Friday links At least they held off for 26 days
Jul 292008
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. 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:

Don Berna’s near-monopoly on criminal control of Medellín’s neighborhoods is a major reason for the downturn in violence. Relative peace often results when a territory finds itself under a single group’s uncontested dominion. The civilian population, tired of being caught in the crossfire, welcomes the change in its security, even if it is not quite the result of government control. It is a relief to have to pay extortion money to only one group, or to be free of threatened retribution for helping the “other side.”

By several accounts, Don Berna has helped bring down violent crime rates by ordering his followers to desist from committing large-scale murder, displacement, and other harassment of the civilian population. The feared paramilitary leader is currently in the Itagüí prison south of Medellín, accused of ordering the killing of a state legislator last year. Nonetheless, he continues to maintain a strong “pyramidal structure” of control over the Cacique Nutibara Bloc muchachos, according to leaders I interviewed at the office of the Corporación Democracia, a non-governmental organization founded by ex-BCN paramilitary leaders.

The thesis that Don Berna acted as a sort of Hobbesian Leviathan, enforcing Medellín’s peace through brutal control of criminality, was difficult to prove in mid-2006. In September 2007, however, the Colombian government moved the paramilitary leader out of Itagüí, transferring him to the Cómbita prison hundreds of miles away in Boyacá department. Then on May 13, “Berna” was one of fourteen top paramilitary leaders whom President Uribe suddenly and summarily extradited to the United States to face drug charges. He is now awaiting trial in downtown New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center.

If Don Berna was indeed helping to enforce Medellín’s peace, one would expect violence to increase as no-holds-barred competition ensues among the city’s criminal elements. That is exactly what is happening, Jesús Balbín of Medellín’s Popular Training Institute told El Tiempo.

According to Jesús Balbín, director of the Popular Training Institute, Medellín’s increase in murders coincides with Diego Fernando Murillo’s transfer from the Itagüí maximum-security prison to the one in Cómbita (Boyacá), and the trend began to be noticed in September of last year. “When they tranferred ‘don Berna’ he lost control over the city’s armed groups, and what there is now is a dispute for control of these groups,” he says.

Antonio Pedreros, commander of Medellín’s metropolitan police, told Semana that indeed, the upward trend in murders began last September.

With the paramilitary “Leviathan” gone, violent disputes are proliferating in Medellín’s criminal elements, as Semana noted in June.

The arrests in the past few days of Alirio Rendón, alias “El Cebollero,” accused of participaing in murders and gang business in Itagüí and [the southern Medellín suburb of] Envigado; and of John López alias “Memín,” a demobilized AUC leader, are evidence that in the absence of Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” more than a few want to take his place, using blood and fire.

Other accounts also point to Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” as one of the protagonists of this wave of crimes. During the past year, he [brother of un-extradited paramilitary leader Freddy Rendón, alias "El Alemán," former head of the Urabá-based Élmer Cárdenas Bloc] began to take control of the narcotrafficking markets in Antioquia, Córdoba and Chocó; and for this he has recruited qualified help: Medellín’s demobilized paramilitary fighters. He annihilates any who refuse to join him.

A more recent Semana piece tries to identify, in broad strokes, who some of the new violent actors are.

A third generation is now ready to continue the organized crime saga. It is a perverse mixture of paramilitaries who never demobilized or who returned to their old ways; of narcos who have always stayed in the shadows; of neighborhood bandits whose power is growing and; what is worse and most worrying, of corrupt sectors of the security forces and the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía].

The implications of this are tragic and vindicate those who saw “Don Berna” as a major factor in Medellín’s peace, the magazine contended in June.

Many fear that the oasis of peace and community that Antioquia’s capital [Medellín] experienced in the past few years may have only been an illusion created by the paramiltiaries’ demobilization, and not the consequence of greater state intervention. The ghosts of violence have put in suspense a city that believed that it had turned the page on violence, that believed that weekends like the one a little while ago, with 15 homicides, were a thing of the past.

It is now up to Colombia’s government, both national and municipal, as well as its security forces, to prove the “Leviathan” thesis wrong. If the city is to enjoy continued peace post-Berna, its authorities must redouble efforts to protect citizens from the mafias’ power, enough to convince them that it is safe to offer information about the gangs’ activities in the barrios. They must increase their presence – not just repressive, but social too – in neighborhoods of greatest organized-crime influence. They must target the emerging leadership of the new criminal organizations. And perhaps most of all, they must undergo an unprecedentedly thorough effort to root out the mafias’ infiltration of the security forces, the justice system and other local authorities.

Without such an effort, Medellín won’t see violence levels drop again until a new “Leviathan” comes along. And that could take a while.

10 Responses to “Medellín minus the “Leviathan””

  1. Chris Says:

    When you write about the new wave (generation) of mafiosos I immediately thought about the recent wave of telenovelas and colombian movies that have glorified the cartel/sicario way of life.

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    For Colombia mafia to be named as another generation or the like, Pablo Escobar cronies would have to pass away. And I guess there are still quite a few, plane to see, alive and well – and making money.

    Neither paramilitaries have demobilized nor Medellin has enjoyed peace in the last few years, nor statistics or reports by El Tiempo are trustworthy. Hitmen in Medellin Have been killing people left and right for more than twenty years on a daily basis and the habit has not waned ever since they got hold of Colombia power.

    Worse, Bogota, Cali and Barranquilla behave in much the same way though killings are not as publicized.

  3. jcg Says:

    It would be foolish to argue that there has ever been absolute peace, naturally, in Medellín or elsewhere. But in relative terms, specific incidents and reports can be used represent how the trends are changing, upwards or downwards, beyond whatever one believes the norm is.

    One can say that a spike in reported murders and gang warfare, even if those are only a fraction of the total number of events (nobody is really going to say that the statistics, whether they are from the government or an NGO, are meant to be absolute or bias/error/limitation free), is a warning sign that authorities and even critics should definitely pay attention to.

  4. c Says:

    Who exactly did they consult on this one?

  5. lfm Says:

    Did you hear the one about the Venezuelan dictator that wants to be able to investigate himself? Turns out that the Constitution says that the main law enforcement officials, in charge of investigating the government are now appointed through an elaborate system with some input from the President. But the guy wants none of that and he now insists that all the names of the possible candidates must be decided by him, in effect turning these offices into employees of the government. Weird thing is, there´s nothing wrong with the current system. Nobody has complained about it and, if anything, there were calls to get rid of all the President´s input in the process.

    But of course he is a power-hungry Communist that will stop at nothing to run the country as his own personal fiefdom. That explains why the State Department sent today its spokesperson to deplore these latest developments. Wait… That actually never happened. As a matter of fact, I got the country wrong. It´s not in Venezuela, it´s not Chávez. It´s in Colombia and it is Uribe. Now I see why nobody makes a big deal out of this.

  6. AR Says:

    It is no secret that security in Medellín has been a service provided by Don Berna’s mafia rather than police authorities. Citizen´s tolerance to “don Bernabilidad” has engendered a false sense of stability, now things are evolving to reveal how fragile the foundations of this born-again city are.

    Majors like Fajardo and Salazar have been more committed to create an image than to address the impending crisis, they have not managed (dared?) to take power away from the gangs.
    One just has to walk Medellín streets to see how the social investment has not benefited those who are at great risk: libraries, parks and urban infrastructure hardly reduce the causes of violence, besides the homeless and the displaced populations in the streets keep growing.

    What is to come?

    In the meantime Uribe has announced law and order in Medellín will be recovered in his very particular way Uribe ordena eliminar la Oficina de Envigado.

  7. El poder del narco en un contexto de pobreza « Drogas y conflicto en Colombia Says:

    [...] de narco es cosa del pasado. Un buen, y triste, ejemplo de ello se puede apreciar en el proceso de reacomodamiento de las mafias que se vive en la ciudad de [...]

  8. MT Says:

    Great article, but would like to add that there has been some great changes in Medellin over the past few years.

    The proud paisas have worked hard to get past the ghost of Pablo Escobar by marching in the streets to let the world know that they are tired of all the violence in Colombia, and more importantly showing the world that the criminals in Colombia do not represent the good hard-working people of Colombia.

    Discover The Transformation of Medellin, Colombia

    The transformation continues…

  9. Master Says:

    “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.”

    Excellent post but I must query your figures. Medellín’s murder rate, in fact, never dropped below those places. It’s still much higher. As of 2007 the rates for Washington, Baltimore and Atlanta were 7, 13 and 8 per 100,000 respectively. Medellín has levelled out at around 30 to 35 per 100,000 the last couple of years.

  10. themedellinmap Says:

    Things are not perfect. But, they are getting better not worse.

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