CALI, Colombia—She has only pulled the trigger during a one-time visit to a shooting range with friends. But Colombian lawmaker María Fernanda Cabal is gung-ho about getting more guns into the hands of citizens who want to defend themselves.
For more than two months in Colombia, civil unrest has spilled over into riots and vandalism, and clashes between demonstrators and the police have erupted in violence. Scenes of citizens taking up arms are opening old wounds in a country that had appeared to be moving towards peace after decades of civil war.
But even before the protests, Cabal, a 57-year-old conservative senator from the city of Cali, proposed rolling back Colombia’s restrictive gun laws. The move would let buyers cut through the byzantine bureaucracy that stops most civilians from owning weapons and allow them to transport guns in their cars.
In a country riddled with organized crime and scarred by a history of kidnappings targeted at the wealthy, Cabal argues that citizens need greater freedom to carry their guns.
“The life of a citizen should not be worth less than the life of a criminal,” said Cabal in an interview with VICE World News.
Cabal is described by her peers as impulsive, hilarious and unafraid of saying things other politicians might deem uncouth. But none of them would go on the record praising her, an indication of how polarizing she has become.
She worships Donald Trump’s unapologetic persona and praises Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for his heavy-handed crackdowns on crime in cities like Rio de Janeiro. She shows little patience for the politics of Iván Duque, the president of Colombia elected under her party’s banner, who is perceived to be a moderate brainchild of Colombia’s former right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, whom she greatly admires.
In 2015, Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, added new restrictions to gun ownership in an attempt to reduce Colombia’s high homicide rate. At the same time, he was negotiating a peace deal with Colombia’s main Marxist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), that was signed the following year.
Cabal believes the two policies were connected. “Juan Manuel Santos took that right away from us, surely under orders from Havana with their peace accord,” she said, referring to Cuba’s historic support for left-wing movements.
“And the worst thing is that the Duque government extended the decree. Which leaves citizens without the right to bear arms.”
Cabal’s city of Cali is Colombia’s third-largest, and half its population benefits from a thriving economy while the other half live under the power of organized crime bosses. Illegal guns are everywhere.
Colombia’s wave of unrest began at the end of April, when Duque proposed a tax reform and demonstrators took to the streets. The protests swelled to encompass broader anger against corruption and inequality. Police and protesters clashed, leading to at least 34 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch.
As the streets filled, Cali’s middle class worried that shortages of fuel and food would follow. The protests also raised traumatic memories of a mass kidnapping carried out by a second Marxist rebel group at La María church in 1999 and, fearing a similar spasm, Cali’s middle class scrambled to buy the few weapons they are allowed to own.
Andrés Escobar, a muscly, tattooed merchant who owns a small trading business, was among them.
A volley of gunfire was exchanged in a southern suburb in mid-May. At the end of the month, citizens fired shots from a bridge against protesters. Tattooed gunmen - including Escobar - appeared alongside police. He drew his pistol and fired shots at the protesters.
The officers did nothing to stop him. Although he later was summoned for questioning, he has yet to face any charges.
Cabal says that for months before the unrest, people would write to her saying they were forced to hide their illegal guns. But some Colombians, weary of rampant crime, had already found a way around the law that Cabal is trying to change in congress.
Instead of spending months waiting for a permit, they bought a class of pistol that is categorized by a 2010 United Nations International Arms Treaty as “non-lethal” or “traumatic.” These guns carry bullets designed to maim - not to kill. Last year, over 216,000 traumatic firearms entered the country, according to the Ministry of Defense.
Buying a non-lethal weapon is effectively the quick, legal way to buy an otherwise more lethal gun from the military.
Cabal came to right-wing politics from a background of privilege. She was born into a sugar plantation family just outside of Cali and attended a private school in Bogotá. But her family was severely affected by drug-fueled crime. By the time she finished college, her mind was made up: the communist rebel groups, M-19, FARC and ELN, who used drug profits to finance their operations and wreaked havoc on her city, were the bad guys. Anything was justified in defeating them.
The proliferation of guns goes back to the 1800s when regional politicians deployed private armies in a struggle for power. In the 1960s, Colombian presidents began to allow the spread of guns to respond to what they feared might be a potential Marxist take-over. In 1965, one year after the formation of the FARC, former President Guillermo León Valencia armed civilians to aid security forces. By the 1980s, fueled by drug dollars, these civilian groups were no longer self-defense militias. They had grown into private armies outside the rule of law.
When Uribe, a cattle rancher turned governor of Colombia’s most prosperous province, ran on a platform to beat back drug traffickers and kidnappers in 2002, he won the presidency. With billions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight the drug war, he strengthened the army and pushed the FARC back into the jungle during his two terms in office.
Cabal became an Uribe supporter for life. Her husband, José Félix Lafaurie, served in Uribe's government and is now the chief lobbyist for Colombia’s cattle ranchers. Cabal was elected to the Senate in 2014 as part of Uribe’s new political party, Democratic Center, which represents the interests of cattle ranchers and landowners keen on restoring Uribe’s law-and-order politics.
But that does not mean that Cabal herself wants to practise self-defense. “I don’t have guns. I’ve never seen the need to own a gun,” admits Cabal, whose one visit to a shooting range came at the invitation of friends in the military.
“But the thing is, I’m privileged. Being a senator, I have an armored vehicle with two armed bodyguards. My husband has an armored car and two bodyguards,” she said. “If I were without that situation, I would definitely think about carrying a firearm.”
Cabal’s bill to relax gun laws and the willingness of some citizens to take up arms demonstrates the security challenges Colombia faces in the aftermath of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC. In 2017, about 8,000 rebel fighters laid down their weapons.
But weapons have quietly flooded the Colombian black market, according to InsightCrime, an organized crime think tank. There is evidence that smugglers use private jets to transport weapons from the United States into Venezuela (which neighbors Colombia), where traffickers then distribute them throughout Latin America. Law enforcement sources told VICE that these merchants often serve an atomized network of crime franchises which engage in drug-trafficking, illegal gold-mining and extortion.
Against the backdrop of so many illegal guns, Cabal’s proposal quickly earned a sharp response from her opponents.
Many across the aisle view her bill, which has stalled in congress since the protests, as a bit of ground lost to political figures who opposed the peace deal’s terms from the beginning.
“Carrying firearms is a danger and a setback!” said opposition senator Angélica Lozano earlier this year when the bill was being debated.
“The bill congress has presented has a logic that appears to bring about greater security but it’s exactly the opposite.”
The idea of relaxing Colombia’s gun laws concerns people like Jorge Restrepo, an economist at CERAC, a think tank. Restrepo argues that the whole point of the peace process was to remove violence from politics.
“Now you have an emerging, radical right-wing party with extremist elements,” he said. “You have flare-ups of violence with racist connotations instigated by politicians.”
Restrepo says that the senator’s motives stem from the classist structures that the peace accord was designed to reform.
“There’s a landed class that has the means to acquire weapons and enjoy armed self-protection,” he said.
“That’s a way to protect their narrow, legitimate interests. The problem is that their interests go against public security. This is the tragedy of Colombia.”