There are over 500 street gangs in Colombia's six biggest cities, according to information collected by local authorities, highlighting the scale of a security threat intrinsically linked to wider changes in the Colombian underworld.
According to El Tiempo, police and local governments in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla and Cartagena have identified 517 gangs operating in these cities.
Bogota has the highest number of gangs with 107, although police say just 30 of these are involved in serious crimes, while the rest are predominantly youth gangs dedicated to petty crime.
Perhaps the most significant gang problem is in Cali, where police have identified 105 gangs, and Medellin, where they have counted 90. The gangs exert strong territorial control and are dedicated to extortion, drug sales, and assassinations, among other illicit activities, and many of them provide services to large scale criminal organizations.
In contrast, in Colombia's smaller cities -- including Bucaramanga, Barranquilla and Cartagena -- police say the gangs they have identified are mostly adolescents dedicated to petty crime, and have few ties to larger criminal groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
The proliferation of street gangs in Colombia's major cities is illustrative of wider changes in Colombia's underworld. Links between petty urban gangs and larger organized crime networks dates back to the era of Medellin Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, who hired youths from gangs in order to plant bombs and carry out killings.
Since then, however, Colombia's criminal structures have steadily fragmented, breaking down into ever smaller, more localized cells. This model lends itself to the sort of criminal outsourcing pioneered by Escobar, as it is often easier and safter for these criminal cells to hire urban gangs to do their dirty work -- like storing drug shipments or carrying out assasinations -- for them.
Similarly to Escobar's era, these recruits from working class neighborhoods are also considered appealing as they are viewed as expendable -- and as they typically don't know a lot about who hires them, if caught, they can provide little useful intelligence to police.
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Today's urban gangs -- especially in Medellin and Cali -- pick and choose their alliances with larger criminal groups like the Urabeños largely based on the economic benefits involved. In the past, shifts in these allegiances have contributed greatly to violence in these cities (although, for a mix of reasons, homicides in urban Colombia dropped significantly last year).
There have been a few signs that Mexico's underworld is evolving into something akin to the Colombian model -- should this continue, street gangs in that country will also likely proliferate and become the major threat to citizen security, rather than transnational organized crime.