A return to the state of nature?


Holy Week chronicle in a Catholic, apostolic and Roman Catholic country. Pandemic time. Holy Wednesday. A news item: A family man who tried to protect his son was killed by about 10 criminals in a neighbourhood in Bogotá. The criminals tried to rob the son, the mother noticed and started to scream, the father went to the son's aid... The son managed to run into the house, the father was attacked by the assailants with "stones and sticks, even with a knife". The family took him to hospital, but he died a few minutes later. 

Maundy Thursday. Bogotá. A depressing and disturbing scene, almost in front of the house. A large dark-haired man chases a medium height man. The strong man hits the other man with a rod. That steel rod looks dangerous, it is certain that the bones of the insignificant, dumb-faced fellow did not wish to collide with that device. The big guy hits him and shouts: "Trabaje, rata hijueputa" (work, you rat son of a bitch). As we all know, 'hijueputa', or 'son of a bitch', is a popular swear word widely used in the Americas to insult someone who is considered a 'bad person'. The one with the dumb face tried to rob the tough guy, so he nods and repeats: "Yes sir, but do not hit me anymore". Neighbours stick their heads out of the windows and shout at the tough man: "Hit him harder". Another voice says: "Kill him. Finish that rat. Only one woman from the street shouts at the strong man: "Don't hit him any more. Another woman approaches with a bat to back up the strongman. The thief does not let himself be taken to the police station and finally manages to slip away. He runs away. He runs away as fast as he can. It is possible that the petty thief, like the hitmen and the murderers of the father of the family, make the sign of the cross and commend themselves to God and the Virgin Mary, even if they contradict the precepts and commandments of their faith, which in any case may have more value for them than the Constitution or the laws of the State.

Easter Sunday. The country's leading newspaper points out that according to the District's security studies there has been an improvement in almost all indicators, but that statistics can do nothing compared to events that occur live and direct and that affect the "public's perception". Citizens are "convinced that insecurity is on the rise because that is what the video evidence or the stories that are endlessly repeated show us. And the consequence of this kind of collective paranoia is the effect it is having on our lives" (Cortés, E. 4 April 2021. El Tiempo. p.4.3). The same newspaper carries a front page headline reporting that the use of firearms in the theft of mobile phones has increased by 65%. The story begins by noting that some residents in a Bogotá neighbourhood could no longer put up with the insecurity and "armed themselves with sticks to defend themselves". It goes on to point out that blunt objects are also used in robberies, for example, a citizen was hit in the face with a "brick" in order to rob him. The journalist cites a study by the Urban Futures think tank, the report highlights that there has been a reduction in robberies of people in Bogotá. However, the use of guns or firearms during street robberies increased between 2019 and 2020. In 2018 there were 6,718 robberies with firearms, in 2019 there were 5,595 and in 2020 there were 6,424. In most of the thefts reported (63%) the stolen object was a mobile phone. However, in the overall figures for mobile phone theft, the majority (54%) were stolen without any type of weapon. Every hour, in Bogotá alone, robbers steal an average of seven mobile phones, or 59,136 mobile phones per year. In January and February of this year alone, the use of firearms during a robbery in Bogotá left 65 people dead (Murillo, O. 4 April 2021. El Tiempo. See front page and pages 1.2 and 1.4).

If in remote and rural areas the state has not been able to reach and strengthen its institutional presence, i.e. there is no state, in the big cities insecurity is a fact that offers such deplorable pictures as the ones described above. In spite of everything, homicides decreased in Colombia in 2020. The homicide rate was the lowest in the last 46 years at 23.79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The highest rate was recorded in 1992, due to terrorism, with 79.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The gradual decrease in the rate of violent deaths has taken place since 2013. According to police figures, during 2020 homicides fell by 4.6%, from 11,609 violent deaths between 1 January and 4 December 2019, to 11,070 homicides in the same period during 2020. 'Authorities' report highlights the reduction in deaths amid brawls." In 2019 there were 2,663, while in 2020 there were 2,238 brawls (11 December 2020. El Tiempo). Fewer fights, fewer deaths - confinement for most of the year is useful! 

Colombian citizens expose their lives and, as the statistics show, hundreds of people have tragic outcomes. There are also those who end up assuming that, in the face of insecurity and the lack of justice, they must take justice into their own hands, to save themselves and their loved ones or to set a precedent in a sort of every man for himself and in any way he can. Stones, bricks, sticks, machetes, bats, sticks and any object that can be used to kill, attack or defend oneself! And to this bleak picture, Senator María Fernanda Cabal wants to add the carrying of firearms because citizens are at the "mercy of crime". Incidentally, security and the strengthening of the state in terms of security have been the main banners of the Colombian right wing represented by Uribism. Cabal's statement raises questions: is it a way of legitimising the actions of paramilitarism in Colombia, does she consider the failure not only of the government of her Democratic Centre Party, but also of the state? Not even her own party seems willing to accept such nonsense from this Trumpist senator who does not honour her surname.

In its modern sense, a state is understood to hold the legitimate monopoly of coercion or violence and is responsible for guarding its territory and guaranteeing security within its clearly delimited borders. The raison d'être of the institutions, powers and agents of the state, to whom citizens confer powers and cede part of their freedoms in order to acquire effective security and rational justice within the framework of the rule of law, is supposed to be justified on the basis of the timely and effective response that the state must provide in order to prevent its society from reverting to a state of nature. In other words, the institutions and agents of the state, through the Constitution, laws, justice and different procedures, are obliged to guarantee equality before the law and the rule of law - to ensure that citizens act as subjects of legal and constitutional rights and obligations, behave as individuals with civility and comply with the provisions of the Constitution, respect the good and/or property of others and, of course, the lives of others - under penalty of receiving a fair trial and/or an effective and proportional sanction for the crime committed. 

*Clara Riveros is a political scientist, political analyst and consultant on issues related to Latin America and Morocco. Author of the books Diálogo transatlántico entre Marruecos e Iberoamérica and Diálogos transatlánticos, Marruecos hoy. Director of the CPLATAM platform, which promotes liberal ideas and monitors the political situation in Latin American and Maghreb countries.