Colombia, bringing the death toll down

11 Jun 2010

 
(Photo: UNODC Columbia)

Despite the heavy presence of paramilitary organizations in Colombia, they are only responsible for nine percent of all firearm-related homicides in the country. In 2008, around 77 percent of the 14,000 homicides involved civilians carrying firearms, while the remaining 14 percent involved knives and other stabbing weapons. In two of the largest cities in Colombia, Bogota and Cali, homicides linked to guns amounted to 60 and 90 percent, respectively.

“The less firearms available, the less the violence,” maintains Bruno Moro, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP’s Resident Representative in Colombia. “For UNDP this is a priority because violence hampers development.”

Backed by international treaties that cover the arms issues, the Colombian Government’s strategy – in partnership with the UN and civil society – has been to focus on two fronts: to tighten gun control and disarm civilians.

Disarming civilians
The municipality of Bogotá has been promoting ‘Disarmament Days’, mainly in churches, encouraging people to hand in their weapons. The municipality offers a reward up to US$150 per firearm. Over the last 10 years, Bogotá has organized more than 100 disarmament events and nearly 20 campaigns. As a result, civilians have handed in nearly 7,000 weapons, almost 700 grenades and more than 90,000 cartridges.

The voluntary disarmament programme is one of the measures that have led to a significant decrease in Bogotá’s homicide rate: from 80 for every 100,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 18 for every 100,000 people in 2008. Bogota’s violence rates have changed dramatically. Having one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America, the city became one of the least violent in the region, after Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Quito, Ecuador. With the success of the Bogota programmes, other major Colombian cities such as Cali and Medellin recently started promoting voluntary disarmament programmes. Every year, Colombia destroys approximately 20,000 firearms.

Prohibiting people from carrying firearms during weekends and holidays has also contributed to lowering violence rates in both Bogota and Cali. According to Andrés Villaveces Izquierdo, researcher from the Universidad del Valle, as a result of such programmes, the homicide rate dropped 14 percent in Cali, between 1993 and 1995, and 13 per cent in Bogotá, between1995 and 1997.

Arms control
To control guns and other weapons, the Colombian police, the army and related governmental agencies are constantly running special arms registration operations on the streets, inspecting cars, trucks and searching people for firearms. This has led to a number of confiscated illegal weapons, including those with expired permits. According to official data, 60 per cent of the confiscated fire weapons in Colombia were handmade imitations of shotguns - single-shot handguns, predominantly used by urban gangs.

“It is clear to us that the possession of firearms is a determining factor that leads to violence,” affirms Juan Pablo Hernández, Disarmament Coordinator for the city of Bogotá. “Weapons provide a false sense of security and thus make the individual more vulnerable – to be assaulted or to become the assailant.”

“In a country where many weapons are in the hands of civilians, conflicts will grow, deepen, and spread because armed individuals are less likely to negotiate and to reach a compromise,” argues Camilo Reyes, former ambassador of Colombia to the UN. “If civilians have the right to own small arms, this not only causes many deaths and injuries, but it is also one of the main factors that help weaken democratic institutions.”

Hechos del Callejón/UNDP Colombia