In biblical days the injunction was to beat swords into ploughshares. Now the United Nations crime-fighting agency is calling on Colombia, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, to do more to crack down on organized crime and arms trafficking, citing one initiative that turns guns into guitars.
The perception that the country is plagued by a culture of indiscriminate violence is incorrect as the use of firearms is highly controlled and regulated by different actors, including criminal gangs, rebel groups and the Government, according to a just-released report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which calls for stiffer penalties for illegal arms carrying and trafficking.
The fact that carrying weapons illegally does not necessarily entail a prison sentence has extremely serious consequences since this is often the only evidence authorities can use to prosecute suspects for serious offences such as drug and arms trafficking, and crimes against humanity, it notes.
“Preventing, combating and eradicating the illicit manufacture and trafficking in firearms is not an impossible dream,” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa writes in a forward to the report – Violence, Crime and Illegal Arms Trafficking in Colombia.
“Whereas in the past people have talked about the importance of beating swords into ploughshares, some inspired Colombians are showing the world that you can turn guns into guitars,” he says, citing musician and peace activist Cesar Lopez who has built several ‘escopetarras’– part rifle (escopeta) and part guitar (guitarra).
“With more activists like Mr. Lopez, greater domestic gun control and greater regional and global cooperation, Colombia and the rest of the world will have less guns and more guitars,” he adds.
The report notes that although illegal arms are relatively 'controlled,' they are used very efficiently “to generate levels of lethal violence unlike those in the rest of the world,” and the Government faces a major challenge to disarm these groups. Regional cooperation and improved border controls are essential to cut the links between drug trafficking, organized crime and insurgency.
The report shows that the flow of illegal weapons into the country is limited, but weapons are constantly recycled, making it all the more important to control the flow of ammunition. “This could potentially become even more critical than the illegal trafficking of arms,” it says.
It notes that demobilization and reintegration programmes for rebel groups have had marginal effect in reducing violence, which is mainly carried out by criminal groups.
It praises Colombia for regional and international efforts to regulate small arms and light weapons but cites weaknesses, including lack of institutional capacity, insufficient international cooperation especially on the part of neighbouring countries, control of arms in the hands of private security companies, and data processing.
“With respect to illicit trafficking in arms, preventive intelligence is practically non-existent,” the report says, noting that law enforcement agencies lack operational capacity and autonomy, with a significant gap between intelligence and operations.