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A Circle Means Respect and Power
Gangs and Violence in Bogotá

Carlos Mario Perea Restrepo[*]

Colombia is a country of manifold violences. Perpetrators of violence have molded the nation’s history throughout the past century. As of the end of the 1940s, armed confrontation of all sorts has indeed been forging the passage -through peace and conflict issues- of the country’s political forces. Meanwhile, not one of its governments has failed to use violence as the axis of its governance. The 21st century is born under the sign of violence in the midst of a civil war whose peaceful settlement is not yet in sight. Since that faraway period up until the end of the century, death’s tide has risen and ebbed, particularly in the 1960s when it declined without ever falling to the region’s average. Echoing the country’s accelerated process of profound structural modifications, this bloody struggle does all it can to hang on to the winds of the times. It thus turns the pájaro (Conservative government security forces in the 1950s) into a sicario (hired killer) , the bandolero (road bandit) into the guerrilla fighter, the soldier into a paramilitary recruit; as evidenced by a perpetual displacement from political conflict to street brawls, and from rural localities to urban turfs.

In the face of such a motley panorama, several formulas to catalogue some type of order have been put forward, two of which have received special attention. The first distinguishes between political violence -which obeys to a collective project for changing society- and the remaining violences, tied to vested interests and economic ambitions and aspirations. The emergence of narcotics trafficking, a new actor with enormous resources moved by a search for profit without any public considerations, introduced the second formula: That of organizational capability as the discriminating element: on the one side stand those violent forces which have the potential to make an organization into an element for accumulating power, while spontaneous and daily forces -inorganic forces- remain on the other side of the tracks.

Public policies and academic research have looked into organized violence. This couldn’t be otherwise, since the fact that violence is proliferating does not mean that hierarchies do not exist. Disputes among organized actors magnetized Colombia’s conflict while its many-sided ties exploded the institutional edifice and led to a civil war. Compared to guerrilla and paramilitary groups, which never cease to recruit new forces in order to partition territories under their jurisdiction, street violence appears harmless and inconsequential. The fact is that, undoubtedly, the scope of Colombia’s conflict demands that public attention focus preferentially on the peace talks and dismantlement of criminal organizations.

This priority scheme has, however, led us to forget and underestimate unorganized violence, and engendered complex consequences. True, these violences have been explored and cities have attempted diverse strategies to contain their expression. Nonetheless, the attention paid does not fully cover the role played by this phenomenon in the reproduction of violent incidents. What is at stake is not only an awareness regarding the need to interfere all bloody expressions. There is also the fact that inorganic violences constitute a true paradox which has to be undone. Apart from the difficulty of determining the identity of victimizers in an increasingly degraded war, political violence, in the best of circumstances, modestly contributes 15% to total homicide rates in the country. The remaining 85% is shared by organized violence and diffuse confrontation. It is impossible to distinguish one from the other and the silence of statistics on the matter makes it necessary to look for answers through indirect means.

Seventy-three of Colombia’s most violent localities are small municipalties located in frontier areas where diverse armed actors meet. Not one of Colombia’s cities classifies, not even Medellín, which is not listed on Antioquia’s list of its 18 most cruel municipalities. Nevertheless, on their own, Colombia’s 3 largest cities -Bogotá, Medellín and Cali- are responsible for one third of the country’s homicides: these are the centers where the influence of armed actors comes upon numerous mediators. City streets and daily plots write the scenario of turf wars which bring together diverse characters, as portrayed in this paper. To push the paradox even further, we can state that, here political pronouncements give emphasis to unorganized violence, reasonably so, but they do not, however, ever lead to any type of intervention.

This paper, stops at this paradox by following the traces of gangs in the southeastern side of Bogotá. Juvenile aggressions spread over cities worldwide, reaching even peaceful countries like Ecuador. Colombia is no exception. Gangs are not confined to city areas but are a fact of small settlements as well. This is a disquieting urban phenomenon, not only because of its proliferation and delinquent practices, but also as of the fact that these youngsters are defying society and uninhibitedly dedicating themselves to el <desmadre> (“pandemonium”). One of the pandilleros (gang member) says, <belonging to a circle means respect and power... that all you have to do is look at someone and they freeze>. Without a doubt, imposition through violence is at the heart of all gangs, that which distinguishes them from other youth organizations, some of which are dedicated to cultural endeavors and others to addressing communal aspirations. Not all youngsters living in the more popular sectors of the city are members of a gang, contrary to the deadly stigma which pretends that age and poverty are insurmountable motives for degradation and violence. Some, no doubt, join the <circle> lured by the enchantment of a paralyzing <look> capable of making someone else <freeze >.

This is the point from which the gangs launch one more sample of violence. Beset with their search for an identity, they consciously pursue power over their turfs thus making it difficult to pinpoint where it is that they stand in Colombia’s scenario of violences. They grow up in the anonymity of the street but they are not its spontaneous and diffuse manifestation. On the contrary, they respond to a certain type of organization which aggregates local violence. They thereby weaken inorganic violence as of the daily context and sense which breeds them. Their makeup signals a new type of expression: their delinquent acts position them within the economic arena but their motives, however, are not the search for profit; they do not articulate any type of political discourse but their transgressions outline a razor-sharp denunciation of exclusion. They are then a sort of cultural violence whose characterization is developed in this paper, in three stages. Firstly, Perea studies the nature of the gang, the only way to grasp the spirit of the parcero (circle members.) Secondly, the author tracks the ties between death and crime in the city and how they feed on one another. The last part discusses these violences and the implications of failing to remember them.

[*] Historian, professor of thel Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Iepri). camape@andinet.com

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