Friday links (Saturday edition) Grim update from Córdoba
Feb 152010
Medellín’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.


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Only two or three years ago, Medellín was a showcase for Colombian President Álvaro 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 “Medellín 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 Medellín’s criminality. The members of this loose network of gangs, often known as the “Office of Envigado” — the name comes from the Medellín suburb where Pablo Escobar established a group of hitmen — feud as often as they cooperate, with very bloody results.

“DonBernabilidad”

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 Medellín 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 “Sebastián,” 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 Medellín’s gangs.

The “Committee for Life”

For this reason, a committee of prominent Medellín citizens spent three months shuttling from jail to jail seeking to broker a non-agression pact between Sebastián and Valenciano. That pact was achieved on February 1, and the number of murders in Medellín is reportedly down since that date.

The non-governmental mediators, calling themselves the “Committee for Life” (Comisión 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 Galán, until recently a leader of the ELN guerrilla group;
  • Monsignor Alberto Giraldo, the archbishop of Medellín; and
  • Jorge Gaviria, former director of the Medellin government’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants. Gaviria is the brother of José Obdulio Gaviria, who until last year was one of President Álvaro 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 Medellín 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 Medellín “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, Medellín 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 Medellín — 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 Itagüí prison on Medellín’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:

  1. It truly brings social peace, measured in an immediate drop in crime.
  2. It truly happens in exchange for nothing. The leaders should not get any benefits from the state, since they are still running criminal organizations.
  3. It happens amid a concerted effort to strengthen the rule of law — 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.

4 Responses to “The Medellín “non-aggression pact””

  1. Block Says:

    Thank you for the info Adam. As far as your #3, what is your idea of how “dismantle(ing) their networks” would look in both action and results? Would not more, perhaps less-capable, commanders “on the outside” just pop up to take their places? I understand that the ultimate goal is to not have drug gangs running the city, but it seems to me that trying to wipe out the Envigado infrastructure would simply result in a catastrophic rise in the level of gang wars and related violence, at least in the short-term (as we’ve seen with the removal of Don Berna). That is of course if there’s not already a miraculous government infrastructure program waiting in the wings to be substituted, which there doesn’t appear to be. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it seems that the problem of drug cartels is so entrenched in the governmental system — especially around Medellín — that your third condition comes off as naive. I don’t typically note naiveté in your posts, thus I’m wondering what you really mean. How feasible is “strengthen(ing) the rule of law” in Medellín without completely overhauling the corrupt system on a departmental and national scale? It seems that the government has very little leverage and/or will to fix this problem.

  2. George Donnelly Says:

    Colombia has so many problems it’s hard to know where to start. The slavish obedience to Washington on keeping drugs outlawed needs to end. Decriminalize cocaine, marijuana, you name it. Also, liberalize the economy. Remove all these restrictions on starting businesses, moving money around and get rid of all these legal requirements for things like primas and cesantias so it’s cheaper to hire people.

    I’m no fan of the cops but they either need radically more or the private security forces need to be allowed to carry more serious arms. You just don’t see that many cops around in Colombia, unless you’re in a war zone or a pueblo that’s under threat from the FARC.

    Absolutely private ownership of arms needs to be restored. As always, gun control results in just the bad guys having the arms. Sicarios might think twice before taking a job if more potential victims carried pistols.

    Some kind of land transportation across the Darian Gap might be useful but probably a pipe dream. Exporting of goods is too expensive.

    The bottom line is that it’s the same as anywhere else. With more jobs, more people have more incentives to turn away from delinquency and violence.

  3. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Maria Jimena Dussan is more up-front about this issue

    http://www.semana.com/noticias-opinion/pacto-secreto/134949.aspx

  4. | Lat/Am Daily Says:

    [...] Peace in Medellin owes itself not to law enforcement efforts, but to a “pact” between rival gangs arranged by civil society leaders. The Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program explains. [...]

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