Last week, an anonymous group inundated the barrios of Medellin with flyers announcing the launch of a social cleansing campaign targeted at vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, people infected with HIV, and anyone at “inappropriate” places after 10:00PM. The group claims the campaign is a response to the increased incidents of violence, theft, prostitution and drug use in the city. The stated strategy of the group is to “attack violence with violence.”
Medellin Mayor, Alonso Salazar, has called on citizens to champion the cause of unity to offset panic caused by the campaign. He has promised to increase police presence in the streets, as well as host concerts and cultural programs to promote peace. Given Colombia’s experience with these so-called “social cleansing” campaigns, however, few believe the threat can be so easily subdued.
The UN has defined social cleansing as “the elimination of marginalized and impoverished sectors of the population.” For paramilitary organizations, it is the elimination of those who are considered unworthy of living—the “desechables” or disposables. While it may be premature to say that Medellin is reverting back to the violence of the 80s and 90s, the increase in crime, delinquency and the re-emergence of armed groups are symptoms of an all too familiar disease.
Medellin ended 2008 with 1, 044 homicides, 35% more than in 2007. The increase may be attributed to the combined effects of the demobilization of paramilitary soldiers and the war of succession between drug gangs. In recent weeks, Mayor Salazar announced that the ex-combatants who graduate from the reinsertion program are no longer entitled to receive the benefits or financial aid afforded by the government. Without the support of the government and the difficulties of reintegration into society, many of the demobilized peoples have fallen into either drug trafficking or back into developing paramilitary structures.
Just weeks away from hosting this year’s meeting of the Inter American Development Bank, Medellin finds itself in the position of defending the hard earned reputation it fought so long to cultivate. With the advent of the campaign, the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to transform Medellin from one of the world’s most violent cities to one of Latin America’s most thriving metropolises, could be called into question.
Absent from the scene is a credible and legitimate judicial system. The current administration’s neglect of this fundamental establishment and the failure to bring perpetrators to justice has created a framework of acceptance for the “social cleansing” of the most vulnerable sectors of the population. As Colombia nears presidential elections, it is becoming increasingly evident that although the policy of Democratic Security has provided a temporary solution to violence in Colombia, it has failed to build the institutions necessary for a long-term one.