A recent study highlights that more than inequality alone, the way in which the upper classes flaunt their wealth also causes high rates of crime. I have certainly noticed this aspect of inequality in Colombia. There is a clear conflict for Colombians between staying safe and showing off their wealth. More often than not, the latter prevails. The way strata is used and enforced here strips people of their identities as they are simply assigned numbers. And because these denote failure and success, there is a desperation to climb the ladder, moving up to the next stratum by any means possible. The public nature of the divide between the classes in Colombia leads to a desperation visible in the middle and lower classes to attain this lifestyle at any cost which, unsurprisingly, leads to high rates of crime and involvement in illicit activities, even in indirect ways such as money laundering.
The phenomenon of 'vacunas' (literally vaccinations, but meaning extortion) is so widespread here that it affects everyone from the smallest street seller or homeowner, right up to a well-established business. It is a sort of bribe you pay to gangs, cartels or paramilitaries in order to have the right to stay in business or live in your neighbourhood. If you do not pay you will be put out of business, kicked out of your home or, at worst, killed.
Cali in particular has been studied for the phenomenon of how inequality and racial segregation fuel crime, and particularly violent crime. Social exclusion and poor or corrupt institutions leads to social tension and a high reward for committing crime. In addition, this inequality is a tool used by the elites to maintain power. Importantly, inequality is not natural and it is not just 'the way things are here', rather it is enforced by those who end up benefiting from it, and as a result, many others have little choice but to follow suit. There are many honest people here, but since those outside of the law often have the loudest voice, deepest pockets and the most power, many have to succumb to them.
I have personally noticed this 'if you can't beat them join them' mentality, which makes sense if crime is one of the only ways to survive or succeed. For example, in the Medellín area, there is a common saying that parents say to their sons 'consiga plata mijo, así sea trabajando' (get money son, even if you have to work for it). The implication is that working is a last resort and you can get money easier and quicker through less official forms, which often relate to violence. From speaking to friends here, another common theme that they perceive in Colombia is that people think it is a sign of intelligence (ser vivo) to ridicule others or trick them in order to benefit from it. Inequality changes more than just income, it changes attitudes and creates a culture of individualism and a lack of trust in society, reducing human beings to a number or a product which are often easier to change or attain illegally.
Of course this is not true for everyone and, again, there are a lot of hardworking, honest people but, in a way, it is a logical reaction to a society full of obstacles and a lack of redistribution of wealth. It is also incredibly difficult to make it in the 'proper' way, especially since so many official forms of employment and the legal system suffer from corruption, so you can understand why there is this mentality of every man for himself and getting money quickly because, who else is going to help them? Many are undeniably affected by it as it is so difficult to be in the honest minority in a society full of short-termism and pressure to obtain more material goods, facilitated by a lack of policy enforcement and corrupt judicial system. It truly is sad to see so many people desperately trying to attain a dignified life when the entire system is against them, favouring the rich minority and people having to resort to crime for this very reason. Not only does Colombia need a complete reform of its legal system to get rid of corrupt institutions and regulate businesses more thoroughly, it needs to offer regular Colombians adequate public safety nets and raise salaries and employment so that crime and corruption become less attractive options.