The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘They could have killed me very easily’: One Colombian mayor’s fight against homicide

Cali, Colombia (Courtesy of Harold Pollack)
Placeholder while article actions load

South and Central America account for roughly one-third of the world's murders. I spent last week in Cali, Colombia, attending a World Bank meeting on youth violence, which explored related issues.

In many ways, Cali exemplifies both the challenge of and the opportunities for reducing the mayhem.

The city's murder rate is now about four times Chicago’s -- a figure that actually represents progress. The rate has dropped by about 50 percent, in no small part due to the efforts of Cali's colorful mayor, Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco.

For most of his career, Guerrero was not a politician. A physician and public health specialist by trade, he holds a Harvard doctorate in epidemiology. He was dean of health sciences and later president of the Universidad del Valle in Cali. In 1992, he was elected mayor. While in office, he implemented the noted violence prevention effort Programa para el Desarrollo, la Seguridad y la Paz (DESEPAZ). After his initial stint as mayor, Guerrero started the Pan American Health Organization’s Violence Prevention Program. He is a member of the United States Institute of Medicine. Two years ago, he was elected to a second term as mayor of Cali.

We sat down for an extended interview. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Harold Pollack: Thank you for speaking with me, Mayor Guerrero. I take it that you have an unusual background for a high-profile politician...

Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco: I'm not a professional politician…. I love teaching, research. I have a PhD in epidemiology. I was trained for that. I worked for the Carvajal Foundation.  I went there as a physician and ended up being the director of the Foundation. I love to help people.

Back in the 1990s, there was a time that the drug traffickers were very strong in Colombia and in local politics. There was an election of one who would most likely be [a puppet of the cartel]. Because of that, people told me: "Well, you are well known. You should try it." Which I did, and I won comfortably. I ran on an independent ballot. That’s the way I became mayor…

I discovered very rapidly that violence was the most important public health program in the city. At that time, the leading cause of death for the general population was homicide, which is something incredible.

HP:  What was the homicide rate when you took over?

Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco: 126 per 100,000.… It's now around 65, less than half. But interestingly enough, at that time nobody cared. Nowadays, 65 [per 100,000] is unacceptable, which I welcome because it is totally unacceptable. Just to think, at that time, what the situation was in Medellin, which is the second- or third-largest city of Colombia. It had a homicide rate of 400 per 100,000.

HP: Chicago was at 18 last year.

RGV: 18?

HP: Yeah, which we also think is unacceptable.

RGV: Right. Things have improved for the whole country. Bogota, Medellin and Cali have reduced homicide rates. Still, as I mentioned, 60 to 65 is totally unacceptable.

HP: When most Americans think about homicides here, they think about the Cali cartel and the cocaine issue. They assume that these homicides are basically caused by wars between drug dealers and the government and related matters.

RGV: That was my basic assumption. When I arrived, I said, "Certainly this has to be the problem." But I did what epidemiologists do, which is to do the description of homicides. When I began to do that, I noticed that two‑thirds of the homicides took place on weekends. It’s hard to understand why drug traffickers would wait for the weekends. We have a basic public health insight that anything that happens during weekends might be related to alcohol. So we began to measure blood alcohol levels in the people killed. More than half were intoxicated.

We began to elaborate that there was more social disruption, disorder. As I see it now, it actually is related to drug traffic, but in a more complicated way. Drug traffic in Colombian society permeated the two basic pillars of social organization: the police and the judicial system. At that time, the police were often puppets. Some of the high police officers who worked with me were in the payroll of the drug traffickers. We discovered that years later.

The judicial system was extremely inefficient. A suspect was identified In less than 3 percent of the homicides.

HP: A clearance rate of 3 percent?

RGV: Three percent. Nowadays, 50 percent of the homicides are caught in flagrance. That shows improvement.

The Cali cartel

HP: Wasn't it a little insane to run for mayor in such a dangerous city when many police are in the pocket of the drug dealers?

RGV: Yes. It was mentally insane, and even worse to repeat it as I am doing now.  It reflects some kind of commitment to make things better. Some may believe is pathological, but I'm fully convinced that we come to this world to help others. That's the only justification, so we have to do our best.

Of course I was very careful. Fortunately, the politics and strategy against drug traffickers (then and now) was run directly from Bogota, not from us. I wouldn't dare to ask my police commanders, whom I suspected were on the payroll of the cartel, to do anything against their friends.

HP:  But you had some legitimacy to go after the local crime problem.

RGV:  Right.

HP: You, as a public figure, were somewhat insulated from direct intimidation by the cartel.

RGV: Right. For example, I never accepted [their repeated proposals to meet with them]: I would say, "Well, any city problem that you would like to discuss with me? Welcome.… The moment that you need something that I can solve, I will talk. The moment I need something that you can do, I will let you know…" I never saw them or met them.

HP: They were willing to accept that approach?

RGV: They accepted it, reluctantly. They could have killed me very easily. It would be peanuts. But they said: "We, the Cali cartel, are different from the Medellin cartel.” They have highly educated people, U.S. graduates in business. So they follow the Italian Mafia concept of threatening and bribing, rather than killing.

The Medellin cartel was more brutal. They were more primitive people and they would dare to kill the governor, as they did, or put a bomb in one of the commercial airplanes.

That was, for [the Cali cartel], an illegitimate thing. These were more reluctant. When it came down to being brutal and violent, there was no distinction.… But they would rather opt for the pervasive or the conventional ways to operate.

HP: Something like a third of all the world's homicides are in Central and South America. What do you think needs to be done in this region to bring those numbers down?

RGV: We have several risk factors …that you have to operate on, as well. Probably the most important is culture, cultural violence. We are embedded in a society that solves conflict violently from birth. Changing that attitude would help, but then we have inequality -- inequality, not poverty. Haiti is, by any definition, poorer than Colombia. But they are all poor. Colombia has strong inequalities, organized crime, alcohol and drug abuse, proliferation of firearms in the civilian population, and other issues.

The U.S., of all the developed countries, is the more violent and is the more unequal. The simultaneous coexistence of big differences between the poorest and the richest is associated, empirically associated, with increased violence. Why? I don't know, but that's true.

HP: You mentioned culture, and you mentioned inequality. People might become pretty pessimistic when they hear that, because these issues are so deeply rooted. If you say, “We're not going to bring the violence down until we change our culture and reduce our inequality,” we're going to be working in this an awfully long time.

RGV: That was the same position of the guerrillas and of the Catholic Church. The bishops would say: "Unless we abolish or diminish inequality, we won't solve the problem. So, we will do nothing." Yet we’ve shown that a lot of things can be done when you begin to isolate the risk factors. I will tell you, too, that proved to be extremely successful in Cali [with regard to] alcohol consumption. We put a restriction on public places so they could sell alcohol until 1:00 a.m. only, and on weekends until 2:00 a.m. only.

Alcohol curfews

HP: Even setting it that late? I expected that you were going to say 11:00 at night or so.

RGV: I said, "Geneva stops at 11:00," [not so much here].

HP: You must have faced opposition from the restaurant industry. Were you ready for that?

RGV: We were not ready. We had big confrontations with the owners of night drinking places. But I did something that we epidemiologists love to do. I met with all the bar owners and all these places. I said: "Look. This measure will reduce homicide." They were convinced that nothing was going to happen. So I said: "Do you think so? Let's make an observation. For three months I'm going to apply my curb in selling hours. If nothing happens, I will be the first one to celebrate with you."

HP: You did a three‑month experiment?

RGV: Right. "If nothing happens, I will be the first one to go with you and celebrate until dawn hours. If I am right, I will keep it until the end of my term." [laughter]… Within the first two weeks, it was obvious. There was a dramatic reduction in injuries, traffic accidents and homicides. I said, "I’ll keep it…."

Gun curfews

HP: There's alcohol. Now how about guns?

RGV:  Then the other thing was, at that time 60 percent of the homicides were by firearms. Nowadays, it's close to 90 percent. Two immediate things I did were to restrict the times when it was legal to sell alcohol. And I restricted the carrying of firearms on weekends and selected other times. That reduced the homicides by 35 percent.

HP: How do you enforce that? Do you do stop‑and‑frisk like some cities in the United States?

RGV: We do. We have checkpoints, and we did a very serious effort to go out to the streets. I, personally, would go with them. Police, the army, everybody was out in the streets. You cannot carry the guns.

HP: What happens if somebody's caught with a gun? What's the penalty?

RGV: If it's illegal, it was not authorized by the government, by the army, it was caught. It was subject to "carrying illegal weapons." If it was legal, then we just kept the gun. People would then go through a lengthy process to turn it back, because in Colombia there are people that are legally authorized to carry handguns.

HP: Bodyguards and their employers must not have been overjoyed with that policy.

RGV: No. They are still not overjoyed. The more I think, this is something we should do, which applies to your country. Empirically, we have shown the benefits of that in my presentation. We selected six areas of Cali, [with] the highest crime rates. During weekends, in addition to alcohol selling times and the prohibition on carrying firearms, we established a curfew for young people, less than 18, cannot hang out in the street, after 11 p.m. until 5 a.m.

HP: You don't actually ban handguns. You just banned them during certain times that people were not allowed to carry them…

RGV: I did it on selected dates. Halloween. Mother's Day. New Year's Eve…. During the first New Year's Eve, when I was mayor, 20 years ago, we had 22 homicides in that single night.…

HP: Your office does reasonably elaborate data analysis.

RGV: Being an epidemiologist, we love to have data. So 20 years ago we set up an office and we began to do the geographical referencing with pins. That was long before the computers. All my bodyguards, they put in pins for bank robberies, automobile theft...

HP: ComStat before computers. Did that help you manage the police more effectively, get them out where the crimes were happening?

RGV: That was the idea. Now the police have understood that. They are very keen to be using data. Formerly, we just guessed. Policies were made on the basis of something that you thought it would be good to have that, or they have heard, or was in the newspaper.... Nowadays we have solid data and we can evaluate results.

Social and emotional skills of youth

HP: You’ve also mentioned another pillar: strengthening the social and emotional skills of young people.

RGV: Ninety percent of our homicide offenders are young people, less than 24. Most of them are from low‑income places, and most of them are male. That's the prototype, and it's common in all cities of Latin America.

Why is that? What can you do? What we have done, first of all, is to provide options for a youngster is school. If he's out of school, we should develop programs so that he can be put back into the system.

We ask: What is it that they need? They need income, because most of them will be children of single, unwed mothers who have to work all day. They are out on the streets. They need income for buying food, clothes, so they begin to steal sneakers or whatever. They very easily move to dealing small amounts of crack or cocaine, move up the ladder of crime….

You have to intervene, offering them, first, income. There are many things that can be done. The municipality can hire them to put incobblestones or clean the streets or take care of parks. These activities can be carried out by their gang.

HP: Do you find that public-sector workers are an obstacle to hiring people to do these jobs? That’s sometimes an issue in the U.S.

RGV: No, we haven't had that, probably because we had such a high level of violence. If that works, the social acceptance will be very good.

The other part is the emotional component. I remember very well, because I used to meet with these gangs. One thing they always said, "Thank you for taking us 'en cuenta,' " for paying attention to us. They have been outcasts from their early days, so that the mayor, the officials or even the police will sit and identify them by name. "What's your problem? What do you need? You don't have work? You got your girlfriend pregnant? What are your problems?"

The psychological component is very important. We also focus on anger management. Young people tend to be very impulsive.

And self‑regulation: The first five years is the key time when you're developing the prefrontal-lobe connections where self‑regulation resides. If you are not given that opportunity, your frontal-lobe regulation capacity will be diminished, which happens when you come from this type of violent environment.

Cocaine eradication

HP: Let’s shift to some other obvious questions. Not too far from here are places where coca has been grown. I don't know quite how far from here, but we're not, I gather, terribly far. There's been a heavy eradication effort here. Other things have been tried to reduce the amount of coca leaf that's grown. Has that been effective?

RGV: I worked in a foundation before being mayor. I worked in the rural areas to help peasants have a legal alternative to coca, to marijuana. Basically, the principle is that you will not substitute unless you find an alternative. You cannot eradicate coca if you don’t offer a legal alternative. There are areas of the country [where coca has ] been eradicated three or four times, and people get back to coca. We work to identify what type of agricultural products have given them the highest technical level. Drip irrigation, cover greenhouse house, organic "abonos" fertilizer. Organic fertilizer, which they can produce. Then open the connection to markets.

When they have that, they will move out of coca, no problem…. We have shown an interesting thing. This small plot with all this technology and support can be 12 times more productive per hectare than the sugarcane plantations, which is the coca of the highlands. Economically, it makes sense.

HP: It makes sense as long as there is a strong accessible market for these other goods. That's where economic growth having nothing to do with drugs is important.

RGV: That's where we can do [something]. We have contacts with supermarkets. We can identify where are agricultural products being imported. We can help them to do these things. Probably, a generation from now, they will be sophisticated enough to monitor markets and see where are the trends and things like that.

HP: I take it the economy is doing reasonably well here, comparatively.

RGV: Yes, but the economy is a mean figure and is heavily weighted by oil and gold and mining products, which do not reflect the quality of life of the average Colombian citizen.

HP: A lot of trade with the Pacific Rim in these basic materials?

RGV: Right. Economists love that. But from the practical point of view, unless there are ways of having the poor enjoy those benefits, we will be just an Arabian country with $5 million per capita, and a lot of poverty. We should use the median, statistically speaking. We shouldn't use the mean, but the median!

HP: There's your slogan for reelection.

RGV: Speaking as mayor, Cali is a very decent city, flourishing economically. I always tell a story. In my second term, the U.S. ambassador visited me about three months after taking office. He spent two days, and he visited a lot of American firms that have been here for years. He was absolutely impressed and when he came to my office he said, "Look, Mayor, your main responsibility is letting Colombia know that Cali exists. I have been more than a year in Bogota and they never speak of Cali. They speak of Medellin, they speak of Cartagena, but not of Cali….”

We have been doing a lot of city marketing. We recently hosted the meeting of the Pacific Country Alliance. That is Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. They have made a powerful alliance. Now it is being joined by Costa Rica and Panama. … The prime minister of Canada, Japan, the president of Spain, came, because they see the political and impact of all these four countries together. We are the eighth economy of the world if we were to function like that.

HP: How about the United States?

RGV: I saw one timid [American] observer. He said to me: "You know, we should be here." The prime minister of Canada brought a delegation of 130 members. They came in a big jumbo jet.

For Cali, that was the first opportunity to show what the city has done. We are improving infrastructure, $723 million paid by city taxes to improve the places you have seen ‑‑ the avenues and bridges and intersections.

We are burgeoning. We are discovering our wealth. We have something extremely important: the relationship to the Pacific. Geographically, historically, Colombia has been geared to the Caribbean and to Europe, but the geo-economics have changed. The future is in the East, and Cali is the only Pacific connection Colombia has. So we are playing that role, telling the central government, "Stop looking north. When you look now, you have to look west" from South America.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.