Even by the standards of Comuna 13, one of Medellin’s most embattled districts, the violence seen in the past week has been shocking.
On February 16, two 11-year-old boys were abducted by armed men while playing in the neighborhood of El Corazon. The following day police discovered their tortured bodies, dismembered and stuffed in sacks.
The apparent motive for their murder was the fact that by leaving their own neighborhood of Nuevos Conquistadores they had crossed an “invisible border,” a demarcation line between the territories of rival gangs.
According to one report, the children had been told they’d be killed if they return to the area whilst playing there a few days earlier.
In the days that followed, residents of the district came out in force. A 300-strong funeral procession took to the streets Wednesday, mourning the loss of the youngsters and demanding an end to the violence which claimed 191 lives last year.
The families of the victims subsequently received threats that if they did not leave the district they would be killed too.
The forced displacement of individuals close to recent victims is a common tactic amongst groups who perpetrate the violence as a means to arrest tension, prevent retaliation and guard themselves from being denounced to the authorities. In November 2012, more than 60 members of two hip-hop collectives were forced into hiding following the murder of two rappers in the district.
The situation is aggravated in this recent instance by the revelation that the threats were apparently reinforced by a police officer, who allegedly advised the families they would be murdered if they reported them.
While the city government has denied this, human rights activist Fernando Quijano, who publicized the threats, told Colombia Reports: “When they filed a complaint over the threats, they [the families] publicly stated it was a police officer who told them ‘if you file a complaint you get killed’.”
That a police officer would seemingly advise a member of the public against reporting illegal activity and be unable to provide guarantees for their safety is indicative of the desperate security situation in the district.
Compared to the most violent cities in the world, Comuna 13 has a per capita murder rate only exceeded by San Pedro Sula in Honduras and Acapulco in Mexico, major hubs on the transnational drug smuggling route between South America and the United States and focal points of their respective governments’ efforts against organized crime.
With a population of 135,000 squeezed into a 2.7-square-mile area, the densely-inhabited district is strategically important because it sits on the western flank of a city which is a critical transit point for drugs moving from eastern growing regions to export points on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The majority of drugs leaving the city by land pass through Comuna 13.
This in turn fuels the gang culture which dominates the poorer areas of the city, with dozens of street gangs, known as “combos,” vying for control of the 32 neighborhoods which make up the district.
The whole situation is exacerbated by an on-going war for control of the city’s underworld, as an expansionist transnational drug-smuggling organization, the Urabeños, attempts to wrestle control of the city from the “Oficina of Envigado” crime syndicate which has controlled the city since Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993.
PROFILE: Oficina de Envigado
The Urabeños have gradually encircled the city over recent years and are now attempting to move in from the eastern and western transit points which they control. Their method of invasion has been to buy the loyalty of combos, traditionally affiliated with the Oficina, by offering military-grade weaponry and money.
According to local reports, a third boy who escaped the abduction said the armed men claimed to be working for the Urabeños.
Whether that means they were men who had entered from the rural district skirting Comuna 13 or a gang from El Corazon now affiliated with the Urabeños remains unclear. The waters are muddied by the fact the children’s bodies were discovered in the Aguas Frias area of the district west of Comuna 13, which, according to Quijano, throws up the third possibility that the perpetrators had actually originated from the area where the bodies were found. But according to one report, the perpetrators came from the Robledo gang. Robledo is the district bordering Comuna 13 to the northeast and on the front line of Urabeños and Oficina territory.
The identity of the perpetrators is unlikely to be solved any time soon, with a 30 million peso ($16,600) reward for information leading to their capture offered by city mayor Anibal Gaviria unlikely to bear fruit. Like the policeman who spoke to the families of the murdered boys, the people of the district know that they would pay the ultimate price for opening their mouths, in the face of security forces largely impotent at preventing such reprisals.
Meanwhile, among other reports from the district that week, a woman was killed on the same night as the abductions, in a shooting which saw two others injured, including a 2-year-old child. The following Monday, a 16-year-old and a bus worker were murdered in separate incidents.
Due to the violence, a festival of music and art set to be staged over the weekend of February 23 and 24 was postponed “because the conditions of the district do not provide the security necessary for an event of this scale.” The event’s coordinator, Jeison “Jeihhco” Castaño, was one of those forced into hiding following the rappers’ assassinations.
The stranglehold of the gangs over the city’s poorer regions was once more emphasized on Thursday morning when two men arrived on a motorbike at a private school in the neighborhood of Villa Flora, on the eastern boundary of Comuna 13, warning the doorman that “things were going to heat up,” meaning a shooting would take place. Within an hour the school had been emptied of its 1,400 students and by noon eight public and four private schools had been evacuated. Notices apparently distributed by hand and disseminated through social networking websites placed an 8pm curfew on residents throughout the area and the schools remained empty on Friday.
The government response came later that day as President Juan Manuel Santos emerged from a Friday security meeting with Anibal Gaviria to announce the deployment of 80 specialist anti-kidnapping police and 20 officers trained in combating drug trafficking, terrorism and criminal gangs. On top of this, an extra 200 police officers would be sent to the city to complement the additional 500 officers aiding Medellin’s permanent force. Santos rounded off the announcement by declaring that by the end of the year 1,000 more officers will have been deployed.
But previous pledges of more security forces have so far failed to have any real effect, with 300 sent in November in the wake of the murders of the rappers and subsequent displacements.
“There is an excess of police and military here,” said YMCA Medellin Director Alexandra Castrillon in November 2012, following that event. “But still the violence continues.”
“Comuna 13 is the most militarized territory in Colombia, here there are more than 800 police and army,” she added. “The security forces try to pursue and kill the combos, but outside that they maltreat the communities, those who have no involvement in the conflict. For that reason we do not need more security forces. Some of those who are here are corrupt, they work with the combos and even deal in the drugs.”
According to local people, the security forces are not failing Comuna 13 for lack of numbers, but for lack of training and oversight. Until that is effectively addressed, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Medellin’s Comuna 13
- Interview with Fernando Quijano
- Interview with Alexandra Castrillon (November 2012)
- Festival Manifesto press release
- Quien responde por los niños asasinados (Semana)
- Hallan cadaveres de dos niños secuestrados en la comuna 13 (El Colombiano)
- Despedidia a niños asasinados en la comuna 13 (MSN Español)
- Combo torturo y asasino a dos niños en la comuna 13 (El Tiempo)
- Crean grupo especializado para combatir bandas en Medellin (El Tiempo)
- San Pedro Sula otra vez la ciudad mas violenta del mundo; Acapulco, la segunda (Seguridad, Justicia y Paz)
- Deadly beat: Rappers under threat in Medellin by violent street gangs (Miami Herald)