MedellÃn’s gang-ridden Comuna 13 neighborhood.
Note as of February 16: we’ve added a podcast about this topic to the “Just the Facts” website.
Only two or three years ago, MedellÃn was a showcase for Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe’s security policies. An 80-percent drop in homicides [PDF] brought new prosperity and confidence. A series of U.S. congressional delegations, organized by both governments to promote the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, toured the city to view the “MedellÃn Miracle.”
The progress owed in part to the Uribe government’s deployments of soldiers and police to the violent slums that surround the city, and in part to the municipal government’s heavy investments in basic services in those neighborhoods.
But another factor shared the credit: an unusually high degree of harmony between the drug-funded, paramilitary-linked gangs responsible for most of MedellÃn’s criminality. The members of this loose network of gangs, often known as the “Office of Envigado” â€” the name comes from the MedellÃn suburb where Pablo Escobar established a group of hitmen â€” feud as often as they cooperate, with very bloody results.
The unusual period of harmony owed to a monopoly. From 2003 until 2008, the barrios’ gangs were under the solid control of one man: Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a longtime drug-underworld figure who became head of the AUC paramilitaries’ “Cacique Nutibara Bloc.” Likely in cooperation with the Colombian Army, Don Berna pushed guerrilla militias out of the barrios. Then he pushed out, or coopted, all other paramilitary and narco-gangs in the city.
When the Nutibara Bloc “demobilized” in late 2003, the order went out from Don Berna: keep violent behavior to a minimum. The ensuing period of peace in MedellÃn has been called “DonBernabilidad,” a play on the Spanish word for “governability.”
“DonBernabilidad” ended with the paramilitary boss’s extradition to the United States in May 2008. With the leviathan gone, the fractured Office of Envigado gangs began fighting each other again. Crime rates began rising dramatically; in 2009 the number of murders in this city of 2.5 million reached 2,178, more than double the 2008 figure.
Seventy percent of those murders, by some estimates, owe to fighting between two main factions of the Office of Envigado: one headed by Erick Vargas, alias “SebastiÃ¡n,” and one headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano.” Though imprisoned, both leaders continue to exercise very strong control over their factions, which together control about 80 percent of MedellÃn’s gangs.
The “Committee for Life”
For this reason, a committee of prominent MedellÃn citizens spent three months shuttling from jail to jail seeking to broker a non-agression pact between SebastiÃ¡n and Valenciano. That pact was achieved on February 1, and the number of murders in MedellÃn is reportedly down since that date.
The non-governmental mediators, calling themselves the “Committee for Life” (ComisiÃ³n por la Vida), were a diverse and influential group:
- Jaime Jaramillo Panesso, one of ten members of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, who served as the Committee’s spokesman;
- Francisco GalÃ¡n, until recently a leader of the ELN guerrilla group;
- Monsignor Alberto Giraldo, the archbishop of MedellÃn; and
- Jorge Gaviria, former director of the Medellin government’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants. Gaviria is the brother of JosÃ© Obdulio Gaviria, who until last year was one of President Ãlvaro Uribe’s closest advisors, and who is now an ultra-right-wing columnist in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, where he accuses all of Uribe’s detractors, from NGOs to members of the U.S. Congress, of being FARC supporters. Both Gaviria brothers are first cousins of Pablo Escobar.
Who authorized talks with narcotraffickers?
As it carried out its prison negotiations between the MedellÃn factions, the committee counted with the Uribe government’s authorization. In November, President Uribe authorized the Catholic Church and civil-society groupings to initiate dialogues with criminal groups (not guerrillas) operating in their territories, for a three-month period, with the goal of convincing them “to turn themselves in to justice.”
When news of the MedellÃn “pact” leaked, however, Colombia’s media was immediately abuzz with charges that the government had authorized a “pact with narcotraffickers.” The Uribe administration backed off: Frank Pearl, the presidency’s “high commissioner for peace,” told reporters, “The members of the civil society commission had very good intentions, but it is possible that at some moment they lost sight of their goal, which was nothing other than the [criminal groups'] submission to justice.” For his part, MedellÃn Mayor Alonso Salazar, who has rejected negotiations with criminal groups but whose beleaguered administration could benefit from a break in the violence, said he was aware of the work of the “Committee for Life” but was not participating.
What did the gang leaders get in return for agreeing to the pact?
Committee spokesman Panesso insists that the Office of Envigado factions’ top leaders got no privileges in exchange for calling a truce. “It is an action of good will between them, at our request,” he told reporters. “We found that they are tired of war, that there has been a bloodletting that is not in their interest. And if it’s not in their interest, much less in society’s interest. They told us that what they needed was someone to mediate and help them come to an understanding.”
However, the Committee proposed that, “in order to continue its work,” the criminal bosses should all be transferred to prisons near MedellÃn â€” a step that would put them in much greater control over their syndicates. And indeed, it appears that a few key members of the Office of Envigado were recently moved to the ItagÃ¼Ã prison on MedellÃn’s outskirts.
A model, or a mistake?
For years, the Uribe government has prohibited, or limited very strictly, so-called “regional dialogues” with guerrilla groups about issues like hostage releases or limiting landmine use. It seems odd, then, that the government would so readily authorize citizen dialogues with imprisoned organized-crime leaders. (Even if the talks seek only to discuss “submission to justice,” the implication is that something will be offered in return.)
This inconsistency doesn’t mean that the “Committee for Life” was a loose cannon whose work should never have been authorized. Brokering a pact with imprisoned criminal leaders would be acceptable if:
- It truly brings social peace, measured in an immediate drop in crime.
- It truly happens in exchange for nothing. The leaders should not get any benefits from the state, since they are still running criminal organizations.
- It happens amid a concerted effort to strengthen the rule of law â€” and especially to capture the imprisoned criminal bosses’ commanders “on the outside” and dismantle their networks. The communications between the jailed leaders and their underlings should be a rich source of intelligence.
These pacts are not acceptable, though, if all three of the above conditions are not in place. The third one in particular seems to be badly absent right now.