The origin of violence: poverty, inequality or weak justice?

Going through the bibliography on violence in Colombia, I found the report of the Commission for Studies on Violence (CEV) of 1987, which I wrote a couple of days ago. The CEV’s approach is general and vague, favoring a framework of multiple interpretations in which, basically, whatever one says about the phenomenon ends up being true.

If a couple of academics do not seek empirical support for their theses, and one affirms that the cause of the violence is corruption and the other assures that it is a matter of education, both will be somewhat right in the CEV’s view, because It will always be possible to connect corruption and education with a series of argumentative steps with phenomena that are interpreted as violent. This, in a way, is of little use and somewhat trivial. What is essential is to establish between these two variables which of them has more power to explain, for example, the number of homicides. Only when the order of importance between the one and the other can be broken does it make sense to structure a narrative with which the results are interpreted.

If you have not already done so, you may want to read my previous entry, The Commission for Studies on Violence – A Popular Theory (But Wrong), where I reflect on the CEV and its legacy.

Economists are here

In the 1990s, Colombian economists finally got into the task of studying the phenomenon of violence. And I say “finally”, because in other countries they had already begun to enter a field that had traditionally been reserved for sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists. It was Gary Becker, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who in 1968 proposed a look at the issue of violence from the perspective of decision analysis. From there, economists found a virgin, fertile, intellectual territory perfect for taming with their econometric models and linear regressions. (For sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, this irruption into their homeland did not seem five amusing. I do not blame them. It is difficult to love economists.)

The new Colombian violentologists favored empirical studies, based on hard numbers, and one of their main challenges was dealing with the scarcity of reliable data. In many cases the problem is underreporting of crimes, which can lead to wrong conclusions. For example, in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín in the 1990s, the number of homicides shot up to almost 6,000 a year, but paradoxically, the number of reports of other crimes fell. Some academics interpreted that the paisas had discovered that killing gave them pleasure, and now they did it for whatever reason (perhaps because of the violent culture I talked about in a previous post?), Instead of realizing that in a city that He was on the warpath, people were so intimidated that they preferred not to report the most common crimes. What chance was there that the police caught the thief of a television, when at the same time he had Escobar on top of them, offering a million pesos for each police officer killed?

The other problem with working with violence data is that they incorporate legal definitions that are arbitrary and subject to change over time. The Penal Code changed the definition of personal injury in 1980 and 1987, causing someone to study only the numbers reported by the Police to see an artificial decline in this crime.

The number of homicides is possibly the indicator that has the least noise, while being a good proxy for violence in general. It is the indicator that I have used in my own analyzes, in which I have studied the trends of homicides at the national level over time, and their decomposition between those who are associated with the conflict and those who are not. I am working now to do the same but at the local level, focusing on certain municipalities and nerve centers.

Instead of studying evolution over time, many researchers have done what is called “cross-sectional analysis”, in which they seek to find the relationship between a variable of interest – for example, homicides in each department – and another who can explain it – for example the degree of coverage of primary education. These types of studies have all kinds of limitations (they usually assume a linear dependence, generally univariate, and the directionality of the association cannot be inferred), however they are a good starting point to delve into what are the possible causes of a phenomenon . Of the dozens of possible explanatory variables of violence in Colombia, there are three that are particularly interesting.

Against popular wisdom

Poverty – measured for example by real departmental GDP per capita, or the GDP growth rate, or the increase in the degree of unmet basic needs, or the infant mortality rate – is not the cause of violence in Colombia. This is the conclusion of a long series of statistical studies that, taken together, have even observed the opposite: the expansion of regional wealth precedes the increase in crime. Although anti-intuitive, this empirical result is consistent with the war dynamics that prevail in Colombia, in which the objective of a group of criminal agents is the extraction of wealth and the financing of their armies. Wherever there is coca, poppy, emeralds, gold and oil, it is where the guerrillas and the paras and the Bacrim settle and unleash the horror.

It is not easy to digest this result, because it collides with the sensitivity that many of us surely have regarding two tragedies that from the shore seem to intermingle. For example, a friend on Facebook wrote the following on his wall: “Peace is not only that there is no bullet, but that there are not twelve or thirteen million poor peasants.” Does anyone dare to refute it? Doesn’t it seem terrible to us that there are millions of poor peasants? But the problem with this statement, which seems to be taken from the CEV script, is that it confuses us with two terrible phenomena, which have been empirically shown to be independent (or whose dependence even goes in the opposite direction of what is expected), collapsing them under the same definition.

Peace is the absence of violence, but by violence we have to understand a very specific group of actions that we want to eliminate: homicides, displacement, disappearances, threats, personal injuries. Poverty is a tragedy in itself, one to which we must find solutions, but we do not gain anything by putting it in the same bag of violence if we know that both obey different dynamics.

Another variable is the one that Mr. Petro invoked in the 2018 presidential campaign as the fundamental cause of violence: inequality. On this point I have found material that points in all directions and I will need a little more time before I am completely clear about it. On the one hand, I have found several studies done in Colombia that have reported a null association between violence and inequality – measured for example by the Gini coefficient at the departmental level. But I have also read studies that have established that there is indeed statistical evidence between inequality and homicides in Colombia, although methodological errors have been pointed out that make their results question. Internationally, studies have been carried out between certain forms of violence and the concentration of wealth that indicate the presence of a positive and significant relationship between the two. However, when these models are transported to Colombia, the association vanishes and can hardly explain a fraction of the violence.

Colombia is not one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is definitely one of the most inequitable. This combination of high violence and high inequality is also shared by South Africa, Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, three of the countries that, together with Colombia, are characterized by their very high homicide rates. (The fifth country with unusual violence, Venezuela, showed until 2011 inequality data much less than the others, but I need to find more recent figures.) That these countries are unequal and violent makes one think that perhaps if there is any relationship between those variables, but the association is perhaps not as transparent as some would like to believe. For example, Chile has inequality rates almost as high as Colombia’s, but a homicide rate that is even lower than the world average. In any case, there does not seem to be a consensus to state so emphatically that “violence is the product of social inequality and that therefore social equity is the basis of peace.”

Inequality is one of the greatest social tensions that we recognize in our times, and one that Colombia is in debt to resolve. A discourse based on income redistribution, for us to be a slightly more equitable society, does not need to be leveraged with other problems. But our politicians, like Mr. Petro, in their desire to articulate great narratives with which they explain the country, force phenomena that have nothing to do with each other. Violence, and inequality, and poverty are three different problems, not just one.

The weakness of justice

The most interesting result that I have found so far in terms of the causes of violence has been one that was established in the 90s by Armando Montenegro and Carlos Esteban Posada, and that has been verified and studied in depth by various researchers since then: the weakness of the judicial apparatus if it explains the violence in Colombia. The original study used the rate of people called to trial for homicide as a proxy for the degree of efficiency of justice, but other characteristics relevant to the justice system that went beyond impunity rates were included in subsequent analyzes.

The problem of justice in Colombia is structural and covers the entire system and all the parts with which it interacts: civil, criminal, administrative, and labor justice; the Comptroller, the Attorney General, and the Prosecutor; Legal Medicine, INPEC, the Police, and the Military Forces; the notary and registry system, the licensing system, and the person in charge of controlling contraband; urban and traffic authorities. From end to end, the sclerosis of the entire apparatus has prevented justice from being administered and administered, and the rights of individuals and communities from being enforced. Its inefficiency is felt from the difficulties that a victim has in filing a complaint at the Police station, through the frank ineptitude of the prison service to which inmates are blown up on a dental appointment, to the inability to efficiently process the great criminals of the country.

The country’s economic growth did not have a similar evolution of judicial structures that would guarantee a sustained and orderly expansion, and what it generated was a situation in which the strongest had the prerogative to plunder wealth or administer justice for themselves. . And in all this, drug trafficking entered the country without finding a dam that could contain it. Almost forty years later, the Colombian justice system has not yet recovered from the challenge brought by the cartels, and with its pachydermic rhythm it is ten steps behind the sophisticated criminal companies, which are still awaiting the arrival of an opponent who is up to them.

It does not take much science to recognize that justice in Colombia has serious problems, however it is relevant to discover the role it plays in the high violence that we suffer. The conclusions of these studies suggest where we should look for progress in containing the scourge of violence, and this is no small feat, especially in a matter that abounds with passions and sophisms that confuse everyone.

We cannot wait for Colombia to come out of poverty, or solve the problem of inequality to wait for violence to decrease. Nor can we stand idly by, lamenting an alleged culture that tolerates homicide. The task of reforming justice to deal with violence is a titanic task, but in the search for peace that is talked about so much, this is one that at least promises to make determined progress and in the right direction.

This is the eighth entry in my series on Violence in Colombia:

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