Cartagena Diary, Pt. II: Citizen Security Takes Center Stage

By Marc Hanson

Editor's Note: RI Senior Advocate Marc Hanson is in Cartagena, Colombia, this week for the Summit of the Americas. He'll be recording his activities and impressions on our blog throughout the trip. Click here to read Part III.

Cartagena is utterly consumed by the 6th Summit of the Americas. Media outlets are shooting live footage from nearly every hotel rooftop within half a mile of the downtown convention center. In fact, Colombian TV network Caracol is perched snuggly atop my hotel above the old city.

One cannot turn on the news without hearing the latest breathless reportage on the Summit personalities. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is boycotting in solidarity with excluded Cuba. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who will likely stay in Cartagena for mere hours before returning to Cuba for cancer treatment, will authorize his vice president to sign the Summit’s final document. And President Obama has set the Colombian press atwitter with his plan to stay for two nights in Colombia’s tourism capital.

As far as the actual substance of the Summit goes, a couple of issues (mostly frivolous) have been mentioned. The big one, drug policy, continues to rear its ugly head. But mostly, it’s a game of president-watching for now.

One place where thorny policy issues were welcome was the Civil Society Forum, which I attended yesterday. (It couldn’t escape the political star-gazing entirely though. The buzz is that Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will address attendees on the final morning of the civil society confab. Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon also stopped by this afternoon.)

Nevertheless, a series of panels gave speakers, respondents, and audience members the opportunity to weigh in on the Summit’s themes. Not particularly well organized, nearly every panel touched on almost every key issue: inequality, civilian security, disaster risk reduction, and technology. Perhaps the most oft-repeated concern was that security in the Western Hemisphere may be eroding. The mantra seemed to be that the “police and punish” strategy employed in many parts of the region needs to be shelved. Instead, the underlying causes of criminality must be addressed, and the state’s security umbrella must be expanded to cover not only businesses and middle-class, but also the poor, the indigenous, the rural, and people of African descent.

While civil society grappled with these issues in Cartagena conference rooms, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes was back in Washington giving journalists a preview of America’s role in this weekend’s Summit. As if to demonstrate the massive disconnect between policy-makers and the people affected by their decisions, the song sheets for the civil society forum and the White House couldn’t have been more discordant. At the same time that one Colombian aid worker took the microphone to describe the region as “a hodgepodge of wars being fought between security forces, guerrillas, and drug trafficking gangs,” Rhodes was declaring Colombia a “a tremendous success story in the Americas in their security gains and economic growth.”

Continued conflict in Colombia; horrific violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala; rising murder rates in Venezuela; and massive bloodletting in Mexico all deserve serious consideration. Improvements in security indicators in Colombia are real, but now is not the time for backslapping; instead, there must be a renewed focus on the stubborn insecurity that still plagues swathes of largely rural Colombia. Before Colombia can be declared a model for other countries in the region, such instability must be dealt with. 

According to the security firm Stratfor Global Intelligence, Colombia’s security gains are in jeopardy because the government is “largely absent from the hinterlands, and the economic inequality in these regions is severe, giving rise to criminal organizations and insurgent groups.”  Stratfor goes on to conclude that without sufficient resources to “properly address the underlying issues of lack of development and inequality, eliminating insurgent groups is almost impossible.” And as the Guardian reported on Tuesday, a new drug gang, the Urabeños, has recently emerged from the ashes of far-right paramilitary groups demobilized in the 1990s. Many former commanders simply “reorganized their old outfits, recruited other demobilized fighters, and returned to drug‑running,” the paper said.

So what is the way to move forward? If you asked the participants at the Civil Society Forum, you would have heard a strong and unified response: the approach must be full-spectrum, must address the causes of criminality, and must cultivate all aspects of government that protect the most vulnerable people. Investing in police but not education, prisons but not jobs, and soldiers but not judges or public prosecutors is the way things have always been done in the region. And they have always produced expensive, suboptimal security gains for everyday people. Policy-makers can do better.