The Commission on Studies of Violence – A Popular (But Mistaken) Theory

In the 2018 Colombian presidential race, Gustavo Petro offered a pointed diagnosis on the nation’s violence. For instance, he asserted: “I believe that violence is the product of social inequality, and therefore social equity is the foundation of peace.” He also claimed, “Violence has been generated from Power with a goal: to concentrate wealth in a few families, heirs of feudalism and slavery.”

Standing on the podium, delivering his speech to his followers, he could elaborate a bit more on his thought: “They have wanted to convince us that what we call violence and they call insecurity, is the product of some evil people… So, their proposals consist of removing that evil element… They claim they can guarantee security by imprisoning the youth…[but] the enemies of society are not the youth, but the corrupt who generate social inequality and therefore multiple forms of violence.”

Whether one concurs with Mr. Petro’s assertions or not (and I shall detail my dissent in a forthcoming post), the ambition behind his formulation of a conceptual framework addressing violence must be recognized, as it should help – at least in theory – to craft effective policies counteract such violence. It goes without saying that our leaders must have a clear understanding of the complexities underlying violence; without it, any attempt at effective intervention is doomed to failure.

I guess President Iván Duque must also have a theory about what causes violence, however, I have not been able to find it either in his speeches, his proposals as a presidential candidate, or even in his tweets. It seems that his ideas about what is the source of violence in Colombia are in line with those of his immediate predecessors – Pastrana, Uribe and Santo – all of whom framed violence primarily in the context of the conflict with FARC and drug trafficking issues. Maybe, maybe not; it’s hard to say.

Heading in the Wrong Direction

In any case, no one should be shocked by Mr. Petro’s words. For decades, the prescription that the root of violence lies in socioeconomic phenomena, and that they must be resolved first as a prerequisite for peace, has been a mainstream view, subscribed to by many politicians. For example, Luis Carlos Galán asserted, “We have social and economic violence originating in the country’s ancient processes, in inequalities and social contradictions.”

There is something intuitively and morally correct in pointing to poverty or inequality as the main drivers of violence, and Mr. Petro’s appreciation that there are “multiple forms of violence” does not seem far-fetched. The truth is that all these ideas originated in an academic document, commissioned by the Colombian government over thirty years ago, whose legacy has been kept alive all this time by a group of politicians and intellectuals, despite the long list of deficiencies pointed out since its publication.

In 1987, as the war against the cartels was reaching its cruelest point, the then-President Virgilio Barco convened the Commission on Studies about Violence (Comision de Estudios sobre la Violencia, CEV) a group of experts with the mandate of making a detailed diagnosis of what was happening in the country. The group eventually published a report with its findings, indicating that Colombia was experiencing a spectrum of violences, each with independent causes and affecting different segments of the population. Thus, there was drug trafficking and guerrilla violence, but also domestic violence, violence over territories and due to the uneven development of regions, violence against ethnic minorities, “social cleansing” violence, economic violence exerted by the wealthy, social violence of intolerance, and violence exercised by the media.

For the CEV, any social phenomenon that was not in equilibrium (that is, practically every social phenomenon) could be reinterpreted as a type of violence. Proposing such a broad theory that covered all the nuances of our society was certainly ambitious, but in their effort to be exhaustive, the commission ended up saying nothing. With so many violences, of such different magnitudes, it becomes impossible to find a common language to reconcile and measure what was happening. As brilliantly illustrated by the economist Fernando Gaitán Daza, in his critique of the CEV’s methodology:

“How can you lump together discrimination for belonging to an ethnicity, spanking a child, the violent antics of Woody Woodpecker, the targeted killing of Union Patriótica members, the DAS building car bombing, the torture inflicted by an army captain on a dissident, the ordeal of urban transport, the havoc wrought by guerrilla military actions, the income inequality, and the lack of public services in impoverished neighborhoods?”

The answer is that there is no way, and whoever decides to study violence with this vision can only formulate a framework as abstract as possible to accommodate such a variety of phenomena. A favored explanation, for example, was that the origin of our problems lay in our cultural and historical legacy, going back to the civil wars of the 19th century, an explanation that is clearly absurd. But with such vague definitions, intellectuals who followed the CEV thesis soon discovered that they could propose all sorts of explanations based on the social, political, and economic elements of the country, never falling into any type of contradiction. And so, the list of where we should look for the origin of violence grew longer and longer, including (citing Gaitán again) “the exclusive character of the National Front, political centralization, low citizen participation, the weakness of civil society, the illegitimacy of the State, poverty, wealth, inequality, colonization, social investment, the imbalance between regions, domestic abuse, land distribution, public space, intolerance, the urban landscape, corruption, lack of public space, loss of values, education, single motherhood, youth gangs, abstention, toy guns, and who knows what else.”

As the problem is so poorly defined, any of these explanations can be satisfactory because the definition of what is understood by violence can always be slightly adjusted, and thus the theory can never be falsified. For example, if I say that low social investment is the cause of violence, all I have to do is argue that the unmet needs of a community are an expression of the government’s violence towards the population, and my argument stands. I suppose there must be some virtue in doing things this way (other than always being able to have it your way), however, I am unable to see it. This unscientific nature, I believe, is not suitable for understanding and proposing solutions to a problem that, as I mentioned before, due to its dimensions, belongs more to the world of statistics than to that of lyricism.

The Legacy

Although it should be clear that I am critical of the CEV’s report, it would be unfair not to mention the many positive aspects it has. When you read their report, you get a comprehensive view of the country in those terrible years of the 1980s, which goes beyond the common stories and recurring characters we all know from that decade. Colombia was a ticking time bomb, but the authors of the CEV did a thorough and meticulous job of making sense of the disordered mechanisms lying as structures of our society, ready to explode. The forward-thinking and liberal ethos of the CEV stands out as particularly striking during an era when the country was introspective and resistant to change and heralded the reforms that were being forged and would materialize with the Constitution of 1991.

The CEV report, more than a piece of academic research, reads like a political manifesto, and perhaps for that reason, such language and vision continue to resonate among those in the business of persuading the masses and getting votes, like Mr. Petro. And as further testimony to its longevity, we find that in the midst of the 2019 campaign for the mayorship of Bogotá, politicians like Hollman Morris, knowingly or not, maintain the CEV’s vision unchanged when they present their security policies for the city.

Since the 90s, a group of academics decided to break away from the philosophy of the CEV and posited that the correct way to view the problem of violence was to focus exclusively on those acts that cause physical harm to people. The emphasis in these studies was on actions that could be quantified and empirically analyzed, based on evidence that was significant. A consequence of this approach is that it dismisses the multicausal approach proposed by the CEV and replaces it with a plausible importance hierarchy of the causation variables of violence.

With this conceptual framework, measurable advances can be made in the fight against violence, and we can truly ask ourselves what causes it: Is it poverty? Or inequality? Or the weakness of justice?

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