Jul 29
Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” is now awaiting trial in New York.

At 3:00 yesterday Antonio López (alias “Job”), one of the most vocal spokespeople for Medellín’s demobilized paramilitaries, was shot to death in the steakhouse where he was having a late lunch. (The U.S. Treasury Department incidentally identifies the “Angus Brangus” restaurant, scene of the crime in Medellín’s Las Palmas neighborhood, as a property of extradited paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jiménez or “Macaco.”)

López was a leading member of the Corporación Democracia, a Medellín-based non-governmental organization formed to represent demobilized members of the city’s “Cacique Nutibara” paramilitary bloc. Headed by feared drug lord and paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” the Nutibara Bloc was the first paramilitary unit to demobilize when, in a hastily arranged November 2003 ceremony in Medellín, 868 purported members turned in weapons to Colombian government authorities.

The Corporación Democracia leadership openly declared their continuing allegiance to Don Berna, even as he was jailed for allegedly plotting the murder of a provincial legislator, moved to a jail outside Medellín last September, then extradited to the United States in May to face drug charges. López, the leader murdered yesterday, had frequently represented the former Nutibara Bloc members at public events, and was a vocal defender of their demobilization and reintegration process. According to Semana magazine’s account, he was “one of the people closest” to Don Berna.

Semana contends that yesterday’s killing is the latest signal that, in Don Berna’s absence, a “rearrangement of mafias” is underway that directly threatens the relative peace that Medellín has enjoyed during the past few years.

Since the end of last year, Antonio López had decided to lower his profile in the Corporación and dedicate himself to consolidating the National Movement of Demobilized Self-Defense Group Members, which would require him to spend more time in Bogotá. Semana.com was able to establish that his decision was also motivated by the rearrangement of mafias that Medellín is currently experiencing, which has originated a new wave of violence, from which the demobilized paramilitaries and their leaders have been unable to escape.

This is terrible news for Colombia’s second-largest city, which since about 2004 has enjoyed a remarkably steep drop in violent crime.

In the past few years Medellín, a place whose fame for violence rivals that of Beirut or Sarajevo, saw its murder rate drop below those of Washington, Baltimore or Atlanta. With improved security, the economy boomed. Mayor Sergio Fajardo, who left office at the new year, enjoyed approval ratings near 90 percent. Visiting delegations from the U.S. Congress, their trips organized by the Bush and Uribe administrations to sell the merits of the Free Trade Agreement, traveled to Medellín’s formerly murderous marginal slums to witness the “miracle.”

These gains are now in trouble. The number of murders in Medellín during the first half of 2008 (326 through June 21) was 14 percent higher than the same period in 2007, El Tiempo reports. In a July 17 piece, the Bogotá daily adds:

It is not just the war between mafias that keeps Medellín residents up at night. There is also the confrontation between ex-”paras” and between “combos” (neighborhood gangs that do drug business and extortion rackets), which have left 69 dead this year.

Last year, the authorities arrested 810 members of these gangs, which has set off an internal dispute to determine the new leaders. …

The “reinserted” AUC members are more fuel for the fire: 151 have died [184 according to Semana], 350 have been arrested (37 for homicide); 20 were expelled from the reinsertion program and 112 have joined emerging “para” groups.

Cambio magazine notes that the new violence bears the hallmark of a free-for-all among organized crime groups.

According to a report from the Violence Observatory of the Popular Training Institute [a Medellín-based NGO whose website is highly recommended], the majority of crimes were committed with handguns – revolvers and 9mm pistols – many of them with a silencer. “Much of these cases occurred in the city’s east and north, and it is still difficult to determine if there is a common motive,” the investigators say. “What is certain is that there is a group of hitmen killing people and throwing bodies into the Medellín River.”

The Metropolitan Police contend that the deaths are the product of a war between narcotraffickers and revenge killings among men who used to be at the service of Diego Fernando Murillo, “Don Berna” – extradited to the United States on May 13 – and who today are at the service of “Rogelio,” who is disputing with the “Black Eagles” and other groups the control of some zones and illicit businesses. “Hitmen are being paid well to kill people who appear on a list,” a police source told Cambio, adding that he does not dismiss the possibility that the situation could worsen, since “just as in the era of Pablo Escobar they paid for dead police, today they pay for [dead] demobilized paramilitaries.”

On a trip to Medellín two years ago this very week, I asked everyone I met why they thought that their city had become so much safer so quickly. I was told about President Uribe’s “Democratic Security” and an increased state presence in the city’s violent slums, and greater social investment from Medellín’s city government. But most interviewees also acknowledged a third, more sinister factor: the monopoly on criminality that “Don Berna” had managed to consolidate through extremely brutal tactics, and that he continued to enforce from his luxurious suite in the Itagüí prison just south of the city. As I noted two years ago:

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Jul 18

The OAS mission (MAPP-OEA) verifying paramilitary groups’ demobilization and reintegration issued its ninth quarterly report last Friday. (The report is available here as a Microsoft Word [.doc] file; it is also available, along with all previous MAPP-OEA reports, on the mission’s website.) It’s not clear why they call it a “quarterly” report when it’s only the second one published in the past 10 1/2 months. But never mind that.

The report is definitely worth a close read. It documents a complex picture of new armed groups forming throughout the country, most of them hybrids of former paramilitaries and current drug traffickers.

Some of these groups are led by commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces [AUC] who did not heed the government’s call to participate in the process, while others reflect an alliance between former paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Moreover, it has been noted that mid-level AUC commanders are heading new illegal armed units.

The report documents this phenomenon in many regions of the country; the problem of so-called “emerging groups” is scattered throughout Colombia’s geography. Here, using Google Maps, is a synthesis of all the regions of emerging-group activity mentioned in the report. Moving your mouse over each marker will call up relevant excerpts from the report.

The best sources on the “emerging groups” phenomenon are this and previous MAPP-OEA reports, along with recent documentation from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. See also the Colombian Defense Ministry’s reaction to this week’s press coverage of the OAS report.

Meanwhile, the OAS report also expresses urgent concerns about the Colombian government’s programs to re-integrate ex-combatants, which are still struggling badly despite a greater effort to unify planning under a “high commissioner for reintegration.”

[T]he status of the reintegration process is a source of serious concern on the part of OAS/MAPP. Delays in strengthening the institutions in charge of this process together with the limited operational capacity and coverage of the program at present are some of the factors that are hindering the socio-economic reintegration of demobilized combatants. A weak reintegration process in turn poses serious threats to the peace process as a whole, since it does nothing to prevent the recruitment of the demobilized fighters by new illegal units, which are being seen in different regions of the country. …

The still limited operational and coverage capacity of the Program is compounded by the difficulty in establishing clear statistics. In general, there is a problem that has to do with the discrepancy between the number of demobilized combatants reported by the Government and the number located by the Police. The information provided by some local officials is far removed from reality. There is no clarity regarding the number of beneficiaries, or their location or mobility.

The two most worrisome issues are the productive or work projects and humanitarian aid, which are key benefits for the demobilized combatants. In the first case, OAS/MAPP has verified that, as a rule, people in the communities continue to have the impression that the program does not provide for the socio-economic reintegration of the beneficiaries, and this in turn could be the reason why they tend to go back to illegal activities.