Urban drug markets and zones of impunity in Colombia

The assumptions and the facts behind the retail drug trade and the responses to it
Isaac De León Beltrán and Juan Carlos Garzón
Briefing Series on Drug Markets and Violence Nr 2
December 2014

dmv2_coverThe retail drug trade has been identified by the authorities as a strategic priority, under the hypothesis that it is one of the main triggers of violence and crime, as well as a response by the criminal organisations to their loss of influence in global markets. How valid is this argument? The aim of this briefing is to put to the test the starting points and assumptions underlying the definition of this ‘new’ threat, and provide an overview of local drug markets and their relationship with violence and crime in Colombia’s cities.

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It will therefore analyse recent developments in criminal activity, how the criminal organisations have adapted in response to interventions by the state, and the forces involved in shaping the local drug market. In particular, it will analyse the retail drug trade in two of Colombia’s cities, Cali and Barranquilla, in order to connect this illegal market to the presence of criminal organisations and high-impact crimes. These two cases will provide important evidence regarding the spatial dynamics of the retail drug trade and its implications for urban security. Finally, the main findings will be contrasted with government proposals to tackle the problem, offering some lessons learned and recommendations.

Conclusions and Recommendations

• The demolition of the zones of impunity has an immediate impact on the retail drug trade, but this is not sustainable unless the presence of the state is re-established and communities are reintegrated into the legal sphere.

• Interventions by the police are not sustainable in the long term because of the large number of officers that need to be sent into a zone of impunity. The state’s interventions will only displace the activities temporarily, allowing the illegal order to continue to perform its function of organising society, to the detriment of citizens’ security and quality of life.

• In order to build and restore the culture of legality in these areas, the conditions needed to incorporate these territories into the city must be put in place. This includes developing alternatives for the weakest links in the chain and bringing legal action against the criminal organisations that have the capacity to create zones of impunity.

• The impact of police action will only be temporary unless it is accompanied by the political will in central and local government to replace the illegal order with inclusive urban development.