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Killings in Cali: What is to Blame for the Spike?

COLOMBIA / 28 JUN 2021 BY GABRIELLE GORDER AND SETH ROBBINS EN

Convulsed by nearly eight weeks of anti-government protests, the Colombian city of Cali has also experienced a terrible surge in murders.

In May alone, the city tallied 177 homicides – the deadliest monthly toll in five years. Murders during the first four weeks of June are at 114, up from 80 during the whole month in 2020, according to figures obtained by InSight Crime.

Colombia’s top security officials have been quick to blame the violence on the drug trafficking and guerrilla groups they claim have infiltrated the protests, while protesters say police brutality is responsible.

But the recent social and economic unrest has been a catalyst, not a cause, of Cali’s surge in killings. Colombia’s third-largest city was already showing signs of increased violence before the protests broke out in April. The turmoil has added fuel to the fire, fracturing the city’s criminal landscape and rendering police ineffective.

Protests Rocked By Violence

On April 28, long-simmering frustrations over economic collapse amid the coronavirus pandemic came to a head when President Iván Duque proposed an ill-timed tax reform. Anti-government protests exploded in cities across Colombia.

Cali emerged as a center of the unrest – for good reason. At least 65 percent of its residents have been harmed economically by the pandemic, a political scientist who has studied violence in Cali told InSight Crime. (The expert asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission from his employer to speak with the press.)

Police and anti-riot forces known as ESMAD clashed for weeks with demonstrators. Acts of police brutality were captured on video, including authorities firing at protesters’ feet and using non-lethal weapons at close range. In one emblematic incident, Marcelo Agredo Inchima, a 17-year-old high school student, was shot in the head and killed while running away after having kicked an officer.

Across the city and its outskirts, protests gave way to rioting, with buses torched, stores looted, and gas stations ransacked. Protesters set up more than two dozen blockades, known as resistance points. Several of these became the sites of deadly clashes.

Cali is now a city transformed. The barren structures of looted banks and stores line major streets. Graffiti expressing anti-government and anti-police sentiments adorn buildings. Dragged down by Indigenous protesters, the statue of the city’s founder, Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, is now an empty pedestal.

“The protests have largely been peaceful, but one can’t ignore that there is violence being exercised on the part of other actors,” Alberto Sánchez Galeano, a citizen security expert who has studied crime in Cali, told InSight Crime.

Usual Suspects Fingered

Within a week of protests breaking out, Colombia’s Attorney General, Francisco Barbosa, rushed to assign blame.

Behind the chaos and violence in Cali, he claimed, were structures linked to drug traffickers, rebels with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), and dissident members of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).

The Attorney General’s Office touted several arrests in Cali as evidence. Among the detained were Anderson Johan Maldonado Cáceres, alias “Jacobo,” who prosecutors say is head of a FARC dissident cell; and Yeison Lerma Castro, alias “Lerma,” who they allege is the leader of the urban network of the José María Becerra Front of the ELN, according to a May 13 news release announcing the arrests.  

Barbosa said in the release that the arrests confirmed the hypothesis “that organized criminal groups were linked to the violent acts.”

Prosecutors later accused seven people – who they say were responsible for roadblocks, vandalism and clashes with security forces – of being members of an urban network of the Segunda Marquetalia, a dissident FARC faction led by ex-FARC commander Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez,” according to a May 25 news release.

Cali city councilman Roberto Rodríguez Zamudio told InSight Crime that criminals of all stripes took advantage of the chaos.

“The city has a huge social debt with its most vulnerable sectors. The national strike comes, and it is the opportunity for the protesters to express their voices of opposition and highlight their problems, but they have been exploited very efficiently by criminal gangs,” Rodríguez Zamudio said, referring to microtrafficking and drug trafficking groups. Cali sits on a drug route to the port city of Buenaventura, though it's primarily a hub for street-level drug sales and money laundering.

Rodríguez Zamudio noted, citing intelligence reports, that in recent months Cali has had “a more active presence of irregular armed groups, the ELN and the FARC, both with their militias." The result has been more armed confrontations “that have generated the homicide rate that we have today,” he said, calling the city's eastern district of Aguablanca a “fortress for urban militias.”

The political scientist who spoke with InSight Crime said that Cali's eastern sector is home to people displaced from other regions of Colombia, and suffers high rates of poverty, extortion and substance abuse, as well as youth gang and guerrilla recruitment, adding that historically, homicides in Cali have disproportionately affected young people in this part of the city.

Any attempt to link Cali's recent increase in homicides to interference by guerrillas represents “a reductionist point of view,” and one that is “dangerous in the sense that it does not help to understand the dynamics or the needs that lie beneath it all," he said.

The specter of paramilitarism, meanwhile, has also added to the volatile situation in Cali.

At the start of the protests, armed civilians were seen shooting at demonstrators while police looked on. Ariel Ávila, the assistant director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación -- Pares), has described such acts as those of "paramilitaristic hitmen," with whom authorities are complicit.

On May 28, a blockade in the La Luna sector of central Cali turned into a grisly scene when a man fired on the crowd, killing two protesters. Videos of the shooting's aftermath show him walking away from a body before he is grabbed and killed by protesters, who later discovered him to be an officer with the Technical Investigation Team (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación – CTI), a division within the Attorney General's Office.

Out of Control

The recent changes to the murder rates in Cali don’t lend themselves to easy explanations.

Homicides had dropped by half in the past seven years, from 928 in 2013 to 436 last year, according to official figures. The city, though, remains Colombia’s deadliest.

The idea that political unrest is solely responsible for violence in May belies the fact that March and April had increases in homicides of about 30 and 50 percent compared to 2020. The city also averaged 100 homicides per month from July to December of last year, despite pandemic restrictions on movement.

“If Cali continues to follow this pattern, Cali could easily add another 300 homicides this year, and that erases, numerically speaking, the reduction of these past four or five years,” Sánchez Galeano, the security expert, said. 

An overwhelming majority of homicides occur in the comunas, or districts, that are also home to the city’s gangs, according to a 2019 audit on crime in Cali by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Nearly 80 percent of Cali's gangs are concentrated in just six comunas. All but one of these have seen a spike in homicides this year. Others, such as comuna 6 in the north of the city and comuna 1 in the west, have also seen upticks in killings.

“These are comunas that are historically complex but they weren’t typically linked to increases in violence - and now they are completely out of control,” said Sánchez Galeano.

The blockades, he said, have upended the city’s criminal landscape. Under the cover of the barriers, gangs have begun new turf wars, settled old scores and ramped up extortions and street drug sales.

While some criminals have taken advantage of the blockades, others are being negatively affected “because they don’t have operational space to be able to function,” he said. And this also increases conflict.

At what has come to be known as Puerto Resistencia, a working class area that is a front line of the protests, young people manning the blockade have said that they have been threatened by criminal actors, Sánchez Galeano said.

Siloé, a labyrinthine hillside neighborhood on the western edge of Cali, has been among the hardest hit by killings amid the protests. The Siloé blockades cut off a major thoroughfare, isolating the neighborhood. Police were forced to abandon Siloé for weeks after a May 3 nighttime raid in which more than 100 officers, flanked by helicopters, descended into open conflict with residents.

By mid-May, the death toll in Siloé reached 18.

Sánchez Galeano said he viewed Siloé as the most complicated situation in Cali, pointing to repeated attacks on the El Lido police station, where gunmen have opened fire and tossed explosives.

“While in the rest of the city the attacks on police infrastructure have been poorly organized,” he said, “in Siloé, you have repeated, organized, systematic attempts to affect the police infrastructure using firepower.”

In the latest incident to alarm residents, captured on security cameras in Siloé on June 11, civilians carrying firearms can be seen walking down a street, yelling “get inside” and “shut your windows.”

An Unexplained Murder

Bloodshed continued in Cali through June. The city, famed for its vibrant salsa-oriented culture, was shaken after the killing of singer Hárold Angulo Vencé, better known as Junior Jein.

On June 13, about midnight, outside a Cali nightclub where he was scheduled to perform his new single “La Recompensa,” or “The Reward,” Angulo Vencé stepped out of a truck dressed in mariachi clothing. But before he could enter, a pair of hitmen shot him.

Police chased down the shooters, who were captured with a Colt AR-15 rifle and a 9mm handgun. Authorities say one of the accused, Iver Tomás Banguera Flórez, has a rap sheet that includes murder and arms trafficking charges. He also is alleged to be ex-FARC.

The motive for Junior Jein’s killing remains unclear. It was initially reported that he had refused to pay extortion fees demanded by the Espartanos, a splinter of a Buenaventura-based criminal group. His family, however, said that he wasn't being threatened.

A pioneer of an urban salsa style known as choke, Junior Jein focused much of his music on his experience as a Black man born in Buenaventura, and he was one of the singers of ¿Quien Los Mató?, or "Who killed them?" about the 2020 massacre of five Afro-Colombian youth in a sugarcane field in the Llanos Verde sector of Cali.

He was also an outspoken supporter of the national protests.

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