Following a damaging sex scandal, Colombia's new police chief is attempting to restore his institution's image while also reducing crime, although the latter task may prove more complex as a new chapter in Colombian drug trafficking approaches.
In a recent interview with Semana magazine, General Jorge Hernando Nieto, Colombia's National Police director, discussed a range of challenges facing his institution and plans for combating crime and insecurity.
Nieto was appointed police director on February 17 amidst an institutional crisis. His predecessor, Rodolfo Palomino, resigned following allegations he was involved in a prostitution ring within the police ranks that serviced high-ranking officers and members of Congress.
Acknowledging the recent scandal, and the damage it has caused to the generally positive perception of Colombian police, Nieto told Semana that steps were being taken to combat corruption within the force and restore police credibility.
Nonetheless, Nieto admitted there would be further challenges moving forward.
For one, the police budget is set to be cut by approximately $18.7 million, a figure that Nieto said could increase. Fewer resources may complicate police efforts to reduce crime and heightened public perceptions of insecurity in cities like Cali and Barranquilla.
A particularly important focus for police, Nieto told Semana, will be to identify and dismantle the criminal networks involved in microtrafficking. Nieto said he does not think Colombia is home to any large, vertically integrated drug trafficking groups, but added that there are a number of independent criminal structures operating throughout the country.
Nieto also said police officials have developed a strategic vision for their institution's role in security operations should the government sign a peace agreement with left-wing guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). According to the police chief, this strategy is part of a plan called "Safe and Peaceful Communities," which is divided into four categories: rural-focused work, citizen security, the strengthening of criminal investigation, and international cooperation.
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Nieto seems intent on restoring some of the credibility that the National Police lost following the embarrassing scandal of his predecessor. He takes over at a pivotal moment in Colombian history, and faces a difficult task.
The steep drop in oil prices has eaten into government revenues, and the budget cuts will make it difficult for the police to confront one of the principal threats to citizen security discussed by Nieto: microtrafficking. Just last week, authorities blamed an increase in homicides so far this year in Cali on increasing competition between local groups for control of the city's drug trade.
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Meanwhile, a FARC peace deal would likely significantly alter Colombia's criminal landscape, given the rebel group's deep involvement in cocaine production, which could present new challenges for Nieto's police force. While Nieto is correct that no single criminal organization controls Colombia's drug trade, a range of regional criminal actors, including the Urabeños and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), may move to fill the vacuum left by a demobilized FARC.