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Colombia Must Fight the Drug War, Not “Culture of Violence”

By: Contributor - Feb 23, 2015, 1:10 pm

EspañolBy Julio César Mejía

In recent weeks, former Mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus has made headlines in Colombia over the March for Life, which he’s convened for March 8. The demonstration seeks to unite different political groups to promote the message that “life is sacred.” But suspicion about the movement has risen following allegations of shady dealings between a foundation owned by Mockus and the government.

En Facebook, Mockus hace una activa promoción de la marcha del 8 de marzo. (Facebook)
Former Mayor of Bogotá Antanus Mockus has called for a March for Life. (Facebook)

Yet leaving this debate aside, it’s important to reflect on the message sent by this kind of initiative. The former mayor has backed the thesis that homicide and gang violence have cultural roots in Colombia. He argues that violence is widespread, impulsive, and could appear at any moment or in any place. Killing, he suggests, is part of Colombia’s environment.

In the face of this grim diagnosis, Mockus has a solution: the state must shoulder the burden of teaching the general public the error of their ways, and re-culture its errant citizens to set them on the path to peace.

This way of thinking has proved so influential that the government began a UN program in 2014 to promote the “culture of peace.” However, the idea that violence can be resolved through marches is baffling, considering we’re talking about a country notorious for the reach of its criminal networks and the fragility of its judicial institutions.

Multiple studies — including those carried out by Camilo Echandía of Colombia’s External University, and Fabio Sánchez of the University of the Andes — have shown that homicides, far from constituting a dispersed phenomenon, are highly concentrated in certain areas of the country.

Killings are predominantly associated with criminal skirmishes over control of strategic territory, used for the production and transport of cocaine, or the exploitation of other natural resources. Put another way, violence in Colombia is carried out for specific, criminal purposes, rather than impulsive and generalized ones.

As Milton Friedman explained in his famous interview with Randy Paige, the risks associated with the production and sale of drugs raises their price, making narco-trafficking a highly profitable business.

Meanwhile, government policies focus on taking away the market from small drug producers, permitting larger, more sophisticated criminal organizations to maintain their grip. In Friedman’s words on the war on drugs: “From a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.”

By making the production, traffic, and sale of drugs illegal, the possibility of resolving conflicts between competing cartels through legal means is extinguished. If someone steals 10 kilograms of cocaine from a trafficker, his only recourse is to recoup his losses and intimidate his rivals through violence.

The inefficiency of the justice system only aggravates the situation. According to the World Justice Project, Colombia ranks 79 out of 99 countries in the effectiveness of its criminal justice procedures, with only 5 percent of murders leading to a jail sentence. Put another way, Colombia’s justice system fails to offer disincentives against criminal activity. When there’s a 95-percent chance you’ll walk free, homicide looks like a sensible way of doing business.

The discourse of the “culture of violence” leads to multiple errors. For one, it transfers responsibility from those individuals who could easily be charged with masterminding multiple crimes to the population as a whole. Meanwhile, it assigns the state the role of “culturing” people while it reneges on the functions for which it was created: to provide justice and security.

This isn’t to say that culture has no role at all in homicide. But it’s a grave mistake to focus on one factor to the exclusion of the structural problem: the weakness of formal institutions and the perverse incentives created by the war on drugs.

Will the bureaucrats be any better at giving lessons in culture when they’ve failed so roundly at fulfilling basic, concrete functions? If they really seek to defend life, they should dispense with the politically correct and profitable slogans.

Instead, they should confront what really threatens human life, demanding genuine justice with a slogan which, if realized, would change the history of the continent: “End the war on drugs now!”

Julio César Mejía is an expert in international relations, and formerly served as a public relations advisor to the Colombian army high command, and local coordinator for the Students for Liberty organization. Mejía is currently director of the Colombia Free Will Center. Follow him @JulioMej49.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.