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By Alex Sierra R.

Hanging from City Hall in the center of downtown Bogota is an enormous banner that reads: “To arm or to love?” [Armar or amar], advertising an initiative being carried out by the new administration of democratic leftist mayor Gustavo Petro Urrego. The initiative bans legal firearms from public places in an effort to reduce the number of homicides. The measure is also intended to strengthen the ability of the police to dismantle criminal bands and decommission illegal firearms and other weapons.

The initiative, added to those of former Mayor Clara López Obregón, is already showing results. Bogotá has the lowest homicide rate of any major city in Colombia (21.9 for every 100,000 inhabitants), much lower than that Medellín or Cali, where, despite having half the population of Bogotá, there were more than 80 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

Citizen disarmament is just one of the ambitious proposals that the recently inaugurated mayor of Bogotá wants to implement with the help of his former comrade in arms in the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de abril) guerrilla movement, Antonio Navarro Wolf, the city’s current Secretary of Government.

It may seem paradoxical that members of an insurgent movement that once sought political power through armed struggle would now use the mayor’s office to disarm the citizenry of the capital of Colombia, a city of eight million people where conflicts are often resolved with firearms.

But the paradox is only an apparent one, considering that the 1990 peace agreement between the national government and the M-19 was one of the most successful in this South American country. The agreement demobilized combatants and gave them a political forum for their ideas. The M-19 remained committed to demobilization, despite the 1990 assassination of Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, its highest commander and a candidate for the presidency at the time of his death. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the peace process was the foundation it provided for the profound political changes reflected in the National Constitutional Assembly, which led to a new constitution in 1991.

After the M-19 disbanded one of one of its most prominent members, Gustavo Petro, began a long political career, and became one of the congressional leaders who denounced the infiltration of organized crime and the paramilitaries in government affairs from the Senate floor. The so-called “para-politics” scandal revealed that more than 30 percent of the Senate was controlled by extreme right-wing paramilitary groups.

Antonio Navarro Wolff was wounded by a 1985 grenade attack that resulted in the loss of a leg and permanent damage to his vocal chords, and had to be transferred to Mexico to avoid being killed in the hospital by the extreme right. In November of that year the takeover of the Palace of Justice occurred, while Navarro was in Cuba recuperating from his injuries.

Ever since demobilization he has had an important political career. In addition to being one of the three leaders of the National Constitutional Assembly that wrote the new constitution, he also served as minister of health, congressional representative, presidential candidate, mayor of Paso—his birthplace, located in southern Colombia—governor of the department of Nariño, and now government secretary in Bogotá, where the weapons ban is being promoted.

Citizenship Disarmament Proposal

Although the city has in the past developed voluntary citizen disarmament campaigns and a program called “Life is Sacred”, the new measure surpasses them by prohibiting firearms from public places even if they are legally licensed. After a three-month trial period, the initiative will be evaluated to determine its effect on the homicide rate.

The measure shifts the direction of public policy. During the 1990s, so-called vigilance and private security cooperatives for agrarian self-defense began appearing in Colombia [CONVIVIR], in effect legalizing paramilitary groups behind the façade of campesino self-help. This led to the displacement of more than four million people, countless murders and massacres, and the political persecution of supposed leftist guerrilla collaborators. War became an “employment opportunity” for at least two generations of combatants.

Civilian involvement in security and the “preventive” arming of campesinos led to an armed movement that escalated the conflict and brought the country into a spiral of war and bloodshed from which it has yet to recover. The formalization of the CONVIVIR cooperatives occurred during the administrations of former presidents Ernesto Samper and César Gaviria, but received decisive support from then-governor of the department of Antioquia and later President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Recently the Americas Program met with Antonio Navarro Wolff to discuss Bogota’s citizen disarmament initiative. He explained the changes in security policy and the strategies undertaken by the mayor’s office. The change could prove significant for other countries in the region and force a re-evaluation of using strictly military action in the battle against organized crime and drug dealing.

The following is a transcription of the interview, which took place in Bogota.

Americas Program (AP): In the United States it’s almost impossible to think about banning weapons because of the right to bear arms. In Colombia, Bogotá is taking steps to restrict residents from carrying firearms. How do you respond to critics who say that when you take arms away from the “good guys,” they only end up being victims of “bad guys”?

Antonio Navarro Wolff (ANW):
Different countries have different ideas about how to manage firearms. While in the United States many people may carry guns, there are countries that are totally opposed to that idea. In Colombia firearms have been linked to various phenomena in our history that we have to change.

I remember that more than 30 years ago the penalty for armed insurrection against the state was six months in prison, almost a mere infraction, because in Colombia, in the absence of an institutional solution, there was practically a right to take up arms. That’s why there were so many armed uprisings in Colombian history.

That began to change. Perhaps the final phase was in 1990, when the first modern peace agreement was signed, the one the M-19 signed with the government (in which, I, of course, participated). That started a change in the culture, not as far as having guns in the house for sports or hunting were concerned, but in terms of having weapons to use against the government. That process of change is also tied to the country’s urbanization since the 1980s.

The main idea is the state’s monopoly on weapons and the delegitimization of the use of firearms, which had been used to foment dozens of armed uprisings and currently are being used by armed groups for drug trafficking and other criminal activity. Colombia has undergone a series of institutional changes that have provided citizens with rights and guaranteed their participation in public life, especially since the 1991 constitution. So, the situation has changed, and that requires a new culture with respect to weapons.

Most of the homicides in Bogotá are committed with firearms. There are no sufficiently reliable statistics as to how many of these firearms are “legal,” but the numbers are estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent–we are talking about a significant amount.

What happens to someone carrying a legal firearm in a public place? He runs the risk of using it improperly and getting mixed up in a very serious situation.

AP: According to a recent survey, 90 percent of those interviewed in Bogotá agree with the ban. How do you explain the fact that some sectors are questioning the measure? Are there opponents to the ban?

ANW: I think there are people who prefer to go around armed. They are in the minority because, for among other reasons, guns are very costly. To buy a gun with a license from the military authorities costs a lot of money; it costs a lot to keep maintain the license. So there is a small segment of the population that likes to go around armed. To them we say, “If you want to keep guns at home, go ahead.” The measure doesn’t prohibit ownership. It restricts them from public places, with exceptions for hunting and fishing clubs; people at high personal risk, who can obtain special permits, but those have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; retired members of law enforcement; and other exceptions.

But we don’t want the ordinary citizen taking the risk of running around armed. The risk is two-fold: Being attacked by someone who wants to steal the gun or the risk of using it inappropriately in a moment of confusion or under the influence of alcohol. That’s in the specific case of “legal” weapons.

I think for anyone carrying a firearm in the street the risk is greater than the protection it may offer. I would say that’s why the effects of the measure are positive; cases of intolerance always become more complicated when the person is armed.

AP: What happens to illegal firearms circulating in the city?

ANW: Very strong action has been taken against illegal firearms. For example, I can tell you that there have been raids and arrests in three locations in the city where arms were being provided for criminal activity. There is also a very active campaign to get illegal and legal firearms off the street.

AP: The media in Colombia refer to “citizen intolerance,” cases, where, on further investigation, government authority seems to be totally absent when it comes to mediating everyday conflicts. At the same time there are also cases of abuse of authority, such as the murder of Felipe Becerra last year, or the recent case of a 15-year old that supposedly died after two policemen opened fire. How can you guarantee disarmament, and at the same time inspire citizen trust in institutions? What measures are you considering in that sense?

ANW: In reference to intolerance, there are a number of institutions that must not be working: justices of the peace, judicial mediators, to resolve conflicts within families, between neighbors, etc. But intolerance exists all over. As far as bad behavior among police officials is concerned, that’s the exception. The police perform thousands of procedures every month and there are few cases, sporadic, that involve insubordinate behavior. In the case of the young graffiti artist Felipe Becerra, what the police officer said at the time is that he thought that he was armed, that he was taking out his gun, and he shot him. At any rate these cases have been adjudicated quite severely.

The state can do much more to control its armed members than society can control people running around armed in the street. I do believe in taking strong measures against those who abuse their authority.

How are we going to convince those who are armed that they shouldn’t carry weapons in the street? Undoubtedly by lowering the homicide rates and having a more active security policy. We have issues with manpower (Bogotá has 400 police for every 100,000 inhabitants), and we have attitude issues. When the police, civil authority and citizens are united, things work very well. When you inspire confidence, things work.

That’s easier said than done, but we are trying to be more proactive about the presence of civil authority in the most difficult areas of the city.

Just this week we started in areas where we want to have a presence with civilian programs and a more active, dynamic civil authority connected to people. I also believe that we have to provide incentives to police who produce good results. I think incentives should be more connected to a reduction of crime rates than to the number of police procedures.

AP: That’s what became distorted in national policy and led to so-called “False Positives” [cases where campesinos assassinated by members of the Colombian army were counted as guerrillas killed in combat to claim success in the war against subversion].

ANW: Of course! It’s not a matter of how many guns a police officer decommissions, but the security indicators in his cuadrante [geographic area for which he is responsible] that should be the basis for incentives. We’re doing this because the police still have activity-based goals. That doesn’t work! We believe goals should be outcomes-based. Whoever does best is the one who has the best results, not the one with the highest number of police procedures. Procedures don’t always generate results, and the best way to have results is to have a good relationship with the community.

AP: The weapons ban in Bogotá has been so successful that many mayors have seen an interest in bringing it to their cities. Which ones have joined the initiative?

ANW: Cundinamarca [one of Colombia's 32 states or “departments”] has joined in; of 124 mayors in the department, 123 voted in favor of a similar measure to ban weapons. There are many regions of the country that are planning to do something similar. Nevertheless, there is still no clear national policy because the authorities that can say YES or NO to a measure of this nature are the military authorities, and, in general, they don’t have a clearly defined position. They have become more flexible; a few years ago a three-month trial ban like the one in Bogotá would have been impossible.

We are going to look at the results for February, March, and April. Until now the results have been good, which doesn’t mean that there haven’t been homicides committed with firearms (two-thirds of all deaths by homicide are still committed with firearms). Probably 10 percent of homicides committed by firearms involve registered guns. If we manage to decrease that amount, that means lives are saved. In addition, Bogotá has the lowest homicide rate of any major city in Colombia, we have about 21.9 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, still high by international standards, but as the homicide rate declines, it becomes more difficult to further reduce those figures. It’s easier to reduce a dramatic situation by half, than to have a two- or three-point decline in the homicide rate.

AP: This reduction in the number of homicides is significant for the nation’s capital, considering that [in January] a criminal network like the Urabeños, [one of the criminal groups with paramilitary origins that controls drug trafficking] maintained complete control over five of the country’s departments with a 48-hour armed shutdown.

ANW: Obviously this shows, among other things, that in Bogatá we don’t have–as has been discussed here in Colombia–networks of the most organized, so-called Bacrim (Criminal Gangs), because the Urabeño shutdown had no effect on the city.

AP: The mayor has said that the disarmament program is a three-month trial experiment. How can you make it permanent?

AN: It’s harder to lower the homicide rate by two points, than to lower it by ten when the initial rate is higher and requires more elaborate, more careful measures. One of them is disarmament! If, in these three months, we are able to maintain a more than 10 percent reduction in homicide, and, if, when we follow up we can also be sure that homicides aren’t being committed with legally registered weapons, we would be able to say that the measure was successful.

That’s the proposal. Let’s hope the data shows it to be the reality.

Alex Sierra R. is an anthropologist who has worked as a researcher and independent consultant in human rights, international cooperation for development and public policy in Colombia. He has worked in areas of armed conflict and with vulnerable communities in his country during the last 12 years. He is a monthly columnist for the Americas Program.

Photography by Damián Quiroga
Translation by Barbara Belejack