two cases, a certain degree of stability prevails, and violence is typically low and participatory projects are comparatively easy to implement. In the latter, the opposite is true.

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One of the takeaways from Moncada’s work is that cities should aim to foster a stable criminal environment, ideally an atomized environment where there is no single criminal hegemon capable of bending the state to his will..

This hypothesis has been borne out in several cases from recent history. In Medellín, the first of the author’s case studies, the city witnessed a sustained improvement during the 2000s under the leadership of Mayor Sergio Fajardo. Moncada points to a number of key local factors in the improvement. At the top of the list was the support of the local business community, in the form of the Antioquia Business Group (known as the GEA, for its initials in Spanish), and local civil society. With their support, the local government launched a series of public works projects in marginalized areas, aimed at reducing the exclusion that fueled pockets of extreme violence. The evidence suggests they worked, as the subsequent decline in murders was concentrated in the high-violence areas that were the targets of the new public investment.

Also important was the role of Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” the reigning mafia don of Fajardo’s mayoralty (which lasted from 2003 to 2007). As the leader of the Oficina del Envigado, Don Berna held something approaching hegemonic control over the local criminal scene, and he saw that his interests aligned with the government’s in terms of limiting bloodshed.

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The success under Fajardo contrasts with a derailed plan to right Medellín in the early 1990s. This makes sense, since the underlying factors were almost all reversed the first time around. The violence in the city at that point was endemic, and in the wake of the collapse of the Medellín Cartel, there were too many armed actors for any single mafia to exercise much control. The mayor from 1992 to 1994, Luis Alfredo Ramos, was part of an emerging professional political class with few links to the business community. Moreover, he and his successors had little interest in including business leaders in their plans, and were openly hostile toward civil society. In such an environment, the efforts to revitalize the city naturally fell flat.

Moncada’s findings in other cities were consistent with what he saw in Medellín as well. When local political leaders worked to include business elite and civil society, when the local criminal climate was not of a fractured or collapsing order, and when the city’s leaders redoubled efforts to integrate marginalized communities into the social fabric, then efforts to initiate “participatory projects” have a much higher chance of succeeding. This has been evident in Medellín and Bogotá during the past 15 years, as well as in Juárez, where the Todos Somos Juárez program mimicked much of what had worked in Colombia.

When the above factors are absent, as in Cali (where the local government and business leaders have found themselves at loggerheads), or in Medellín in the 1990s, such projects fail.

One of the takeaways from Moncada’s work is that cities should aim to foster a stable criminal environment, ideally an atomized environment where there is no single criminal hegemon capable of bending the state to his will. However, this is easier said than done. There is no playbook for how to erect a certain pattern of criminal interaction, and even well-intentioned interventions to manipulate the underworld can begin to look like collusion.

When mayors found their way to a properly comprehensive approach, their positive impact on security was enormous.

Much of Moncada’s research builds toward an overarching conclusion, which he seems to take for granted without ever saying it directly: Despite not receiving as much attention as their national counterparts, local actors are key to any area’s security.

In Colombia’s case, the institutional uncertainty caused by a massive process of political decentralization started in the 1980s helped create a vacuum of power that contributed to the nation’s violence over the coming decades. But as discussed above, the institutional uncertainty also held the seeds of an eventual solution: When mayors found their way to a properly comprehensive approach, their positive impact on security was enormous. A city’s ability to make the improvement permanent stems largely on its ability to institutionalize the participatory project across multiple administrations, as (in Moncada’s telling) Bogotá has done following the administration of Antanas Mockus.

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This centrality of local actors is true beyond Colombia. As noted by InSight Crime earlier this year, in a recent paper two academics in Mexico pointed to changes in local policies in Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua as the drivers of a dramatic improvement in those states’ fortunes. Another recent analysis flagged neighborhood-level factors as the key drivers of crime — and therefore should be the key drivers of government interventions — in Mexico City.

Tip O’Neill’s famous observation that all politics is local could also be applied to security concerns. In both cases, the saying may be a bit exaggerated but contains a great deal of fundamental truth. This is all the more relevant in an environment when the policies at the top of the political ladder, of the president and the cabinet, are often treated as the beginning and end of the security policy. Not so in Moncada’s book, a valuable contribution to the literature on Latin American security.

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