Monday, June 18, 2012

What Makes Colombia So violent?

Anti-bullfighting protesters outside the plaza de toros yesterday hold up a sign saying 'Bullfighting: Reinforcer of a Culture of Violence.' 

I've been thinking about that because of the confluence of several recent events, which at first glance might not appear related.

Tribal militancy? A Millonarios fan today celebrates
the team's birthday today by waving a
banner with a skull and crossbones. 
Yesterday, El Tiempo reported that Bogotá's homicide rate has dropped markedly and, perhaps surprisingly, far below those of Cali and Medellin. Also yesterday, I saw a protest in front of the bullfighting stadium calling La Fiesta Brava "A promoter of violence in society." And, today, we rode our bikes thru massive rallies of thousands of screaming Millonarios football team fans.

Despite the welcome drop in homicide, Colombia still has an unjustifiably high homicide rate: 33 per 100,000, which is six times higher than that of countries such as the Argentina and United States, more than triple the homicide rate in Bolivia and a mind-boggling 24 times higher than that of France and other European nations.

Colombia's homicide rate soared in
the '80s and '90s during the drug cartel wars.
(Source: Havana University)
Why is Colombia so violent? Poverty is part, but certainly not the whole explanation, judging by the lower homicide rates in much poorer nations such as Bolivia (8.9 homicides per 100,000 people), Cambodia (3.4 per 100,000) and Guyana (18.4 per 100,000). Colombia's homicide rate is almost double that of Mexico, which has been ravaged by drug cartel violence.

Aspiring bullfighters practice in Bogotá's Plaza de Toros. 
A second factor must be Colombia's very unequal distribution of wealth, or GINI coefficient, which is one of the worst in the world. This World Bank study from the 1990s, for example, graphs wealth inequality against robbery rates and finds an upward line - with the Latin American nations bunched together in the violent and unequal upper right-hand corner. (Interestingly, the World Bank study also says that median poverty and education rates do not correlate with crime rates.)

Inequality probably produces violence because it erodes social trust and the poor's confidence in being able to succeed thru legal pathways.

The War on Drugs and associated criminal and guerrilla violence also have a huge impact, as a glance at national homicide rates shows. The countries with sky-high homicide rates make a path from Colombia across much of the Caribbean and Central America across Mexico to the U.S. border. Inoffensive little Honduras, for example, suffers a homicide rate of 82.1 per 100,000, while Mexico, at 18.1 per 100,000 is just a bit above half of Colombia's, but still terribly high by world standards.

Internatioal robbery rates correspond
to greater wealth inequality.
(Source: United Nations)
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a book a few years ago called 'The Better Angels Of Our Nature' which argued that violence has declined through history. Pinker ties this alleged decline to many broad changes in culture, including the decline of institutionalized and state-sponsored forms of violence and injustice. Not so long ago, witch burning, public executions by torture and cat burnings for entertainment were all accepted practices. More recently, slavery and wife beating were perfectly accepted in the west. Today, execution of criminals still goes on in some countries, as do violent spectacles for entertainment like bullfights and cockfights. If I understand Pinker's ideas correctly, this public violence generates more violence in Colombian streets and homes.

Pinker believes that these sorts of violent cultural practices influence all of society, contributing to higher homicide rates. On this measure, Colombia falls in the middle - it has no death penalty, but does allow cockfighting and bullfighting.

And do Millonarios' rabid fans fit into this analysis? Those young guys look to me like armies, just carrying banners instead of guns. God forbid they collide with a group of Santa Fe fans.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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