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July 09, 2009

A Big Relief and More Paramilitaries

I just got out of a meeting which has been extremely hard to schedule. I am extremely relieved that it finally happened.

The meeting was about some commercial establishments built by the city around public housing projects in Moravia. The idea was for these stores to compensate local people for commercial space that was lost either because moving to public housing distanced them from the store they used to own or because the public housing was built on the space where they used to have their store.

In short, due to some bureaucratic delays, the commercial spaces were not given to their new owners, were not built with adequate equipment and were eventually stripped of whatever equipment they had by local thieves. Now, every window, shelf, door, electrical wiring, etc is gone.

The idea of the meeting was to define a clear gameplan to rebuild the commercial establishments and give them to the intended owners keeping in mind city budgets, a series of complex legal limitations and, of course, the needs of the community. We seem to be on our way to a solution, although we are starting literally from scratch.

As of now, there is no budget to rebuild the spaces, the spaces are totally empty, most of the spaces have no owner and nobody is really clear about what kind of small businesses could actually be put in those spaces due to legal issues. (public space laws, sanitation laws, etc)

Although I fear that my blog may be focusing increasingly on local paramilitarism, it is hard to avoid the topic: it came up yet again at this meeting. Given how little the topic is covered in the media, especially the international media, it is remarkable how frequently it comes in the most unlikely contexts, like this meeting.

Apparently, the city agency that owns 6 of the establishments is trying to solve some budgetary problem by trying to make some money by selling and renting the commercial spaces very carefully. The best plan they've come up with so far is to sell the spaces in a sort of auction system.

Upon hearing this suggestion, many people at the meeting brought up a couple of objections. First, the original plan was to sell the spaces to people who met a series of strict requirements: that they had a commercial space in Moravia prior to the start of the project in 2004, that they still live in the neighborhood, etc. The chaotic auction system may open up the spaces to people who don't meet all the requirements.

Second, there are fears that the system might attract paramilitary and organized criminal elements. Specifically, people fear that the auction system may allow paramilitary groups to prevent competitors from bidding through intimidation. Paramilitary and mafia groups are always eager for commercial control of crucial neighborhoods in order to launder drug money and become the backbone of local commerce, thereby deepening their authority.

Paramilitary gangs have begun to re-group in Moravia. I have already heard about paramilitaries taking control of public buildings and making aggressive appareances at local planning meetings. If we aren't careful with these commercial establishments, they may also stage a takeover of stores built and supported by the city administration.

For the Moravia project, paramilitarism is just one of the variables that we have to take into account as we move forward with projects. So far, budget issues are stressing us out much more than paramilitaries. For Colombia as a whole, however, paramilitary power is a growing menace that continues to deepen the influence of drugs and crime at all levels of socieety.

Posted by Pablo Rojas at July 9, 2009 06:04 PM


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