Home Violence A Mockery of Murder: Debunking Theories of Inherent Colombian Violence

A Mockery of Murder: Debunking Theories of Inherent Colombian Violence

by Ricardo Pachon
8 minutes read

It’s a common belief that the staggering number of murders piling up in Colombia each year stems from our inherently violent nature—a combustible spirit perhaps too easily triggered by our emotions and drinking too much aguardiente. That man over there found his wife being unfaithful and killed her and her lover. That other was cut off by a taxi driver, boiling his blood to the point that, when he caught up and confronted him, he did not hesitate to crush the offender’s head with a tire iron at hand. Those two were friends, but in drunkenness, they fought over whether América Football Club was better than Nacional, and in a moment of madness, one stabbed the other fatally in the heart.

This narrative suggests we’re culturally predisposed to violence; we don’t value life, we too act impulsively, and we avoid resolving conflicts through dialogue. Instead, violence erupts spontaneously, driven by our raw, untamed impulses, leading us to grab machetes and guns to make justice by our hand.

This theory also implies that violence is an unchanging part of our history, rooted in some kind of original sin. It suggests we need to scour our history books to pinpoint the exact moment when fratricidal violence became ubiquitous. Was it the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán by Juan Roa Sierra in 1948? The attempted takeover of Bucaramanga by Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1899? Or when the Morales brothers asked José Gonzales Llorente for that vase in 1810. Maybe the problem comes from even earlier, after all, what can be expected from the children of the Carib warrior and the Spanish corsair?

Many endorse this violence culture theory, notably former Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas (who notoriously underestimated the 2018 homicide forecast by 30%) and attributed most social leader murders to “love quarrels.”

If this cultural propensity for violence is why Colombia’s homicide rate quintuples the global average, the issue fundamentally concerns how we live together. Perhaps it’s time to reform our educational system to foster dialogue, impose stricter alcohol regulations given our supposedly unparalleled propensity for drunkenness, and promote self-control and disarmament of the heart, alongside more spiritual or meditative practices.

Intolerant but Not Murderous

The above is a myth: The more than 12,000 homicides Colombia has each year are not the manifestation of a culture of violence. It’s tempting to take the widespread intolerance we perceive in others – the one that stuns us day by day – and extrapolate it to offer a holistic explanation of homicidal crime. But this line of argument lacks solid evidence and falls short in answering many questions about violence in Colombia.

The first thing we should do is look at the figures. Of the 12,130 homicides reported by Legal Medicine last year, how many can be attributed to our culture of violence? Astonishingly, we don’t have an answer to that question.

Buried in the 2018 Forensis report, prepared by Legal Medicine each year on violence, is the following pearl about homicides in Colombia: “More than 70% in the case of men and more than 60% in the case of women lack information regarding the circumstance of the event.”

For the cases for which we do have information, we know that 1,400 people died from interpersonal violence, 270 from intrafamily violence, and 80 women were victims of femicide. Discriminating by “activity during the event,” the report indicates that in about a thousand cases, the homicide took place during “activities related to attendance at cultural, entertainment, and/or sports events” (is that just a way of saying clubs and stadiums?)

Legal Medicine often summarizes its report to the media (who do not bother to read it) saying that in 42% of cases, deaths are due to interpersonal violence, leading people to think that impulsive fights explain a good part of homicides in Colombia. But of course, that’s 42% of the cases for which we have information, which is just a small part of the total. This is a misleading way to present the numbers, and Legal Medicine would do the country a favor by being clear about the tremendous gap we have in information.

It’s not credible to think that the circumstances behind the 70% of homicides about which we have no information preserve the same proportion as the 30% of cases for which we do have it. Surely, impulsive and unpremeditated homicides are those in which the perpetrator commits visible mistakes, allowing investigators to more easily clarify what happened. But the murders that remain in limbo must have a minimum degree of refinement to remain in impunity, a refinement that is rarely going to have someone who loses their head for a moment and kills their comrade because of their violent culture.

Two Arguments Against the Myth of Violent Culture

It’s worrying that this myth about the structure of our violence is so ingrained, not only among citizens but also among the government. If a defense minister is capable of uttering such nonsense as Mr. Villegas did without blushing, what can we expect from their proposals to effectively combat homicide?

Fortunately, academic researchers have not fallen into this trap, and for at least two decades, they have produced works that question the simplistic narrative. There are two arguments that I have found in academic works that are particularly relevant to debunking the myth of violent culture as the engine of homicides: its variability over time and its spatial focus.

If what happens to us is that we have defective genes that make us violent, or we have an unusual appetite for murder, how do the dramatic increases and falls in the homicide rate over the last 80 years get explained? Even within the same decade, variations of several multiples can be found, contradicting the possibility that violence has been a historical constant. Are there years when we are more irritable and others when we are more peaceful?

When we talk about culture, we are talking about behaviors that are sustained over time and that are not easy to modify. The only way to dramatically change the intimate fiber of a society from one year to the next is if it is subjected to brutal shocks in which its very survival is at stake. But although Colombian has gone through many crises, we have not yet experienced the zombie apocalypse that could instantly turns us all into potential murderers.

A series of research works have focused on decomposing the country’s violence indicators in terms of socioeconomic variables, such as poverty rates, inequality, education, or judicial efficacy. What these studies show is that there are external conditions that correlate with violence and that even have a causal effect. Sometimes, the conclusions of these empirical works can be counterintuitive as they do not support some popular beliefs we may have about the roots of violence. However, it is precisely these observations based on objective analysis that must form the basis of our public policies to face the challenge that Colombia has. In a future entry, I will be focusing on these works.

The variability of homicide over time contrasts with its geographical distribution. Time and again, it has been established that murders are concentrated in certain departments and not in others. And in the more violent departments, there are cities and municipalities with more homicides than in others. Even within cities, there are neighborhoods that exhibit very high rates of violence, while there are others as peaceful as any Nordic city.

So, if it is not the regular man on the street who commits these crimes, who are the real perpetrators of violence in Colombia?

Elementary, my dear Watson

For decades, Colombia has been terrorized by criminal organizations of all sorts:  the Medellín Cartel, the Cali Cartel, the Norte del Valle Cartel, the Coast Cartel, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Quintín Lame, M-19, FARC, ELN, EPL, ERP, MADO, MAR, Armed Commands of the Independent Revolutionary Movement, Revolutionary Guevarist Army, Pelusos, Paisas, Clan Úsuga, Clan del Golfo, Los Rastrojos, ERPAC, Bloque Meta, Bloque Libertadores del Vichada, Los Puntilleros, La Oficina de Envigado, Águilas Negras, and Los Urabeños, among many, many others.

Looking at this list, I can’t help but ask: Isn’t it somewhat obvious who might be behind the alarmingly high number of homicides?

In a country where criminal bands have exhausted virtually all acronyms to name their armies, where it seems every department has its own cartel, and every mid-level paramilitary leader has started their own franchise, do we really believe that our quarrelsome spirit and intolerance are what cause the annual avalanche of homicides? Is it hard to imagine who is behind the thousands of deaths? Do we need a grand, all-encompassing theory based on our culture to explain the violence in Colombia?


(Image: The Argument, a painting by Blaine A. White)

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