The violence plagued city of Palmira saw 46 percent fewer homicides in the first six months of 2016 than in the same period a year earlier, a sign that new security measures are gaining traction in one of Colombia’s most troubled regions.
Figures from the Chamber of Commerce registered 59 homicides from January through June of 2016, compared to 110 during the first six months of 2015, El Pais reported.
City officials and private sector representatives said a mix of beefed up security measures and targeted community interventions were instrumental in lowering the murder rate in this town of about 350,000 inhabitants located 20 kilometers outside of Cali, Colombia’s third largest city.
Official figures indicate that Palmira had seen a steady reduction in homicides from 317 in 2011 to 214 in 2014. But Andrés Betancur, coordinator of the Chamber of Commerce Security Observatory, told InSight Crime in an exclusive interview that a change in command at Palmira's police department prompted a rupture in security policy, which allowed the number of homicides to climb dramatically.
The big increase in murders prompted the arrival of reinforcements from the National Police and renewed focus on combined social and police work in the most affected communities. In January 2016, a contingent of 130 National Police officers whose disciplines ranged from street patrols to investigation to working with youth were dispatched to Palmira from Colombia's capital city of Bogotá. El Pais reported that the reinforcements hit the streets, targeting members of eight local gangs.
Col. William López, National Police commander for Valle de Cauca, told El Pais that the operation not only targeted the worst affected areas with heavy police presence at critical times of the day but also deployed community police specialists with the goal of increasing the communities' participation in ensuring their own security.
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Col. Mauricio García, who took over as commander of the Palmira Police in December 2015, told Notimerica in May 2016 that the fortified police presence went a long way toward controlling the local gangs.
"Nevertheless, the priority in Palmira is not dismantling the gangs," Garcia said. "The most important thing is the social work in the most marginalized zones, because the problems in this city are generated by youths who have few opportunities.
"If we start to offer them things to do in their free time, and we get closer to the community, it is easy to recover the trend toward a decrease in homicides, as we have already done this year."
Security Observatory Director Martha Gualteros was quoted in El Pais' July 18 report attributing the reduced homicide rate to a combination of the municipality's work with at-risk communities and the successful efforts of police, detectives and prosecutors to dismantle criminal groups.
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According to the World Atlas' Most Dangerous Cities in the World index, Palmira ranked eighth with a homicide rate of 70.88 per 100,000 people, while its much larger neighbor Cali came in tenth with a rate of 64.27 per 100,000.
Andrés Felipe Betancur, coordinator of the Security Observatory helped explain why Palmira managed to obtain a higher murder rate than Cali, which is usually considered one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities.
Betancur said that the difference between Cali and Palmira is violence in Palmira is less associated with large criminal bands, known locally as "BACRIM," and more so generated by local gangs fighting over territory.
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“In Palmira, the violence is associated with disputes between small organizations dedicated to micro trafficking”, noted Betancur.
Betancur also explained to InSight Crime that in 2015, Palmira’s police force underwent a routine command change as the commander’s two and a half year rotation came to an end. The rotation ended at a dire time for Palmira and broke the continuity of security measures that were in the process of being applied since 2012.
“The commanders before, well they knew the city, they had already advanced operations, and what happened is that they [the new commanders] needed time to get to know the city, to organize new strategies” said Betancur.
The time it took for the new commanders to get acclimated allowed the already violent criminal organizations to catch a break from police pressure and revamp their operations, allowing Palmira to climb to number eight in worldwide homicide rankings.
According to Betancur, the drastic reduction in homicides can partly be attributed to the social programs that Col. Mauricio García referenced above. The Special Social Inclusion Plan (Plan Especial de Inclusion Social - PEIS) had a major affect on the social causes of violence in Palmira. The program has helped create jobs, provide legitimate work to youth that were involved with criminal organizations, give assistance to mothers in the community, and even provide workshops in alliance with SENA, a government backed technical institute, which allows individuals to achieve marketable training and skills.
Along with PEIS, the Security Observatory also enacted a new program to aid in sharing information across multiple municipalities in the region.
Betancur said that no one factor -- social programming or police build up -- could explain the dramatic reduction in homicides. The violence had more than one cause, he said, and the reduction in murders resulted from a combination of factors and a coordinated effort by the various relevant government institutions.
“Palmira has seen a very interesting reduction," Betancur said. "I believe that this trend will hold because of what has been achieved" in the several years before the recent spike in homicides. "What was accomplished in 2013, 2014, and part of 2015, is having an impact now.”
The renewed focus and determination seems to have succeeded in bringing a measure of peace to what was a very violent city in a very violent part of Colombia -- Valle de Cauca department. In 2014, military elements were forced to intervene in Colombia’s largest Pacific port, Buenaventura, at a time when it was beginning to resemble an all out war zone. In recent years, news from the cities of Buenaventura, Cali, Jamundi, and Cartago illustrate Valle de Cauca's role as an epicenter for organized criminal activities; be it with the old Cali Cartel, the Norte del Valle Cartel, the Rastrojos, or Urabeños, this region has long been locked in conflict.
While the dramatic reduction in homicides in Palmira appears to be a course correction, getting the city back on a progressive track it had experienced before 2015, it suggests that the Colombian government does have the tools to control crime, and what it needs is commitment to applying them consistently over time.