Colombia insists that murders hit an historic low in 2010, evidence that the security policy is working and that the rebels and organized crime syndicates are being beaten.
Figures from both Colombia’s National Police and the coroner’s office mark 2010 as the first time in 24 years that the number of murders in the country has dropped to 15,500. At 15,459 (15,522 for the coroner’s office) homicides, both the total number of murders and the rate for every 100,000 of the population have been cut by almost half. These numbers come at the same time as a shift in the patterns of violence surfaces, shown by the rise in crime in the major cities.
While much of this success is attributed to the former president, Alvaro Uribe, and his Democratic Security Policy, new President Juan Manuel Santos can take some of the credit, as not only he was Uribe’s defense minister, but since taking office last August, he has built on and refined the security policy. Murders, with the exception of 2009, fell steadily under the Uribe administrations (2002-2010).
The murder rate has dropped thanks to two main factors: offensives against the Marxist rebels and the demobilization of the illegal paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The rebels have been pushed back from the major cities and urban centres, into the more remote jungles and mountains. With the AUC peace process, more than 30,000 paramilitaries surrendered and entered the government reinsertion program.
However, the Uribe policies created a change in the pattern of homicides. The cities became correspondingly more violent, while the countryside, once the scene for much of the fighting associated with the 46-year civil conflict, has become calmer except for some guerrilla-dominated departments like Cauca and Nariño.
The demobilization of the AUC led to a fragmentation of the criminal hegemony this force once held. A plethora of smaller groups emerged, some little more than street gangs, other fully fledged organized crime syndicates, heavily armed and sophisticated. Rather than fighting the left-wing rebels as their paramilitary predecessors did, many of these new groups now work alongside them in the interests of the drug trade. So the war in the countryside for control of the drug crops, that marked Colombia’s most brutal decade (1993-2003), has all but finished.
The successful dismantling of several major drug cartels and improved interdiction has meant that there is a great deal more cocaine circulating in the country, and this is feeding domestic consumption. The increasing demand is in turn leading to the violence normally associated with drug distribution and addiction, pushing up urban crime figures.
The activities of the new generation of criminal groups are directly affecting the urban areas. Cities are increasingly the centers of operations for drug trafficking (including local drug dealing), extortion, and kidnapping. Murder rates in major urban centers began to increase in 2007 after the paramilitary peace process was officially concluded. Bogota, Cali, and Medellin (the three biggest Colombian cities) all saw significant increases in murders. This was particularly true in Medellin, once home the cartel of Pablo Escobar. Conflict within the successor of the Medellin Cartel and AUC criminal structures, the Oficina de Envigado, led to a spike in the murder rate, jumping from a low of 780 murders in 2007, to 2,021 in 2010. While Bogota and Cali’s problems with organized crime have a different dimension, both cities registered increases of over 350 murders during 2009.
All figures and patterns now point towards crime being responsible for more murders than the civil conflict. This new trend of urban crime is likely to continue as new organizations establish themselves and consolidate their position in the criminal food-chain. And to further complicate the urban violence landscape, under the new leadership of Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” the larger rebel group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are seeking to move away from their purely peasant roots and project themselves into the cities.