Colombia's Violent Culture

SINCE the 1930s, violence has been an inescapable component of Colombia's civilian society. Between 1948 and 1957, a non-declared civil war known as ``La Violencia'' took root in the country.

More than 250,000 homicides were committed over several decades for political reasons, a result of longstanding rivalries between supporters of the traditional liberal and conservative parties. These events set the stage for today's extremely violent society, which claims adolescents among its main victims.

If new measures are not adopted, what is happening in Colombia, and to a lesser extent in other countries, will soon spread to the rest of South America. The urbanization process in Colombia, unlike that in most other Latin American countries, was stimulated by those episodes of violence, mainly in rural areas. They produced migratory movements toward marginal areas of major cities. These areas became uprooted and disrupted families. In the past few decades, more than 3 million people have fled to the cities to escape rural violence.

In the 1980s, new factors contributed to the expansion of this culture of violence. Cocaine was introduced in the mid 1970s. Other factors included the economic crisis, the growing presence of guerrilla groups, and consolidation of a power structure with strong links to drug production and sales. The judicial system was weakened and there was a significant increase in corruption.

Colombia thus became the most violent country in the world among those not under an official state of war. At the national level, the mortality rate due to homicides increased from 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1970, to 36 in 1980, to 73 in 1990.

In 1992 over 27,000 homicides took place in Colombia, with a population of 32 million people. In the city of Cali, the mortality rate due to homicide increased from 32 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1982 to 90.5 in 1992, while in the city of Medellin, the rate was three times as high as in Cali in 1992.

In a country marked by violence, Medellin has the sad distinction of being the most violent of Colombia's cities. A notable characteristic of this homicidal violence is that adolescents and young people are not only important actors but victims as well. In Cali, over a tenth of homicides committed in the first semester of 1993 were carried out by adolescent gangs, and a third of all murders were committed by hired killers called ``sicarios,'' most of whom are young people.

While in 1950 only 27.5 percent of ``sicarios'' were in the 15 to 24 age range, that proportion had increased to 44 percent in 1980. Over 50 percent of all victims registered in Cali in 1993 were under 25 years old. Behind these numbers rests an ugly reality: a culture of death that involves young people, perverting their outlook on life.

Colombia now needs to develop and promote policies to confront this reality. In May of 1993, an agreement called ``Pacto Social por la Convivencia'' (Peaceful Pact for Social Coexistence) was signed between government officials in Cali and members of 4 youth gangs that operated in the city. The youngsters agreed to relinquish fire arms, to stop their unlawful activities, and to carry out actions promoting peace and progress in their communities. The government authorities, on their part, agreed to provide loans and to offer the youngsters technical training and job opportunities, as well as legal assistance. Although it is too early to judge its impact, agreements such as this one carried out in Cali should be models for future actions throughout Colombia as well as the rest of the continent.

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