Observers of Crime

It is a peaceful Saturday in Bogotá. A gentle breeze refreshes the heat that has accumulated since the morning, and now at three in the afternoon, the temperature is perfect for the residents of the capital to go out for a stroll. Parque de la 93 is packed, with families having lunch at the expensive restaurants in the area, couples walking while holding hands, and the occasional loner sitting in the shade of a tree while reading.

The Juan Valdés café, which is in the south-eastern corner of the park, is quite crowded but not full. All the tables are taken, and while half a dozen people queue to place their orders, others wait to receive Americanos and “arepas”, their iced coffees and chocolate cakes.

A man in a black jacket, pale jeans, and white sneakers walks into the cafe with his motorcycle helmet still on. He passes between the tables and heads decisively towards the queue, in the direction of a man in his early sixties wearing a jean shirt and dark pants, who is checking his cell phone impassively. The man in the helmet takes a gun out of his pocket and points it to the other’s head: “Give me your cell phone” – he yells. The man in the queue extends his hand in horror but without hesitation, and the other one violently seizes his mobile phone. He takes a few steps back as he keeps pointing his gun to the other man, then turns on his heel, and runs off, the gun in one hand and the spoils of his theft in the other. When he reaches the street, he jumps onto the back of a motorcycle that had been waiting for him, with the engine running all this time. Its driver does not wait a moment and accelerates the vehicle, taking off towards Carrera 11. All the action does not take more than ten seconds.

A muscular man in a green T-shirt who was also queueing goes out to chase the criminals while roaring “Motherfuckers! Thieves!” Another one who sees what is happening, and that has been in the same corner of the park the whole time, turns out to be a private vigilante of the area, he draws his weapon and also goes out to run behind the motorcycle. More shouts follow: “Police! Police!” and suddenly a second motorcycle bursts onto the scene to join in the pursuit of the thieves, its two passengers also dressed in civilian clothes, the man in the back visibly holding a pistol.

But all is in vain. After just a few minutes, the man in the green T-shirt, the other who went chasing with the pistol drawn, and the other two vigilantes on the motorcycle have returned to the cafe. Everyone there talks anxiously about what has happened, the boys and girls who work at Juan Valdez are visibly shocked. A police patrol arrives and then another. They start talking to the manager of the cafe and to the security people.

The man who has been robbed is perhaps slightly old but sturdy and does not reveal fragility, with his fists he could still defend himself from an attacker if not threaten with a gun. Someone gives him a cell phone. With a disgruntled voice but without losing his composure, he says to whoever is on the other side of the line “I just got mugged”, and his left hand trembles slightly.

And I’m here, in the front row, watching all this mess. By the time it started, I had been in this place for an hour writing my next blog entry, sitting at a table next to a large window that faces the street, the one closest to the exit door. Now that everything begins to calm down, I look around. I am the only one who has a laptop, and a cell phone in that place, both scattered there on the table, trophies even simpler to snatch than the one they have already taken. “Why didn’t they rob me?” I think puzzled. But I don’t linger over the idea for long. I put my things away, and I get out of there quickly, whatever I was going to write can wait until I get back to the flat. “Maybe it is better to avoid writing in these cafes”, I think as I walk away. Any Colombian will tell you: Never give “papaya”. Never.

The enterprise of stolen mobiles

A robbery like the one I saw yesterday is just an anecdote, and you really shouldn’t read much of it. However, two thoughts came to me after this event. 

The first is simply about the role that cell phone theft plays in a city like Bogotá, and in a country like Colombia. The same story that I just told happened another 120 times yesterday all over town, about 45 thousand times throughout the year. Yesterday, the man who was robbed, and actually all of us in that cafe were lucky: no one was hurt. But repeat a violent action 45 thousand times, and surely at some point, something is going to go terribly wrong. It’s not difficult to find in the pages of newspapers the stories of people who died in 2020 as cell phone theft victims.

In this blog, I have written about the violence in Colombia, but always focusing on the conflict’s general dynamics. And it makes sense to start there, after all this country has been immersed in war since the 1940s and there is no sign that it will stop this decade. In an arbitrary taxonomy, cell phone theft could simply appear as the most benign form of violence, perhaps one that can wait for the others, more deadly forms to be resolved first.

And although this is more or less true, one cannot help noticing that what we are talking about here is a large-scale criminal enterprise, not merely a couple of bandits emulating Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The two robbers yesterday did not return home after the adventure with the euphoria of crime and the chase’s adrenaline, to see what they could do with the stolen cell phone, or to ask a neighbour if he would be interested in getting a new mobile. Of course not.

The cell phone that was stolen yesterday in that Juan Valdez had to pass in a very short time through the hands of several people, who transported it stealthily to a local base of operations where dozens more stolen cell phones would have arrived that same day. Just a few more hours, and the same cell phone is already on its way to who knows what national base where the stolen merchandise from many cities in Colombia arrives. A criminal industry that takes over almost a million and a half stolen cell phones a year throughout the country requires organizations that monopolize the different stages in the supply chain: Computer scientists, mechanics, sales team, accountants, security personnel, logistics personnel, and of course, thieves. The criminals we saw yesterday in the cafe were simply two visible members of a structure that must be extensive and deep.

The ecosystem of violence in Colombia is not one of sparse agents that go around doing their misdeeds without relating to other criminals. Robber gangs must necessarily have channels of communication with criminal groups they serve or by whom they are served. Explicitly or not, they all form larger groups that exercise violence and that in turn, join many other crime clusters that specialize in other activities or in other areas. In the end, what one is left with is a tangle of interconnections that nurture violent actions, from the man in the helmet who drew his pistol yesterday in that Juan Valdez, to the large illegal armies that make up a regional presence in the country.

Useless observers

My second reflection is on the uselessness of those who witnessed the theft – but I’m not talking about the humans. Of course, the twenty people who were in that cafe yesterday afternoon were at the mercy of just one who wielded the gun, each one doing a quick risk-reward calculation, its result more than evident to all, a cell phone is worth less than one life, certainly less than mine.

But we weren’t the only ones who saw the assault. The cameras inside Juan Valdez and on the street where the robbers fled recorded everything that happened. The disturbing thing is to realize that the machines turned out to be as useless as the humans, but the former’s excuse is less acceptable than those of the later.

After the theft, the police arrives relatively quickly, an agent anxiously and insistently asks the restaurant manager to give him as soon as possible the information of what the cameras had captured, the license plate of the motorcycle at least. The manager is glued to the phone, talking to a supervisor from the coffee chain. “Wait a minute” – she asks the policeman, and he is furious, he knows that every minute, every second count in the pursuit of thieves. Finally, she gets an answer, full of hope she tells the policeman “They just told me about the camera footage, we must call in an hour or so, they will have by then the motorcycle license plate”. The policeman opens his eyes wide, and his jaw drops, as if he were a character from a cartoons series, he is defeated before even being able to show his courage in the streets of Bogotá, now returns to his buddies to tell them that there is not much to do here.

Some politicians and pundits sneer at the idea of ​​putting surveillance cameras throughout the city. The proposal seems superficial and “techno-solutionist” to them, that fad everywhere these days that claims that artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain and “smart cities” are going to solve all the problems of this jungle miraculously. I share that sentiment, but just a bit, after all, I am not so blind to completely discard valuable tools.

The impact of security cameras has been rigorously studied, and several academic articles can be found measuring their effectiveness. One of relevance is the one published last year by Santiago Gómez, Daniel Mejía and Santiago Tobón, “The Deterrent Effect of Surveillance Cameras on Crime”.

In the article, the researchers analyze the impact of installing 448 security cameras in Medellín, during 2013 and 2015. They conclude that there is statistical evidence to conclude that these were responsible for a 19% decrease in crime in areas where the intervention was made. This is a figure that any pragmatic citizen would welcome.

The researchers also emphasize that crime reduction is not because crimes are better prevented, but because the cameras deter criminals from committing their acts in those areas in the first place. However, the researchers cannot decisively conclude whether or not crime moves to unmonitored locations.

These three observations – that cameras do decrease crime, that they do so by deterrence, and that it is difficult to conclude what happens beyond their coverage range – are observations that are in line with those of other similar studies done in other parts of the world.

The previous Mayor of Bogota installed thousands of security cameras in the city, and at this moment, there are more than 4800 of them. What has been the impact of these on crime is something that I have not been able to find, but judging by the audacity and daring of yesterday’s robbers, at least these two were not deterred by the existence of those cameras.

Something tells me that the cameras installed by the Mayor’s Office are no less useless than those installed in Juan Valdez. In a statement a couple of months ago, Mayor Claudia López “recognized the effort of the previous administration to install them, but said that it is useless to have them if they cannot be used against crime.” And this is because they have not found a way to continually monitor all the information that this surveillance system throws at them. For this reason, they are looking for “an artificial system that allows to recognize patterns and faces of people who systematically commit crimes.”

The cameras’ deterrent power does not come by magic, but rather because criminals have to perceive that they are effective when they are used. The evidence indicates that they help fight crime, but for this to happen, they have to be working, and they have to be integrated into the rest of the city’s security system.

It is a bit disconcerting to see that only now Bogotá is looking for ways to make this camera network work properly, a system that is already installed and for which a lot of money was paid. The cost per camera is US$10,000 per installation plus another US$5,000 per year for energy, fibre optic connectivity, and maintenance.

It is possible that even with security cameras, properly installed and monitored, yesterday’s theft at Juan Valdez would have happened anyway, however, that we will never know. What we do know is that a lot of cameras that nobody is paying attention to are just useless observers of crime, just as useless as the people who went yesterday to that Juan Valdez, to enjoy a quiet Saturday afternoon in Bogota.

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