|Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” is now awaiting trial in New York.|
At 3:00 yesterday Antonio LÃ³pez (alias “Job”), one of the most vocal spokespeople for MedellÃn’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 MedellÃn’s Las Palmas neighborhood, as a property of extradited paramilitary leader Carlos Mario JimÃ©nez or “Macaco.”)
LÃ³pez was a leading member of the CorporaciÃ³n Democracia, a MedellÃn-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 MedellÃn, 868 purported members turned in weapons to Colombian government authorities.
The CorporaciÃ³n 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 MedellÃn last September, then extradited to the United States in May to face drug charges. LÃ³pez, 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 MedellÃn has enjoyed during the past few years.
Since the end of last year, Antonio LÃ³pez had decided to lower his profile in the CorporaciÃ³n and dedicate himself to consolidating the National Movement of Demobilized Self-Defense Group Members, which would require him to spend more time in BogotÃ¡. Semana.com was able to establish that his decision was also motivated by the rearrangement of mafias that MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn, 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 MedellÃn’s formerly murderous marginal slums to witness the “miracle.”
These gains are now in trouble. The number of murders in MedellÃn 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 BogotÃ¡ daily adds:
It is not just the war between mafias that keeps MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn-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 MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn’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 ItagÃ¼Ã prison just south of the city. As I noted two years ago:
Don Bernaâ€™s near-monopoly on criminal control of MedellÃnâ€™s neighborhoods is a major reason for the downturn in violence. Relative peace often results when a territory finds itself under a single groupâ€™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 ItagÃ¼Ã prison south of MedellÃn, 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 CorporaciÃ³n Democracia, a non-governmental organization founded by ex-BCN paramilitary leaders.
The thesis that Don Berna acted as a sort of Hobbesian Leviathan, enforcing MedellÃn’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 ItagÃ¼Ã, transferring him to the CÃ³mbita prison hundreds of miles away in BoyacÃ¡ 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 MedellÃn’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, JesÃºs BalbÃn of MedellÃn’s Popular Training Institute told El Tiempo.
According to JesÃºs BalbÃn, director of the Popular Training Institute, MedellÃn’s increase in murders coincides with Diego Fernando Murillo’s transfer from the ItagÃ¼Ã maximum-security prison to the one in CÃ³mbita (BoyacÃ¡), 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 MedellÃn’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 MedellÃn’s criminal elements, as Semana noted in June.
The arrests in the past few days of Alirio RendÃ³n, alias “El Cebollero,” accused of participaing in murders and gang business in ItagÃ¼Ã and [the southern MedellÃn suburb of] Envigado; and of John LÃ³pez alias “MemÃn,” 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 RendÃ³n, 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 RendÃ³n, alias "El AlemÃ¡n," former head of the UrabÃ¡-based Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas Bloc] began to take control of the narcotrafficking markets in Antioquia, CÃ³rdoba and ChocÃ³; and for this he has recruited qualified help: MedellÃn’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 [FiscalÃa].
The implications of this are tragic and vindicate those who saw “Don Berna” as a major factor in MedellÃn’s peace, the magazine contended in June.
Many fear that the oasis of peace and community that Antioquia’s capital [MedellÃn] 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, MedellÃn won’t see violence levels drop again until a new “Leviathan” comes along. And that could take a while.