The city of Cali in Colombia is on track to see a drop in homicides for the fifth straight year, but killings remain an intractable problem due to the city’s history of violence and its importance in the drug trade.
Officials say that the city’s homicide rate will decrease again in 2018, dipping below 50 per 100,000 people, Cali’s El País reported. Still, Cali ended 2017 with a homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people, the highest in Colombia. In comparison, Medellín’s rate was 23 per 100,000, though it is ticking upwards this year, and Bogotá’s was 14 per 100,000, according to El Tiempo.
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A major difficulty for Colombia’s third largest city is its limited number of police. Its local force counts just 6,000 officers for 2.5 million residents. Cali’s police chief has complained that its 240 officers per 100,000 people is far below that of Bucaramanga, which has more than double this ratio.
Recently the city has bolstered its force with some 600 soldiers, including 270 military police. Those forces were assigned to patrol several of the deadliest “comunas,” marginal neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city.
President Iván Duque has also promised to send about 1,000 police officers to Cali in the next three years. Nearly 300 have already arrived and another 200 will be added to the ranks in three months, El País reported.
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Cali’s attention to security has helped to reduce its murder rate, but three factors within the city’s criminal landscape continue to drive homicides: contract killers in need of work, groups battling to control the local drug markets, and gangs quick to settle scores.
In 2004, violence in Cali peaked. The city surpassed 2,100 homicides as factions of the Norte del Valle Cartel waged war with their own “oficinas de cobro,” or collection offices, consisting of networks of hitmen.
In the decade and a half since, killings have seemingly come in waves. In 2008, the city hit a low of 1,500 murders. The following year, however, homicides shot back up and continued to climb into 2013, when nearly 2,000 people were killed. Over the next five years, it has steadily declined.
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With the disappearance of large, centrally run cartels from Cali, the so-called collection offices have since vied for control of local drug markets and have opened their sicarios services for freelance opportunities.
“The vast majority of homicides continue to be in the mode of sicariato,” Andrés Villamizar, Cali’s Security Secretary, told InSight Crime.
In March, El Tiempo reported that at least eight “oficinas de cobro” exist in the city and that these criminal groups often seek to expand their reach by co-opting youth gangs in the “comunas.” The poor neighborhoods are home to the worst of the violence and are largely where authorities have deployed the military as a policing strategy.
Since soldiers and military police began conducting patrols, homicides have decreased, Villamizar said. But militarized policing carries its own risks. Citizens often feel under siege, and armed forces can inflame further violence. Villamizar said residents of the comunas have not reported human-rights violations on the part of the military forces, or any killings.
Villamizar also praised a gang reintegration program, which seeks to help high-risk youth. The program now has “intervened directly in 65 gangs,” he said.
On a major international drug smuggling route, Cali’s location also facilitates an illegal weapons trade. The two departments surrounding the city account for some 40 percent of coca cultivation in the country. Close by is the port of Buenaventura, from which the majority of drugs are exported.
The drug trade brings to the city a number of criminal actors with access to weapons that ultimately can fall to the black market.
In April, a gang known as “Los Army II” was caught selling high-powered weaponry bought from dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Guns can even be rented by the hour and bullets cost as little as 8,000 pesos (around $2.50), according to an anonymous source who spoke to El País.
Street fights and other disputes frequently lead to shootouts, according to a social observatory associated with the mayor’s office. In 2017, firearms accounted for 80 percent of the killings in Cali.
Christmas vacation and three-day holiday weekends, such as Mother’s Day, have often ended in bloodshed.
Besides efforts to bring more security, Cali also requires “cultural changes that go deeper,” Villamizar said.
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