Colombia’s New Urban Order

April 10, 2008

Last year Sérgio Cabral, governor of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro State, praised the Colombian government’s success in reducing violence in Bogotá. Formerly one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Bogotá has seen a dramatic decrease in violent crime rates in the last five years.

Cabral announced that he intended to transplant the Colombian model to Rio de Janeiro, but he has since changed his mind. Bogotá’s new urban order, he may have realized, resulted not from the rule of law, but from the rule of private right-wing militias.

“The problem cannot be solved by trading the [drug-trafficking gangs] for militias,” Cabral said. “We cannot have this parallel state, whether they are traffickers or militias.”

Other Brazilian politicians, including Rio’s mayor César Maia, appear to endorse the Colombian militia model. “Compared to drug trafficking, anything is better,” Maia told the daily Jornal do Brasil.

The security situation in Colombia’s largest cities, however, is anything but a success. Although by 2005 the murder rates in Bogotá and Medellín had fallen by more than 60%,the national and local governments did not rid the barrios of all the armed groups and re-establish state authority. Rather, state security forces sided with one particular group: the right-wing militia known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The process began in early 2002, when President Andrés Pastrana deployed the army and the National Police to Medellín’s poor barrios, known as comunas, with the stated objective of evicting all the combatants and instituting police control. Pastrana’s successor, President Álvaro Uribe, intensified the Medellín campaign and later launched Operation Orión, a siege against Comuna 13, Medellín’s last guerrilla stronghold.

By the end of 2002, it was clear that the military operation had successfully evicted the guerrillas, but not the paramilitaries. As state forces withdrew from some of the comunas, they left AUC leaders behind to rule over the neighborhoods.

“Operation Orión was the beginning of the installation of a new power in Comuna 13, the same one that had ruled over other comunas in the city: that of the paramilitaries,” said Colombian journalist and author Ricardo Aricapa , who was quoted in a United Nations Development Program newsletter.

The Uribe government’s much heralded demobilization of the AUC, which began in 2003, had little effect on the militia’s operations in Medellín. According to a 2005 Amnesty International report, “Paramilitaries continue to operate as a military force, to kill and threaten human rights defenders and local community activists, to recruit and to act jointly with the security forces.” The report adds that instead of working out in the open, they are “cloaking their activities by posing as members of private security firms or by acting as informants for the security forces.”

A similar process has occurred in Bogotá in recent years, although without the large-scale military intervention. Supposedly demobilized paramilitaries now control many of the capital’s largest slums, particularly in the southern reaches of the city. Not long ago, leftist guerrillas maintained a significant presence in many of these barrios, including Cazucá and Soacha.

“Four years ago there were a lot of guerrilla militia around here, but they were gradually seen off or killed by the paramilitaries,” says Enrique Sánchez, a child psychologist who works in Cazucá. “The main change under the Uribe government has been that this community has become completely dominated by the paramilitaries and their clones.” The paramilitaries in Bogotá’s barrios demand protection money from local businesses in return for maintaining law and order, which often amounts to the “social cleansing” of perceived undesirables.

The rise of paramilitary control over the barrios of Bogotá and Medellín coincided with the elections of Sergio Fajardo and Luis Eduardo Garzón, the new center-left mayors of those cities. Unlike the right-wing national government, which has focused on solving Colombia’s problems with military force, center-left politicians like Fajardo and Garzón have focused on public works projects and social programs.

As historian Forrest Hylton recently noted in the New Left Review, the Medellín government has committed $1.6 billion to build new parks, libraries, and schools, representing “the first time city government is establishing a non-repressive presence in comunas long disputed by gangs, militias and narco-paramilitaries.” Meanwhile, the Garzón administration has launched two programs, Bogotá Without Indifference and Bogotá Without Hunger, which together aim to address the health, education, and housing needs of the city’s poor.

These efforts, together with the national government’s de facto endorsement of paramilitary rule, resemble the mixture of ruthless authoritarianism and social programs commonly identified with Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. Whatever Colombia’s crime statistics, its largest cities remain troubling examples of how “successful” urban security can be when it is built on fear.

Garry Leech is the editor of and the author, most recently, of Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil, and the New World (Dis)Order (Zed Books, 2006).


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