Violence, Organized Crime, and the Criminal Justice System in Colombia

Article excerpt

One of the concerns of the economic theory of crime has been the effect of the justice system on criminal activities. Theorists have proposed that the probability of being caught and sanctioned is a factor affecting the decisions made by criminals [Erlich 1996]. It is assumed that these are variables over which the government has control. Criminologists are less unanimous as to the effectiveness of the justice system, but their theories also assume a certain degree of system autonomy. In each case, the effect that the existence of armed groups (including private armies and protection services, mafias, insurgent groups, and other forms of organized crime) may have on the performance of the judicial system has been, to date, unexplored terrain. This paper will argue, with reference to the Colombian ease, that violence, and in particular that exercised by such groups, can become an obstacle to the adequate administration of criminal justice.

Available evidence is presented on the effect of violence and the threats posed by armed groups on the different stages of criminal proceedings. Using municipal level information gathered in Colombia, this paper attempts to trace the impact of these groups, suggesting that the effect begins with changes in the availability and quality of information on homicides.

Colombian Criminal Justice and the Effects of Violence

In the case of Colombia, the pressure that organized violence has exerted on the judicial system over the last two decades can be corroborated simply by reading the national press. It is also interesting to note the close association between attacks and threats from armed groups and modifications in the Colombian penal code over the last decade [Saiz 1997].

At the national level, statistics show a negative relationship between violence, using as an indicator the homicide rate, the presence of armed groups, and various performance indicators for the criminal justice system. In the last two decades, the Colombian homicide rate has more than quadrupled. In a parallel fashion, the influence of the principle armed organizations - the guerrilla, the drag mafia (or narco-traffickers), and paramilitary groups - has increased [Thoumi 1994]. During the same period, the capacity of the justice system to investigate homicides has been considerably reduced. The proportion of homicide cases that reach the courts, which in the 1960s was above 35 percent, today is less than 6 percent. In 1975, for every 100 homicides, more than 60 suspects were captured; in 1994, this figure had been reduced to 20. Conviction rates, which in the 1960s reached 11 percent of the total number of homicides committed, have dropped to barely 4 percent today [Ruhio 1996a].

These relationships can be explained in two ways. The traditional reading would be that the poor performance of the justice system has provided incentives for violent behavior in Colombia. It is also possible to argue that one of the factors that contributed to the paralysis of the criminal justice system in Colombia was precisely this violence and in particular that exercised by private protection services and extra-judicial prosecution.

A peculiarity of the Colombian system, which has been suggested as an explanation of its present-day incapacity to clear homicide cases, is its tendency to concentrate on infractions that are relatively innocuous and easily resolved to the detriment of those that are more serious and more difficult to investigate or to prosecute. The investigation of criminal incidents in Colombia, in practice, is limited to those with a suspect already identified, that is to those offenses that are all but resolved from the moment the victim first registered the complaint [Rubio 1996a].

On the other side, the data from surveys of victimization show how the attitudes and responses of citizens are contaminated by both the deficiencies of the justice system and an environment of threat and intimidation. …