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Crime & Quarantine: Effects of One of the World's Strictest Lockdowns on Security in Medellín

What started as a distant threat in far off corners of the world soon spread across the planet via a domino-like effect, arriving to Colombia on March 6th. The world-changing, industry-disrupting, conspiracy-theorist-propelling- Sars-Cov-2 – more commonly known as the coronavirus. 

While I’ve previously written about the Colombian Government’s responses to the pandemic, and the effect the pandemic is likely to have on real estate in Medellín, I have a particular interest in the security situation here as I frequently try to get family, friends, and acquaintances to visit. Did crime increase during the lockdown? Is Medellín safe right now? Is it going to be safe upon full re-opening? This article seeks to answer some of these questions using local news reports and available data from public authorities.  

El Centro, in Medellin, during the absolute confinement part of the national lockdown

The world's strictest lockdown?

While it might not compare in authoritarianism to Manila, where the Philippines President ordered police to shoot dead those who defied lockdown orders, Colombians have endured some of the most stringent restrictions in the world – although with varying stages of confinement. At first, mandatory preventive isolation (total confinement) was decreed starting March 25, allowing only essential services to remain open. This was relaxed slightly on April 27, when there was a gradual reopening of economic activity, but only select sectors.  By June, the commercial and economic reopening of much of the city took place. Finally, as infections rose, a new method called 4×3 began on July 17 in Medellín. This allowed for four days of economic activity and then three days of strict quarantine. The stated purpose, from the beginning, was to avoid overwhelming the health system.

This map, published by Oxford, compares the stringency of coronavirus-related lockdowns around the world. As is evident, Colombia's lockdown has been among the most strict on the planet

The map above rates the stringency of nation’s lockdowns around the world, on a scale of 1-100, based on a combination of 9 factors: 

school closures, workplace closures, cancellation of public events, restrictions on gatherings, public transportation closures, stay-at-home requirements, restrictions on internal movement, international travel controls, and public information campaigns

Like some of its Latin American neighbors, Colombians (and expats living in Colombia) have endured a lockdown that is among the most strict anywhere in the world. The graphs below are perhaps even more indicative of what Colombian society has endured, as they show how the strictness has changed over time. It’s worth noting that many European countries also experienced very strict lockdowns (evidenced by the dark purple in March/April) but generally this was just a couple of months, whereas Colombians lived under these conditions for roughly half a year. 

Economic and Social Impact of the Pandemic

These measures have had a profoundly negative impact on economic and social elements of Colombian society, where some important indices have deteriorated. Confinement continues to generate great pressures, increasing the unemployment rate that could exceed 20% and estimates of the increase in poverty are disturbing. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), in 2019 multidimensional poverty in the country was 17.5%, (and in 2018, 19.1%). In 2020, due to the pandemic, the Universidad de los Andes warns that 7.3 million people would reach this condition, while ECLAC (the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) predicts a rate of 32.5% for Colombia. Many vulnerable groups are predicted to fall back into poverty, erasing many of the promising gains that have been made in this area since the start of the 21st Century. 

From a local standpoint, the inhabitants of Comunas 1, 2, 3 and 13, which are the ones with the highest level of contagion of the virus, are also the comunas with the highest level of poverty. As a result of the confinement and restrictions, they have had to suspend their economic activities, have been let go from their jobs, or had their salaries reduced. 

Comuna 13, which is normally full of tourists, had to suspend much of their economic activities due to the lockdown


In a recent report co-authored by the London School of Economics and the Universidad de Antioquia: Facultad de Derecho three important areas of concern were highlighted for the future of Medellin: 1) food insecurity 2) deteriorating mental health and 3) growing debt. The report goes on to note how, as local media has been reporting, crime indicators, even for the pre-Covid part of 2020, were trending down. 

Crime Rates Down Across the Board

Due to this situation, in Medellín crime rates have decreased in practically all areas, according to the Metropolitan Police of Valle de Aburrá, and considering from March 25 to July 28: 

  • 204 homicides were registered, 162 less than in the same period of 2019, which represents a decrease of 44%.
  • 7,990 cases of theft were reported, 9,513 less than in 2019, meaning a reduction of 60%.
  • Sexual crimes have seen a reduction of 47% with 595 cases compared to 1,128 in 2019.
  • Extortion decreased by 68%, with 241 cases less than in the same period of 2019.
  • Homicides in traffic accidents have been reduced 83%, that is, it went from 131 cases the year before to 44 in 2020.
  • Cell phone theft had a drop of 51% with 3,125 fewer cases compared to 6,173 of 2019. 
I know what you’re thinking. The pandemic and confinement have meant that people do not circulate in the streets and therefore neither does crime. So much so that in emblematic high-crime zones such as El Centro, extortion and robberies have decreased because, well,  there’s been no one around to extort or rob. This is undoubtedly a large contributing factor to these decreases. One point worth noting, though, is that even the first quarter of the year (Jan 1 to March 31st – of which only 6 days out of 90 had an obligatory confinement) saw the lowest homicide rate nationwide in 46 years.
This data is for all of 2019 compared to 2020 until August 18th. The first homicide in El Poblado occured of 2020 occured on September 2nd, so it is not reflected in the chart

El Poblado - The Safest Part of the City?

One particular zone of the city worth highlighting from a security standpoint is the situation of Comuna 14: El Poblado – home to many expats and landing spot for the majority of tourists to Medellín. Part of the reason I started researching and writing this article is I became captivated by a news story from June which stated that El Poblado had 0 homicides YTD. On September 2nd, the first and (so far) only homicide was recorded in the entire comuna – and with a population of around 130,000 people and being widely known to house expats and wealthy Colombians, to me it was quite surprising that violent crime has stayed so low during this turbulent time. The neighboring municipality of Envigado also had a very impressive no-homicide streak.

Scene outside of the Colombian Police Barracks following the January 2019 car bombing at a police academy in Bogota

No Impunity for ELN in Jan 2019 Car Bombing

Another special case to highlight was marked by the capture on September 11 of Pablo Antonio Villamizar, alias Oli, alleged leader of the ELN Efraín Pabón Pabón who participated in the attack on the General Santander Cadet School on January 17, 2019. In the same operation, three other members of the criminal group were also arrested. They were allegedly responsible for logistics, supplies, and intelligence in this ELN terrorism support network.

During my five years living as an expat in Colombia, nothing has shaken my belief that it is now a safe country as much as this incident. It was truly horrifying to read about at the time – which is why it was such welcome news that they have captured the responsible parties. As impunity begets more and often more brazen crime, it must not be allowed to happen. The fact that the criminal intelligence investigations into this incident continued unabated during this health emergency is a positive development for any potential further spike in unrest. Contrarily, devils advocates would point out that taking 21 months to track down the perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack in recent memory should hardly be considered cause for celebration. Better late than never, I guess. 

 

Tackling impunity for violent crime should be a top priority for the local government

Bogota Unrest - An Isolated Incident?

Colombia had its own George Floyd-esque moment in early September, after an extremely troubling video of the torture and death of a 45 year old law student emerged. Javier Ordonez, who was stopped because he was drinking and socializing in violation of Covid-19 restrictions, was repeatedly hit with a taser while he and his friends pleaded with the police to stop. In the ensuing protests that followed the release of the viral video, 13 people were killed and 95 different police stations were vandalized. 

The police officers involved were charged on September 19th, and, although normally police misconduct cases are tried within the military courts, the Attorney General of Colombia has referred the case to a special prosecutor who has in turn issued five more arrest warrants. Both President Ivan Duque and Bogotá Mayor Claudia Lopez have appealed for calm in the aftermath of the incident and the unrest has subsided. 

Protestor in Bogota throwing a flaming projectile at the police during the recent unrest

Deteriorating Violence Happening Further South

The same can be said about the massacres that have taken place in other parts of the country which remain far from Medellín. In Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, there has been a series of horrendous crimes in which six people have been murdered in Tumaco, eight in Samaniego and four in Buesaco – all  within a few days of each other. The police explanation is the coexistence in that sector of armed groups that dispute control of the production and distribution of drugs. It tends to be more of a local phenomenon, as opposed to evidence of a nationwide deterioration in security. 

One notable and disturbing exception to the general notion that these massacres are far removed from Medellín was this triple homicide at a finca near the pueblo of Andes, Antioquia in August. Andes is just 75 km from Medellín and located near the popular expat vacation spot of Jardin. A rise of incidents like this in Medellín or surrounding areas would be undoubtedly disconcerting and something to keep an eye on – but for now, fortunately, these incidents are rare. 

Authorities have said the 'Clan de Golfo' was behind the attack in Andes and the crime was related to drug trafficking routes.

One cannot lose sight of the fact that a substantive contribution to the reduction of homicides and the relative calm in Medellín is the result of the fact that in May 2019 the two military lines of the criminal organization “Oficina de Envigado” stopped the confrontation by putting end to the ‘La Guerra Fría de La Oficina‘. Conflicts among armed groups tend to be confined to the Western and Northern parts of the Valle de Aburrá. At the north end of the metropolitan area, the first half of 2019 was very bloody in Bello but this has subsided considerably due to the aforementioned truce. 

Is a Post-Quarantine Crime Spike Inevitable? ​

Faced with the economic and social deterioration noted at the start of the article, the Colombian government has extended some economic aid to those sectors of the population that are the most vulnerable. The worst off, those facing starvation, are encouraged to hang a red flag outside their house so that either authorities, non-profit organizations, or benevolent neighbors can help to take care of them. However, given the scale of the crisis, many are worried it will not be enough and as the normal rhythm of the city returns, a crime spike is inevitable. 

The most stringent opponents of the Government-imposed lockdown usually offered reasoning like this: The lockdown will devastate the economy, people won’t have food, they will get desperate and commit crimes in their desperation. It’s logical, no doubt – but that doesn’t make it predestined

To me, it seems inevitable that crime rates will not remain at where they were during the actual lockdown, when the vast majority of people were confined to their home. The real question is – will they merely return to relatively safe pre-pandemic levels, in which Medellín was outside the top 50 most violent cities for five consecutive years and safer than many American cities. Or will things creep closer to the times of Medellín’s just a generation ago, when it was among the most dangerous cities in the world?

Expats and Visitors Should Remain Vigilant

But we are now 6 months from the onset of the obligatory confinement.  People, especially locals more inclined to flout the rules, have generally been free to move about the city since the April 27 partial economic reopening, and there hasn’t been a discernable uptick in crime. Official Government figures show the opposite. If Medellín was going to descend into post-lockdown chaos, I think we would have started to see the signs. Some will point out that a lot of crime goes unreported – and while undoubtedly true, I don’t see why the proportion of unreported crime would be any different now than pre-Covid. 

Maybe I will update this article in 6 months time and things will be dramatically different. Maybe the desperation hasn’t fully set in yet – and the crime wave is yet to come. Although I sure hope that’s not the case, the writing isn’t on the wall yet. 

Have you been the victim of a crime in Medellín? Please contact me – [email protected]  – and let me know what happened. I have a database of crimes against expats and tourists that I like to update. If several expats are robbed in the same area in a short period of time, a sort of public service announcement about it could be helpful. 

If you are the victim of a crime, you should always immediately give up your belongings. It might be the difference between becoming a statistic for robbery instead of homicide. Foreigners are presumed wealthy and an unfortunate incident could happen at any time – it’s not necessary to live in fear but it is best not to dar papaya either. 

Stay safe! 

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David Eliasson

David Eliasson

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